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MnB B1G Preview: Breaking down the Spartans with Chris of The Only Colors

Step right up, Andrew.  It's your team now.  (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)
Step right up, Andrew. It's your team now. (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)
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This week I got a chance to talk to Chris Vannini, the new site manager over at SB Nation's great MSU site, The Only Colors.

We talked about the stark transition facing MSU's offense after losing most of its passing game to graduation, the growth of the Spartan defense from a bumbling unit to a powerhouse under Pat Narduzzi, and Michigan State's solid foundation for future success. Be sure to stop over to TOC and check out the great work those guys are doing over there.


How do you think Michigan State's offense is going to handle the introduction of a new starter into the fold after three years of Kirk Cousins -- probably one of the best quarterbacks in school history, and arguably the most accomplished. The choices as of now are long time backup Andrew Maxwell or intriguing freshman Connor Cook. Given the dearth of proven wide receiving options and the stifiling defense, what do you think are reasonable expectations for the starter in 2012, and who ends up winning the job?

Without a doubt, Maxwell is the starter. He missed the end of spring with a knee sprain, but this is his team. The redshirt junior has been groomed under Cousins for the last three years. The two were very close, and Cousins made it a point to make sure Maxwell was as prepared as possible for when he took over. That time is here. Physically, Maxwell is better than Cousins. He's got better feet and a stronger arm, but it's the accuracy and intangibles that we still have to see in quality game time. Maxwell is an unproven talent, but has been in the system for three years. Everything is set up for him to succeed. Maxwell isn't as much of a question mark as the receiver corps.

One area of the offense that should be solid is the running game. While Edwin Baker made the decision to leave for the draft, both LeVeon Bell and Larry Caper remain and should prove to be one of the better running back combos in the conference. The offensive line, fresh off a year of growing pains and position switches seems to be solidified. Do you think the running game will be improved enough to handle the added pressure of carrying the developing passing attack? Are there still any major concerns on the offensive line?

Mark Dantonio has wanted to be a run-first team ever since he came back to East Lansing. The problem is, he's usually had a really good passing game to lean on. Now the Spartans have to run the ball, and I think he's looking forward to it. Edwin Baker left for the NFL, mostly because he had lost his starting spot to Bell. The junior is one of the many talented backs in the conference and should become a star this season. Caper has excelled as a third-down back and receiver out of the backfield, while Hill has good burst as a rising sophomore and will return kicks and punts. MSU was one of the worst teams in the Big Ten in rushing last year, but part of that was because of early injuries and top-level opponents. Once the line gelled, the Spartans rushed for at least 155 yards in four of the last five games. Only one starter is gone, while several backups have starting experience. I'll believe MSU finally has a good offensive line when I see it, but all signs point toward the best offensive line in the Dantonio era.

The Spartans lose a pretty impressive group of receivers and return almost no one with any significant experience. Bell is the leading returning receiver with 35 receptions, the next closest are TE Dion Sims and Caper with 12 and 10 catches in 2011 respectively. What players already on the roster do you expect to step up and take charge in the passing game? What about the new additions of freshman Aaron Burbridge and UT transfer DeAnthony Arnett?

Only DeAnthony Arnett has a season as a starter under his belt, and that was with Tennessee. Bennie Fowler should be the No. 1 guy after missing most of last season with a foot injury. Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey also will compete for starting roles, while incoming freshman Aaron Burbridge is eligible and could see playing time. The receivers are talented, but are very young. Dion Sims has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the conference, but has been inconsistent. Behind Sims, there are a lot of questions marks at tight end, which could be an issue in the multi-tight-end formations MSU enjoys. With Boise State, Notre Dame and Ohio State early on the schedule, there isn't much time to grow up. The receiving corps will be baptized by fire and probably will struggle early but should be OK in the end.

The real story of Michigan State's success under Mark Dantonio has been the defense, and 2011 was a banner year for the Spartans in that regard. MSU was in the top-ten nationally in rushing defense, total defense, sacks and scoring defense, while putting together some of the most impressive defensive runs against the conference's two best offenses (Michigan, Wisconsin). What did Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi do to build this unit into such a powerhouse over the last few years?

In the first few years of the Dantonio/Narduzzi era, the defense was a mess. Narduzzi's refusal to adjust personnel to opponents was maddening (so many 4-3 schemes against five-wide in 2009). But Narduzzi has proven to be smarter than me. Once he got his recruits to fill the roster, his defense has become elite. Last year, every member of the starting 11 receiving at least honorable mention All-Big Ten, with many of them underclassmen. Sure, part of it is talent - Will Gholston (five stars), Isaiah Lewis (4 stars) and Max Bullough (4 stars) were studs - but guys like Jerel Worthy, Trenton Robinson, Johnny Adams and Marcus Rush weren't highly-recruited. Narduzzi has found the right players to fit his defense, and things don't appear to be slowing down with the depth the defense has built up. It's a mix of talent and players that just fit the system. Players rave about his ability to simplify the schemes so they're easy to understand. Don't confuse that with a stale defense. MSU loves to blitz, but you never know where it's going to come from. Players love playing for him, and both sides are reaping the rewards (Narduzzi contract extension, Worthy and Robinson drafted).

Michigan State returns most of its defense going into 2012, but it lost two of its most important starters. The man in the middle, Jerel Worthy, is gone to the NFL and leaves a monster-sized hole on the interior of the Spartan DL. Does Worthy's absence mean the line takes a step back as a unit, or is there enough young talent to keep production high as the star power shifts to the outside? Additionally, the Spartans also have to replace a multi-year starter at FS in Trenton Robinson. Robinson was one of the best secondary players in the conference last year, who fills his role? Is there a drop-off in the level of pass defense?

The knock on Worthy by the NFL scouts was that he didn't go all out on every play. By that logic, MSU should become more consistent on the inside, although no one can get the pre-snap jump better than Worthy did. Along with Kevin Pickelman and Johnathan Strayhorn, MSU has to replace its top three tackles. Anthony Rashad White filled in for Pickelman in the Outback Bowl and had a great game. Seemingly out of nowhere, the big fella is getting positive reviews from scouts, and could have a big year. As for the other spot, a mix of sixth-year former defensive end Tyler Hoover, Brandon Clemons, Micajah Reynolds and others will fight for that spot. The focus on the ends could help the tackles deal with more single coverage, which could help their growth. In the secondary, Robinson was the definite leader of the group, but wasn't the most-talented. Kurtis Drummord or RJ Williamson will fill the free safety spot. It likely will be Drummond, who played in MSU's nickel formations last season, while Williamson redshirted. Adams could contend for All-American honors and be a first-round pick with a big senior season, while Lewis should be a first-team All-Big Ten candidate. On the other corner. Darqueze Dennard came to MSU as a two-star recruit, but was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore last season. MSU should again be one of the top pass defenses in the Big Ten and maybe the country.

When talking about stars on the MSU defense William Gholston's name is often the first mentioned, but he wasn't even the best Spartan when it came to getting into the backfield. Denicos Allen was 2nd and 4th in the conference respectively in sacks and TFLs in 2011. What players other than Gholston do you expect will make a name for themselves nationally? Any possible early entries to the NFL draft after this season (/fingers crossed)?

At this point it's hard to find anyone who believes Gholston will return after his upcoming junior season, but a bad season could change things. Allen became a name in the Big Ten last season and could become a national name this year. MSU loves to blitz, and they love to blitz with Allen. The national-televised Boise State game could be a chance for a few players to make a name for themselves. But I don't see him as a possible candidate to leave early because he's undersized for a linebacker. Bullough quietly is one of the top middle linebackers in the conference, and could be another player with a tough decision to make with a big junior season. He's got the prototypical build, but has been under the radar nationally.

The Spartan recruiting efforts as of late have steadily improved from the beginning of the Mark Dantonio era, but the recruiting landscape is rapidly shifting and the local scene is much tougher to mine for talent. Brady Hoke has done a good job reestablishing Michigan as the team to beat for most in-state recruits and both the Wolverines and the Buckeyes have locked down the majority of the top talent in Ohio. Do you have confidence in the ability of Dantonio and staff to continually challenge for a Big Ten title if Michigan and Ohio State (wsg Penn State) are simultaneously getting some of the best classes in the nation and actually developing them (something that wasn't always the case, at least for Michigan, under previous coaches)? How has Michigan State's recruiting focus evolved recently?

This always seems to be a hot-button topic when talking about the future of Michigan and MSU. Both schools are allowed to be good. There's no doubt U-M is nationally relevant again after an 11-2 season and top recruiting class. The problem is, MSU was never an elite recruiting school in the first place. I mentioned above some players who were highly-recruited, but many that weren't. The fact is: MSU wasn't beating out many top schools to begin with, so I don't know what the change is. It's true that U-M didn't recruit Michigan as hard under RichRod, and that's certainly a problem for MSU. As for Ohio, Jim Tressel got whomever he wanted, so what's the difference? Most of MSU's Ohio players were overlooked by the Buckeyes. Pennsylvania hasn't been a major focus. In recent years, MSU has expanded nationally in recruiting. No, they're not bringing in elite players from out-of-state, but they are bringing in solid players. I mentioned Dennard, he was a two-star recruit out of Georgia. MSU is recruiting Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas and south Florida more than they have in previous years. The Midwest recruiting grounds aren't fertile, so MSU is replacing the underrated Midwest guys with underrated out-of-state guys. No one ever thinks Wisconsin is going to fall back because of poor recruiting classes. They've built a foundation with 20 years of consistency based on developing players. Same with Iowa. That's what Dantonio wanted to do when he came back to MSU. You're not going to beat U-M, OSU and Notre Dame at their own game. He wanted to model his program after Wisconsin and Iowa, and that is what he's done. It's unreasonable to think MSU is going to win 11 games every year, but the up-and-down days are over. They're consistently going to make bowl games and compete for a division title, and the recruiting of other schools isn't going to change that.

This is a golden age for Michigan State football and the program is as stable as it has been in decades (if you don't count the Saban years, and his job hopping doesn't scream "stability" to me). What do you foresee in the next five years for Michigan State football, especially as the Big Ten seems to be trending upwards as a whole? Does the program level off like Iowa and regress while still winning 8-9 games in down years and competing for conference titles every 2-4 years? Will the Spartans keep making strides while winning ten or more games a year, and can Michigan State get over the hump, win a national title to take another step toward being an elite program?

I touched on this a lot in the previous question, but as for the next five years, things look good. 2013 is a year that sets up as a possible run for a national title, based on the easy schedule and assuming most of the underclassmen return. A lot of talented depth has been stocked up in recent years, and the coaches are really excited about the future. Again, MSU won't be winning 11 games every year, but that wasn't the plan when Dantonio got here. There was no foundation whatsoever. Everything built up by Saban was destroyed by Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. On the field and behind the scenes, Dantonio had a lot to repair. There's nothing wrong with winning 8-9 games every year. U-M folks got fed up with that with Lloyd Carr, and the RichRod era was a result. While U-M had decades of bowl games and consistent success, MSU is just starting that. It's easier for a program with a history of success to return to that success. With Dantonio as the coach, Mark Hollis as athletics director and an administration that finally is eye-to-eye with athletics, the future of MSU sports is bright. The beautiful new scoreboards (and north end zone plaza eventually) are signs of an investment in the future - something that had been unclear at MSU for decades.