2011 Michigan State Preview – Offense
Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Michigan State Spartan Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: The offense was good last year, but it wasn't quite as dominant as it might have seemed. Yes, QB Kirk Cousins is a good talent who knows what he's doing, and he spread the ball around well, but he has to cut down on his interceptions after throwing ten. The running backs rotation of Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper is strong, but the running game disappeared at times with Bell and Caper non-existent for stretches. The receiving corps should be solid with several excellent options and a potentially special tight end situation, and with Cousins under center, the passing game should be even more efficient and effective if, and it's a huge, glaring if, the line can come through. The front five was just okay last year, and it'll be good at guard, but the tackle situation is up in the air and there's a fight for the center job. Everything will work out and the passing game will be good enough to make up for a slew of problems, but the nation's 53rd ranked offense of last year might not be appreciably better even with all the returning experience.
Star of the offense: Senior QB Kirk Cousins
Passing: Kirk Cousins
226-338, 2,825 yds, 20 TD, 10 INT
Rushing: Edwin Baker
207 carries, 1,201 yds, 13 TD
Receiving: B.J. Cunningham
50 catches, 611 yds, 9 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore OT Dan France and/or junior OT Zach Hueter and/or senior OT Jared McGaha
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore TE Dion Sims
Best pro prospect: Cousins
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Cousins, 2) RB Edwin Baker, 3) OG Joel Foreman
Strength of the offense: Cousins, Running Back Rotation
Weakness of the offense: Offensive Tackle, Consistency
State of the Unit: The quarterback battle of a few years ago is long gone. Last year, the Spartan passing game was efficient, finishing 16th in the nation, and effective with all the passers combining for 3,073 yards and 23 touchdowns with ten picks, and while the depth needs to be more developed and the third down passes have to be sharper, there's plenty of excitement around a passing game that should be among the best in the nation.
Senior Kirk Cousins went from being a decent prospect who led the Big Ten in passing in 2009, throwing for 2,680 yards and 19 scores, to the unquestioned leader of the team and the type of quarterback to revolve an entire offense around. He threw ten picks, with three coming in the loss to Iowa, but he was clutch in the pivotal win over Wisconsin with three touchdown passes and key throw after key throw. On the year he completed 67% of his passes for 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns with ten picks, and he ran for a score, but he's not all that mobile and isn't going to take off for any big yards. At 6-3 and 202 pounds he has good size, a live, accurate arm, and the experience to know what he's doing while limiting mistakes. Now the two-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performer has to do it again. This is his team and his passing game, and he should be consistently solid.
The offseason showed that sophomore Andrew Maxwell is improved and ready to start doing more. The 6-3, 208-pounder got a little bit of work in last year completing 11-of-25 passes for 123 yards in garbage time, but now he's more decisive in practices and appears to be a bit sharper and more ready to fill in if needed. A pure pro passer with an improving arm and skills, this year is about grooming him for the 2012 starting job. If disaster strikes and if Cousins is hurt and Maxwell can't get the job done or is out, receiver and former quarterback Keith Nichol will step in.
Watch Out For … Maxwell to get a little more work whenever there's a chance. Cousins has been durable and strong, and he's never coming out in close games, but the coaching staff wants to see what Maxwell will do under fire. It has to be seen whether or not he can handle himself under pressure.
Strength: Cousins and efficiency. While he threw for fewer yards than he did as a sophomore, Cousins came up with an excellent season and proved he could lead the team to big things. The MSU passing game was ultra-efficient and did a good job of pushing the ball down the field. Seven players with double-digit catches averaged 11 yards a catch or more.
Weakness: Third downs. The Spartan offense wasn't the worst in the nation in third down conversion percentage, but the passing game should've been far better considering how accurate and efficient Cousins is. MSU only converted 37.5% of its chances, and while things got better, if was 80th in the nation.
Outlook: Cousins is the franchise passer. While the running game is good enough to carry the load if something happens to the senior, the season might sputter if injuries strike. Maxwell is promising, and Nichol can always step in and produce, but the MSU passing game is all about Cousins and his efficient play.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The Spartans only averaged 152 rushing yards per game and was seventh in the nation on the ground, but the three-headed monster of a rotation – or more like two-and-a-half at times - worked. However, it was stopped cold a bit too often and struggled to get going against the better teams. MSU was held to 93 yards by Illinois, was stuffed for 31 yards against Iowa, and was embarrassed against Alabama netting -48 yards on 28 carries. Even with the issues, the ground game worked well against the mediocre defenses and should be stronger with the talented experience returning.
Junior Edwin Baker was the star of the 2009 recruiting class, and he stepped in midway through his first season to run for 427 yards and show the promise to potentially grow into a back to work around. Last year, the 5-9, 208-pounder showed off his great combination of speed, power, and balance with a team-leading 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Not used much as a receiver, he only caught just three passes for 22 yards; he's a runner. He only got 20 carries or more three times, running for 147 yards and a score on 22 carries against Michigan; tearing off 179 yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries against Minnesota and running 28 times for 118 yards and a score against Penn State. He'll be the No.1 back, but he doesn't have to carry the entire load and has to be effective for 15 carries or so on a regular basis.
Junior Larry Caper was supposed to be a top back for the attack coming into last season, but he suffered a hand problem early on and was never a big part of the equation finishing with just 38 carries for 144 yards and two scores, while seeing his workload diminish to nothing over the second half of the year. A good regular in the rotation two years ago, he ran for 468 yards and six scores and could be 500-yard back with a bigger role. The 5-11, 220-pounder is slippery and moves well inside and out, and he can catch a bit with 12 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown.
6-2, 237-pound sophomore Le'Veon Bell stepped in as a big, tough true freshman who was strong on short yard plays early on and proved to be a reliable power back at times finishing second on the team with 605 yards and eight touchdowns averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Not a fullback, he's a thumping tailback who saw his workload diminish as the season went on, running for just 19 yards over the final four games and just 49 yards in the final seven games. Effective over the first half of the year, he came up with 141 yards and two scores against Western Michigan and 114 yards and a score against Notre Dame.
There's a little excitement around redshirt freshman Nick Hill, a 5-7, 182-pound scooter who darts in and out of traffic and is a tough inside runner for his size. A blazer, he can add another level of home run hitting ability to an already fast backfield, but he needs time in the loaded rotation.
When the offense uses a fullback, senior Todd Anderson will step in to thump away. The 6-2, 253 pounder won't run the ball, and he's not going to be used much as a receiver, but the former walk-on defensive end is over the knee injury that kept him out of the 2009 season and will be a tough blocker. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Nick Palazeti, a good recruit and a strong short-yardage runner with excellent strength and the upside and toughness to blast open big holes.
Watch Out For … More Caper. He was going to be a big part of the equation early on last year, but he never got right after getting hurt. While he was dinged up a bit this offseason, when he's healthy and right he's a difference maker who could be a great No. 2 back.
Strength: Experience. The top three backs return and Hill is a dangerous runner who deserves to see some plays to utilize his skills. Each of the three top runners should average more than five yards per carry.
Weakness: Inconsistency. The ground game rumbled for 189 yards and four scores against Minnesota, and was held to 95 yards a game later against Purdue. It rolled for 249 yards against Michigan, and followed it up with 93 yards against Illinois. The Spartans ran well early on against the Florida Atlantics and Northern Colorados of the world, and ran for 175 yards against Wisconsin, but after running for 200 yards or more in five of the first six games, it didn't run for more than 189 yards in any of the final seven games.
Outlook: There wasn't quite the balance throughout the season the offense might have wanted, and there wasn't enough production over the second half of the year, but there's terrific talent to get excited about with three great options and a speedy riser in Hill. If the line can come together in a hurry, the Spartans will run for more than 2,000 yards.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The potential, talent, and experience were in place to be great, and while the results were fine, the receivers didn't quite blow up as hoped for. However, five players caught 20 passes or more, six players averaged more than 12 yards per catch, and the production was spread around well among several targets including the tight ends. Leading receiver Mark Dell is gone after catching 51 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns, and while he was the team's best playmaker averaging 15.5 yards per play, he's replaceable. There are enough good talents returning to expect the overall production to continue.
Senior B.J. Cunningham finished second on the team with 50 catches for 611 yards, but he led the way with nine touchdowns and has the size and ability to blow up on the outside X position. The 6-2, 223-pounder is big, isn't afraid to get physical, and has the wheels to get deep when needed. Steady, he was good for around four catches a game led by an eight catch, 113-yard, one score game against Northwestern, and he caught a touchdown pass in five of six games over of the second half of the year.
Pushing for time as a No. 3 receiver after starting eight times is former quarterback Keith Nichol , a 6-2, 222-pound senior who didn't quite come up with the monster year many projected after a strong 2010 offseason, but he was decent with 22 catches for 262 yards and a score. The problem is that the one touchdown came in the opener against Western Michigan and he disappeared way too often. Not a natural target, he has decent skills, but he didn't necessarily look the part at times. A superstar quarterback recruit, he broke Michigan State's heart by choosing Oklahoma at the last possible second, but he lost out in the battle for the starting job against Sam Bradford and quickly fell behind others in the pecking order. He wasn't going to see the light of day as a QB, so he transferred to MSU and was a factor early on as a passer. Now he has to show he can be a real, live receiver who can be a dangerous deep threat.
Senior Keshawn Martin is a speedy, lightning-quick veteran who can work inside or out. While he has the speed to get deep at the X, he'll work at the inside Z position after finishing third on the team with 32 catches for 394 yards and a score. Banged up halfway through the season, he didn't do too much late and didn't exactly have a breakout game, with his one big performance the eight-catch, 96-yard, one score day against Notre Dame. The talent is there, but he has to be more explosive.
There's a good buzz being generated around redshirt freshman Tony Lippett, but is he a receiver or a corner? The 6-2, 185-pounder might be a two-way player after electrifying at times in spring ball, but he might be more needed on the defensive side of the ball. He'll produce no matter where he plays, while 6-1, 212-pound sophomore Bennie Fowler is a promising producer who stepped up as a playmaker over the second half of the season. He caught two passes for 29 yards in the first seven games and made 13 grabs over the final six games, and he came up with his lone score in the disastrous loss against Alabama.
Gone is tight end Charlie Gantt, who caught 24 passes for 301 yards and three scores, and now it's up to senior Garrett Celek, brother of Philadelphia Eagle star, Brent Celek, to fill the void. Garrett caught two passes for 17 yards before getting knocked out for the year with a shoulder injury, but when he's right, the 6-4, 247-pounder is a dangerous target who could be the team's go-to receiver.
Also in the tight end rotation is sophomore Dion Sims, a tremendously talented big body with 6-5, 277-pound size and the hands to be used as a big, strong receiver. Out of the mix last year because of off-the-field problems involving a stolen computer, he's now going to be a big part of the offense, potentially as a third offensive tackle. Also fighting for tight end time is senior Brian Linthicum, a 6-5, 243-pounder who caught 18 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown. The Clemson transfer is more like a big wide receiver than a thumping blocker.
Watch Out For … more from the tight ends. Gantt was a big play performer last year in some big, key spots, highlighted by a huge play against Notre Dame, but the coaching staff has loaded up on the position over the last few years. Celek, Sims (now that he's back on the team), and Linthicum will all be a big part of a rotation, and there are several other young prospects, like sophomore Derek Hoebing and redshirt freshman Andrew Gleichert, who'll get a chance.
Strength: Experience and options. Cunningham, Martin, and Nichol are as experienced and savvy as they come. They know what they're doing, while the tight ends, Lippett, Fowler, and several other players will get involved. Including the running backs, 15 players caught passes and the wealth will be spread around.
Weakness: More from the depth. Lippett is going to be a thriller, but he's just a redshirt freshman. The tight ends should be great, but they'll be counting on Celek to stay healthy. Fowler has potential, but he only caught 14 passes. There's lots of promise, but …
Outlook: The Michigan State receivers get a bit more credit and a bit better press than they deserve. This crop has been solid, but they haven't been that good. There are plenty of good players with Cunningham and Martin dangerous and Nichol growing into the job, but now the passing game has to do even more. There's too much experience and too many playmakers for the corps not to be a major plus.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The MSU line wasn't anything special and wasn't consistent in any way, and now for good and bad, there's major reworking to be done. The blasting away for the ground game went away over the second half of the season, and the pass protection wasn't always there allowing 24 sacks, and then there was the bowl loss to Alabama. The front five got pantsed by the Tide, and that might be a sign of things about to come.
The one sure-thing starter up front is veteran left guard Joel Foreman, a 36-game starter who was a rock throughout last year, but he was banged up and out this offseason with wrist and ankle injuries. He was one of only two returning starters to the offensive front last year and he was just good enough to earn Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors. The 6-4, 310-pounder is the anchor, but he first has to get to 100% and he has to be even better as the one the running game will work around. There will be a dogfight for time behind him between junior John Deyo , a versatile 6-6, 295-pounder who can play almost anywhere and saw time in nine games, and sophomore Micajah Reynolds, a 6-5, 318-pound thumper who got his feet wet.
The other relatively sure thing will be 6-5, 290-pound junior Chris McDonald at right guard after starting every game but the win over Purdue. Strong and productive, the star recruit of a few years ago played up to his potential as a great pass protector with the athleticism and the feet to do a good job on the move. 6-3, 292-pound junior Blake Treadwell was a spot starter, getting the call in five games on the defensive line making 16 tackles, and now he'll push for the starting center job and the backup right guard gig. He's hardly polished, but he's strong and versatile.
If it's not Tredwell in the middle it'll either be redshirt freshman Travis Jackson, a smallish 6-3, 265-pound prospect who came up with a good enough spring to see time somewhere up front, or junior Ethan Ruhland, a 6-5, 288-pound tackle-sized blocker who saw a little bit of time in three games. Ruhland came to MSU as a top guard prospect and could end up moving over one spot if needed.
The left tackle position was up for grabs before, and now it's really a problem with promising 6-8, 300-pound sophomore David Barrent having to retire after a slew of back issues. Former defensive lineman Dan France made three tackles as a reserve, and now the 6-6, 304-pounder will get a shot on the outside along with 6-6, 292-pound senior Jared McGaha, a starter late last year who has spent most of his career as a special teamer. He has just enough quickness to be a decent blocker on either the left or right side, but he's not a mauler.
The right tackle job is just as much of an issue as the left with several players fighting for time. 6-6, 324-pound junior Zach Hueter is a natural guard, but he'll get a shot at the starting tackle job after a decent spring. He has the size and he has the talent, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy after struggling through a shoulder injury over the last two seasons. He'll combine with 6-7, 305-pound redshirt freshman Skyler Schofner, a top recruit from last year with a great combination of size, frame, and feet. If he's not the starter, he'll be a key part of the tackle puzzle on both sides.
Watch Out For … a lot of shuffling. A LOT of shuffling. There are several major issues and concerns up front, but it's a versatile group that will form several different combinations over the summer and perhaps early on in the year. There are several questions that weren't answered after spring ball.
Strength: Guard. As long as McDonald is healthy, which isn't a given, and as long as Schofner can build off a strong 2010, the guard play will be a desperately needed rock. With so much movement and so many concerns at the other three spots, the guard play should be a plus.
Weakness: Tackle. It's not like the tackles were phenomenal last year, and now the situation could be a hot mess early on. The loss of Barrent is big, and now the coaching staff is relying on a few defensive linemen to potentially play big roles right away. Yes, it could be uh-oh time.
Outlook: The line was okay last year at times, but it wasn't special, and now there's a lot of work needing to be done to find the right five guys to fit. There are plenty of veterans and plenty of options, but after spring ball, finding the right combination might take awhile with the situation at a few spots, including tackle, not necessarily settled until a few true freshman come in and after more players get time to show what they can do.
Unit Rating: 6
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