Michigan State's 2012 season was a pretty huge disappointment. Instead of winning the Legends division, the Spartans struggled to a .500 record while being weighed down by one of the least imaginative and productive offenses in the country. How much of Michigan State's struggles were caused by Roushar, and how much by roster issues (WR experience, OL depth, etc.)? Will replacing him with Jim Bollman and Dave Warner be able to spur a quick turnaround?
It was a mix of both, and it will only be fixed by a mix of both. Maxwell made poor throws and was skittish in the pocket, the receivers struggled to get open and then hold onto the ball, the offense was line was decimated by injures and couldn't block much, and the running game was non-existent outside of Bell. It's pretty hard to call good plays when everything goes wrong, but it didn't seem like the offensive design and gameplan helped things.
Warner moves over to playcaller after having been quarterbacks coach for Dantonio for a long time. In the spring game, there were new formations and plays that made us believe new things really are coming. Now, it still comes down to player execution, but public comments give us reason to believe they are going to be trying new things to fix it.
The Michigan State offense will have a big problem to deal with in year one under the new coordinators. Two of its most productive players, running back LeVeon Bell and tight end Dion Sims, are gone. Meanwhile, depth is still a concern on the offensive line. Does Michigan State have the offensive pieces to build a good offense in 2013 without Bell and Sims?
Because of all the injuries, depth actually isn't a huge concern on the line. Four starters return, and a number of backups have starting experience now. There was a report that Skyler Burkland was going to take a medical DQ, but Dantonio said that is yet to be seen. That would be a tough blow, considering MSU can usually count on a few starters missing a lot of time.
Elsewhere, all the receivers come back, so you have to imagine there's no where to go but up. Aaron Burbridge needs to be the No. 1 guy. He was the most explosive guy as the season went along, and this team needs big-play guys. At tight end, there is no one reliable, frankly. Not one had a catch during the spring game. I miss the days when MSU had too many good tight ends to play.
At running back, none of the returning guys were good enough to prevent linebacker Riley Bullough from moving over and taking the No. 1 spot. But some talented freshmen (Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton, Delton Williams) are coming in and will get their share of playing time. This is similar to 2009, when MSU lost do-everything back Javon Ringer and replaced him with a few bodies, including true freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker. That 2009 team had a YPC of nearly a full yard better from the year before. I think MSU's running game as a team should be better this year, with it being split between a few guys.
At quarterback, it looks like it's still Maxwell's job to lose. I'm of the belief Maxwell can be really good with good pieces around him, but when things break down, he's done. Connor Cook can make something out of nothing, but can also make some really bad mistakes. I think Maxwell starts the year, but the leash will be short.
The one place Michigan State won't have issues is defense. Last year's unit finished in the top ten in all four major defensive stats, and was tops in the Big Ten. With most of last year's two-deep returning, my only question is: what could this unit even improve on? Is there a (relative) weakness that you would like to see fixed to further transition to world domination?
The difference between the 2011 defense and 2012 defense was negative plays. MSU was only No. 43 in TFL/game and No. 93 in sacks in 2012 after being Nos. 10 and 4 in those categories in 2011, respectively. That makes what last year's defense did even more impressive, given the lack of long-distance downs and poor offense not helping them. Some reasons for the dropoff include the loss of Jerel Worthy and offenses keying on Denicos Allen this time around, but it's also teams preparing for the blitzes and getting the ball out quicker. Shilique Calhoun replaces Will Gholston (a Wolverine fan favorite) and probably brings better pass-rush ability, honestly. This defense could very well be the best in the Dantonio/Narduzzi era, but they'll need to get into the backfield quicker and get the quarterback on the ground to produce some more long-distance downs.
What position group is the best on the team going into this season? What is the worst?
The best position group is far and away the linebackers. Allen and Max Bullough are seniors, and junior Taiwan Jones had unseated Chris Norman by the end of last season. There is a load of talented backups, including Kyler Elsworth, Darien Harris and Ed Davis, and incoming freshmen Jon Reschke and Shane Jones could also fight for playing time.
The worst is tight end. I mentioned it above, but to not have a single catch in the spring game is a far cry from 2009-11, when MSU had four All-Big Ten caliber tight ends. The Dion Sims safety valve is gone for Maxwell, and the passing game is going to need to throw the ball farther to the side and down the field.
Did you learn anything interesting about this team in the spring game?
The only things of note were that Riley Bullough looked alright having recently moved to running back. If he's the clear-cut No. 1 guy going into the season, it's a bad thing, but I don't expect that to happen. There was a good amount of time where the defenses were outscoring the offenses, and that was with the offenses and defenses being split in half to create two whole teams. It's a little hard to judge MSU's offensive performance given what they were going up against, but there were some receiver drops again that are worrisome.
This seems like it is MSU's year. No OSU, PSU, or Wisconsin on the schedule with the only tough road games coming against Notre Dame and Nebraska. The Spartan defense is still championship level, but the offense is re-tooling. Can Bollman and Warner fix the offense enough that this team could put together a ND-'12 type run, or are the offensive issues so deeply embedded due to roster inefficiencies and inexperience that this year could end closer to where last year did? Is it Big Ten title game or bust this year for MSU?
For the past few years, I've been looking at 2013 as the big year. The defense is there, but the unexpected offensive implosion last year coupled with the early departure of Bell and Sims hurt that outlook. Still, the schedule sets up in a way that MSU should be at least 7-1 with Michigan coming to town. If it's not, there could be some big problems. I don't know if it's B1GCG game or bust because both U-M and Nebraska also have favorable schedules, but eight regular season wins needs to be the absolute minimum. If the offense can just be competent, get some momentum early and MSU gets a few breaks, it's not hard to see another double-digit win season and division title. MSU, U-M, Nebraska and Northwestern don't play each other until November, so the final month of the season is going to be wild. I give MSU as good of a chance as the others.