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August 1, 2011

Top 120 countdown
No. 18 Michigan State
Coach: Mark Dantonio (33-19 in four seasons at Michigan State ; 51-36 in seven seasons overall) | Staff
Last season: 11-2, 7-1 (T-1st in Big Ten; lost to Alabama in Capital One Bowl)
Returning starters (At least seven starts last year): Offense (6): TB Edwin Baker, QB Kirk Cousins, WR B.J. Cunningham, G Joel Foreman, G Chris McDonald, WR Keith Nichol. Defense (6): CB Johnny Adams, E Tyler Hoover, LB Chris Norman, NT Kevin Pickelman, FS Trenton Robinson, T Jerel Worthy. Special teams (1): K Dan Conroy.


OVERVIEW: Coach Mark Dantonio promoted line coach Dan Roushar to the post of coordinator after Don Treadwell left to become coach at Miami (Ohio). Roushar has been a coordinator at Illinois (2004), Northern Illinois (1998-2002), Ball State (1994) and Butler (1989-92). Don't expect this offense to change, as Michigan State again will be a physical team that runs to set up the pass.

THE LINGERING QUESTION: Will the offensive line be a strength? The unit never has been a major asset under Mark Dantonio. This season, it must be for the Spartans to maximize all of their skill-position talent.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The offensive line becomes a force, paving the way for what may be the Big Ten's top offense and a push to the division title.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: No playmakers emerge on a defense that's rebuilding at linebacking and the offensive line struggles. Michigan State crumbles playing one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten and has trouble becoming bowl-eligible.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Michigan State had 17 interceptions last season, and only Ohio State and Iowa (19) had more in the Big Ten. The Spartans' pass defense must continue to shine for Michigan State to remain a championship-caliber squad.
BACKFIELD: QB Kirk Cousins enters his third season as the starter. He is 16-9 as the starter and completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,825 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2010. He already ranks first in school history in passing efficiency and completion percentage. Michigan State is loaded at running back with its top three tailbacks returning. Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper combined to rush for 1,950 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall. Baker led the team in carries (207), rushing yards (1,201) and rushing TDs (13). The physical Bell played surprisingly well as a freshman in 2010. Todd Anderson is a fifth-year senior fullback who can bulldoze foes.

RECEIVERS: Despite the loss of Mark Dell, the Spartans still may have the best collection of receivers in the Big Ten. B.J. Cunningham led the team in TD catches (nine) in 2010 and ranked second in receptions (50) and receiving yards (611). Speedy Keshawn Martin, who doubles as a deadly return man, Bennie Fowler and steady Keith Nichol, a former quarterback, are other viable targets. Michigan State also has three solid tight ends in Garrett Celek, Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims.

LINE: This unit is on the spot. For the second season in a row, the Spartans must replace three starters up front. MSU needs two tackles and a center. Sophomore Dan France, JC transfer Fou Fonoti, redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland and senior Jared McGaha are the top contenders at tackle. G Joel Foreman is the unquestioned star and leader of a group that has received an injection of athletic ability with the move of defensive players France and Blake Treadwell to offense.


OVERVIEW: Coordinator Pat Narduzzi is a good one who prepares his units well. The Spartans want to pressure quarterbacks, but they don't want to blitz too much to do it. The staff also wants to protect a still-developing linebacking corps as it searches for a pass rusher.

LINE: Led by E Tyler Hoover, NT Kevin Pickelman and T Jerel Worthy, the line could be among the Big Ten's best. Worthy, entering his third season as a starter, is the stud. One end needs to emerge as an All-Big Ten-type of talent. Michigan State ranked 90th in the country in sacks and 91st in tackles for loss last season. Hoover or fellow 6-foot-7 bookend William Gholston, a mega-recruit in 2010, could be the playmaker up front that coaches are seeking.

LINEBACKERS: Keep an eye on this unit. Michigan State must replace two four-year starters: Greg Jones was a two-time All-American, while Eric Gordon was an underrated sidekick. The duo started more games at linebacker (95 combined starts) than any tandem in Spartans history. Max Bullough and Chris Norman - the lone returning starter - are being counted on to step up. Spartans football courses through the veins of Bullough, whose father, grandfather and two uncles played for Michigan State. Staffers also are counting on hard-hitting Denicos Allen and TyQuan Hammock.

SECONDARY: Improvement by this unit was a major reason for the Spartans' success in 2010, as Michigan State went from 112th in the nation in pass defense to 60th with 17 picks. The secondary looks good with CB Johnny Adams, who will be a three-year starter and enjoyed a strong spring, and FS Trenton Robinson, the quarterback of the secondary, leading the way. SS Isaiah Lewis, a nickel back in 2010, is a guy to watch, along with youngsters Tony Lippett and Darqueze Dennard.


K Dan Conroy is money, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last season after making his first 14 field-goal attempts. It will be difficult to replace P Aaron Bates, who led the Big Ten and ranked No. 13 nationally with his 45-yard average in 2010. Bates was the first punter in the 114-year history of Spartans football to be named captain. Redshirt freshman Mike Sadler will get first crack at the job. Martin did a great job as a punt returner last season (14.2-yard average, one TD) but was barely adequate as a kickoff returner (17.8-yard average on 20 attempts). The coverage units were OK.

Average national ranking past five years: 33rd
Buzz: The Spartans had a solid recruiting year in 2011, led by the signing of in-state star Lawrence Thomas, a linebacker who could end up playing end. Thomas was the top-rated prospect in the state of Michigan, and the Spartans also did well out-of-state, landing OL Brandon Clemons from Pennsylvania, WR Juwan Caesar from Florida and DB Arjen Colquhoun from Canada. So far in 2012, they have been hitting Ohio hard, getting commitments from prospects such as DE Se'von Pittman, OL Benny McGowan and QB Tyler O'Connor from the Buckeye State. With OSU's troubles and the coaching transition at Michigan, this could be a big recruiting year for Sparty. - MIKE FARRELL


Coaches are excited about Lippett, a redshirt freshman. He's a tremendous athlete who could play both ways. For now, Lippett is penciled in to play cornerback, but he also could play a role at wide receiver.


After playing a favorable slate in 2010, the Spartans have a lot of heavy lifting this season, with games at Notre Dame, at Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Iowa. Even a season-ending trip to Northwestern looks dicey. October will be the make-or-break month: at Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, at Nebraska.


The 2010 season was a breakthrough for Michigan State under Dantonio. The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990 but lost out on tiebreakers to fellow tri-champs Wisconsin and Ohio State and had to settle for a trip to the Capital One Bowl. The Spartans still are looking for their first BCS appearance. The potential is there for that trip this season. There is a lot to like about the 2011 Spartans, especially if they answer questions along the offensive line and at linebacker and find some playmakers on defense. Michigan State looks like a serious contender to win the Legends Division, with Iowa and Nebraska figuring to be the main competitors. Depth and talent abounds like it never has under Dantonio, whose squad also has momentum.

QB Kirk Cousins (6-3/202, Sr.)
Andrew Maxwell (6-3/208, Soph.)
RB Edwin Baker (5-9/208, Jr.)
Le'Veon Bell (6-2/237, Soph.)
FB Todd Anderson (6-2/253, Sr.)
Niko Palazeti (6-2/250, R-Fr.)
WR B.J. Cunningham (6-2/223, Sr.)
Keith Nichol (6-2/222, Sr.)
WR Keshawn Martin (5-11/185, Jr.)
Bennie Fowler (6-1/212, Soph.)
TE Garrett Celek (6-5/247, Sr.)
Brian Linthicum (6-5/243, Sr.)
LT Dan France (6-6/304, Soph.)
Jared McGaha (6-6, 292, Sr.)
LG Joel Foreman (6-4/310, Sr.)
John Deyo (6-6, 300, Jr.)
C Travis Jackson (6-4/265, R-Fr.)
Blake Treadwell (6-3/292, Jr.)
RG Chris McDonald (6-5/290, Jr.)
Blake Treadwell (6-3/292, Jr.)
RT Skyler Burkland (6-7/305, R-Fr.)
Fou Fonoti (6-5, 295, Jr.)
P Mike Sadler (6-1/177, R-Fr.)
KR Keshawn Martin (5-11/185, Jr.)
E William Gholston (6-7/265, Soph.)
Corey Freeman (6-2/236, Jr.)
NT Kevin Pickelman (6-4/278, Sr.)
Anthony Rashad White (6-2/320, Jr.)
T Jerel Worthy (6-3/305, Jr.)
Johnathan Strayhorn (6-0/278, Sr.)
E Tyler Hoover (6-7/274, Jr.)
Denzel Drone (6-2/260, Soph.)
OLB Denicos Allen (5-10/218, Soph.)
Kyler Elsworth (6-1/209, Soph.)
MLB Max Bullough (6-3/240, Soph.)
TyQuan Hammock (6-0/227, Soph.)
OLB Chris Norman (6-1/225, Jr.)
Steve Gardiner (6-1/215, Jr.)
CB Johnny Adams (5-11/170, Jr.)
Mitchell White (5-11/174, Jr.)
CB Darqueze Dennard (5-11/185, Soph.)
Tony Lippett (6-2/185, R-Fr.)
FS Trenton Robinson (5-10/195, Sr.)
Mylan Hicks (5-11/187, R-Fr.)
SS Isaiah Lewis (5-11/199, Soph.)
Jairus Jones (6-1/205, Soph.)
K Dan Conroy (5-10/185, Jr.)
PR Keshawn Martin (5-11/185, Jr.)

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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