2009 Michigan State Preview - Offense

Posted Jul 19, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Michigan State Spartan Offense

Michigan State Spartans

Preview 2009 - Offense

- 2009 CFN Michigan State Preview | 2009 MSU Offense
- 2009 MSU Defense | 2009 MSU Depth Chart
- 2008 MSU Preview | 2007 MSU Preview | 2006 MSU Preview

What you need to know: Myth No. 1: Michigan State was a pure running team last year. Javon Ringer ran for 1,637 yards, but the ground game was ninth in the Big Ten and 77th in the nation. Myth No. 2: Michigan State couldn’t throw. Well, it didn’t throw efficiently and there were only 11 touchdown passes, but the passing game cranked out decent yards. Overall, there might not be much in the way of star power and there are some big holes to fill, but it’ll be a better overall attack. This year, despite the loss of Ringer and two all-star offensive linemen (Roland Martin and Jesse Miller), the ground game should be better with a combination of backs ready to take over and a more mobile quarterback, whoever that might be. Kirk Cousins is ready to step in and take over the job, but Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol has the running skills and the talent to make it a two-quarterback system. The receiving corps has the potential to be jaw-dropping good with all the key parts returning led by Mark Dell, Blair White, and B.J. Cunningham.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Kirk Cousins
32-43, 310 yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Andre Anderson
26 carries, 97 yds, 0 TD
Blair White
43 catches, 659 yds, 1 TD

Star of the offense: Sophomore QBs Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior OT J'Michael Deane
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore OG Joel Foreman
Best Pro Prospect: Junior WR Mark Dell
Top three all-star candidates: 1) C Joel Nitchman, 2) Dell, 3) Cousins or Nichol
Strength of the offense: Wide receiver, Backfield potential
Weakness of the offense: Backfield experience, Right side of the line


Projected Starter
Now that Brian Hoyer has left, there’s an interesting battle going on for the starting spot. First on deck is Kirk Cousins, a talented 6-3, 202-pound sophomore with a nice arm and enough scrambling ability to be more than just mobile in the pocket. A smart player who could become a great game manager (meant in a good way) with the ability to read defenses and take what’s there to get the chains moving. He saw a little bit of time last year and made the most of it completing 32-of-43 passes (74%) for 310 yards and two touchdowns with an interception with 161 yards coming in the blowout loss to Ohio State.

Projected Top Reserve: 6-2, 212-pound sophomore Keith Nichol broke Michigan State’s heart by choosing Oklahoma at the last possible second. And then some guy named Sam Bradford became a player and things quickly changed. Nichol is a strong dual-threat playmaker who can run better than Kirk Cousins and has a good enough arm to be a solid pocket passer with a little bit of development. If he doesn’t win the job he’ll still be in a rotation just to get his feet wet.

Watch Out For ... the battle for the starting job to continue throughout the season. The No. 1 will be the No. 1 in theory, but both Cousins and Nichol are good enough to see action and they’re both going to be looking over their shoulders at all times.
Strength: Talent. Cousins will be more than good enough to take over for Brian Hoyer and bring more production to the offense, while Nichol might have been the most talented quarterback on the roster last season. There might be two starting quarterback options, but that’s not a bad thing.
Experience. It’s not like Nichol has actually done anything over the last few years, while Cousins has been relegated to mop-up time. There might be a few growing pains to get through.
Outlook: Very quickly, Michigan State’s inexperienced quarterback situation to become a major positive. As good as Brian Hoyer was at times, he’ll be easily replaced by Nichol and Cousins, two great prospects ready to grow into the offense over the next three years. Mark Dantonio has openly suggested a two-quarterback system if both players perform well and can show different positives in different situations.
Rating: 7.5

Running Backs

Projected Starters
It’ll be up to a slew of players to try to replace Javon Ringer, but the first back in the rotation will likely be Andre Anderson, a 5-9, 190-pound sophomore who finished second on the team with 97 yards. The star of the 2007 recruiting class after running for 2,131 yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior, he has flash, a little bit of power for his size, and a nose for the goal line. However, he’s not built to be a workhorse. It’s his job to break off the big plays.

The fullback has become more of a part of the MSU offense and there’s a good veteran to use in Andrew Hawken. The 6-2, 238-pound senior is a great blocker who blew open holes for Javon Ringer. He’s a decent receiver catching 11 passes for 81 yards with a touchdown, but he’s not going to get any carries. Part tight end and part fullback, he could be used as an H-Back at times, but he’s mostly a blocker.  

Projected Top Reserves: 5-10, 205-pound senior A.J. Jimmerson was supposed to be a vital No. 2 back in the rotation last year after showing a little bit of promise as a sophomore, but he only carried the ball eight times for 14 yards. With a good mix of speed and power, he has a good blend of skills. However, he’s mostly been a special teamer so far and he hasn’t had too many opportunities to show what he can do.  

Bringing more power to the rotation is 5-11, 235-pound sophomore Ashton Leggett, a bruising back who has the potential to be a key all-around playmaker if he can curb his fumbling issues. He hasn’t had a chance to do too much in games with just six carries for seven yards last season. With big-time upside, he’ll be given every shot to win the starting job and was the star throughout the spring making a strong claim for the No. 1 job.

5-9, 195-pound redshirt freshman Caulton Ray is a promising back who could be the sleeper in the race for the starting job. A huge recruit for the program two years ago, he’s a tough runner who, despite his size, can be used for long stretches.

On the way is star recruit Edwin Baker, one of the nation’s top running backs according to every major recruiting service. While he has a little bit of an issue with a knee injury, he could turn into the main man from day one. At 5-10 and 205 pounds he’s compactly built and is the type of back who could be another Ringer-like producer in time.

While not the hot recruit that Edwin Baker is, 5-11, 215-pound freshman Larry Caper was a good get for the program. A true workhorse, he carried the ball 46 times in a game in high school and also showed good pop to crank out yards in chunks.

Watch Out For ... the freshmen. The other backs are all excited to get their chance to shine, but Baker and Caper might be the most talented runners on the roster. There’s no need to rush them into the equation with so many good options, but the coaching staff might move up the timetable if there isn’t consistent production.
Strength: Speed. The Spartans are great at getting fast backs who can crank out big plays, or at least have the potential to. Jimmerson and Anderson can fly and should be doing far more than they did last year.
Experience. Ringer simply never came out. The other backs were patient, but it was Ringer, Ringer, and more Ringer, and now there’s a free-for-all for playing time since no one’s quite sure what any of the top backs would do with a steady workload.
Outlook: The running game was Javon Ringer, Javon Ringer, and even more Javon Ringer. Out of the team’s 511 carries, 1,692 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns, Ringer had 390 carries for 1,637 yards and 22 scores. Was Ringer that good, were the other options too mediocre, or both? This year, it’ll be a bit of a running back-by-committee approach with speedsters Jimmerson and Anderson combining with Leggett and, maybe, Baker to get the ground game moving. There might not be a Ringer, but don’t be stunned if the team has a more effective running attack.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: 6-2, 205-pound senior Blair White wasn’t expected to lead the team in receiving, but he did with 42 catches for 659 yards and a touchdown highlighted by a two-game stretch against Michigan and Wisconsin when he caught 11 passes for 307 yards and a score. The former walk-on will start out at the outside X position, but he’ll have to be great to hold off the more talented Mark Dell. He might not be a big NFL prospect, but he’ll be the team’s most reliable target.

Able to play at the inside Z position or at the outside X is B.J. Cunningham, a 6-2, 210-pound sophomore with great athleticism and good toughness. He was second on the team with 51 catches for 528 yards, but he didn’t get into the end zone. Steady, he caught four passes or more in six games, but he was never a go-to target. He might not be flashy, but he’ll grow into a more dependable playmaker.

Junior Charlie Gantt had a tough task replacing Kellen Lewis at tight end, and he was surprisingly good. Known as a blocker, he wasn’t supposed to do much as a receiver before catching 19 passes for 302 yards and a team-leading four scores. While he catch a pass or two per game, the 6-4, 245-pounder will mostly be used for the ground game. 

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Mark Dell ripped off 202 yards and a touchdown on nine catches in the season-opening loss to Cal, and then was mediocre the rest of the way. One of the team’s superstar recruits of a few years ago has been a steady pass catcher with a few grabs a game throughout his first two seasons, but he needs to be the next Spartan star receiver for the offense to shine. He finished with 36 catches for a team-leading 679 yards and three scores, he has to do more. With 6-2, 188-pound size, next-level speed and athleticism, and the potential to be another Devin Thomas.

One of the top recruits of last year was Keshawn Martin, a 6-0, 186-pound sophomore who came up with some nice plays in the middle of the season catching 11 passes for 143 yards. The do-it-all player was also used a bit as a runner with 51 yards on nine carries and even completed 2-of-3 passes for 59 yards. He could become a bigger part of the return game soon, but most of his time will be spent at the Z position.

Looking for more playing time will be Fred Smith, the crown jewel of the 2008 recruiting class. The 6-2, 225-pound sophomore saw a little bit of action in nine games last year making just one catch for seven yards against Northwestern. Very big, very fast, and very productive, he has all the next-level tools to be the next Spartan NFL wide receiver now that he has bulked up.

Behind Gantt at tight end is 6-5, 243-pound sophomore Garrett Celek, a good receiver who caught six passes for 50 yards and a score. He's the route-runner that Gantt isn't, but he’s not the same sort of a blocker. Even so, he’ll get a few starts and will see plenty of time in two tight end sets.

Watch Out For ... Fred Smith. There’s too much talent and too much upside for him not to be a bigger part of the offense. He’s too big and too athletic to be an afterthought.
Strength: Central casting. If you’re looking for a roster of NFL-looking receivers, MSU has it with averaging around 6-2 and 200 pounds with excellent speed. This has the potential to be a special corps over the next few years.
A step-it-up superstar. So who’s it going to be? Who’s going to be the one to break free from the pack and be the guy who is the one to keep defensive coordinators up at night? Mark Dell should be it, but he’ll have to prove he can be the main man on a weekly basis.
Outlook: There’s a slew of ultra-talented prospects with fantastic high school résumés. Now it all has to come together with the size, speed, and experience all combining to form a killer corps. Five of the top six pass catches from last year are back (with RB Javon Ringer being the one missing) and there’s more than enough talent to produce a devastating passing game. The ball will be spread around with so many good players to work with, but someone has to step up and become a go-to, No. 1 star for the offense to work around.
Rating: 7.5

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: One of the team’s better run blockers last year was left tackle Rocco Cironi, a 6-6, 308-pound senior who was average in pass protection but solid overall as his first season as the starter. He’s athletic for his size and extremely tough, but now he’ll have to come back healthy after missing most of the off-season hurt.

Next to Cirone at left guard will once again be Joel Foreman, a solid 6-3, 310-pound sophomore who grew into the job as last season went on. Even though he’s a pure guard, he’s a very athletic, very tough blocker who can get on the move and mix it up well on the inside for the running game. He could play either guard spot and is almost certain to earn all-star honors before his career is up.

Center Joel Nitchman was one of the two returning starters to the line last year and he came though big. A 6-3, 296-pound pure run blocker, he was thrown into the fire early in his career, and he had problems with a knee injury, but he’s consistent and experience. The senior will be a true quarterback for a line that needs a bit of patching.

Needing to replace all-star Jesse Miller at right tackle is J’Michael Deane, a 6-5, 297-pound junior who could be the team’s key new player. He only saw time in one game last year and is still learning on the fly after starring as a defensive lineman in high school in Canada. He’ll be a work in progress and he’ll have problems against speed rushers early on, but he has the overall athleticism and the strength to grow into a good all-around blocker.

The other big hole to fill is at right guard, where second-team All-Big Ten selection Roland Martin is gone. 6-6, 289-pound sophomore Jared McGaha isn’t big, but he’s one of the team’s most versatile blockers able to play either tackle or guard position. He’ll start out at guard, but he needs seasoning after seeing time in only one game as a redshirt freshman.  

Projected Top Reserves: Until Rocco Cironi is healthy, 6-6, 284-pound senior Brendon Moss will be a key factor at left tackle. After starting out his career at guard Moss moved to the outside where he was supposed to be a regular in the rotation, but only saw time in three games. If nothing else, he’ll be one of the team’s most vital reserves with the versatility to play almost anywhere.

Adding more size at right tackle is the combination of senior Mike Schmeding and junior Antonio Jeremiah. Neither one has done much for the offense, but they’re very big and they’ve been around. The 6-5, 335-pound Jeremiah was a reserve defensive tackle last year making eight stops while the 6-8, 330-pound Schmeding has been a career backup.

The star of the future could be asked to play a key role right away. True freshman David Barrent was all but certain to go to Iowa, but the 6-8, 295-pounder chose MSU and he should be a great tackle with a little bit of time. He has the frame to get bigger and the long arms to lock on to pass rushers.

Watch Out For ... the right side. It could be a work in progress, especially at tackle. McGaha should be solid at guard, but Deane will have to show right away that he can handle the work on the outside.
Strength: The left side. When healthy again, Cironi will be solid at left tackle and Foreman is a high-riser at left guard. Combined with Nitchman at center, the Spartans have a good nucleus to build around.
Production. The lines have been fine under Mark Dantonio, but nothing special. Pass protection has been the biggest issue giving up 82 in the last three seasons, while there wasn’t enough done for the running game. Yes, Javon Ringer ran for 1,637 yards, but the team averaged 3.3 yards per carry. 
Outlook: It’ll be an interesting line with a good mix of solid veterans and young prospects who could be even more talented than the starters. The left side of the line will be fine, but the question mark will be at right tackle where the unproven J’Michael Deane has to show that he’s ready. There’s good size, good toughness, and good upside. However, this isn’t going to be a special line in any way. It’ll be fine, and it certainly won’t be a weakness, but it’s not going to be the reason Michigan State has a big season.
Rating: 6.5


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