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January 19, 2012

Michigan State turns back clock on freshmen

Michigan State is turning back the clock.

Not only are the Spartans enjoying their best two-year stretch since 1965-66, they are embracing the luxury of playing veterans. So few freshmen played in East Lansing last season, Michigan State closely resembled a team from the 1960s when NCAA rules required athletes to sit out as freshmen.

Michigan State played only one true freshman last season, the fewest in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, four teams in the conference played at least 10: Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State.

Recruits often say immediate playing time is one of the key factors in their decision-making process for college, but Michigan State lucked out with a signing class that made a bigger impact on the scout team than on the field.

The only Spartans freshman to play last season was linebacker Taiwan Jones, who played on special teams. Junior college transfer Fou Fonoti, the starter at right tackle for the final 10 games, was the only other newcomer to see playing time for the Spartans last season.

"Teams who play freshmen too early struggle," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team reached the Big Ten title game and won its first bowl game since 2001. "We played seven in our first year and we struggled [7-6 in 2007]. The teams that have a significant amount of depth are competing. It's a sign of progress."

It's also a sign of luck.

Dantonio did not go into the 2011 season with plans of redshirting the bulk of his recruiting class, which was ranked fifth in the Big Ten and 31st nationally.

Michigan State stayed relatively healthy for most of the season and has not been hit hard with attrition over the years. Only one member of the 2011 signing class is no longer on the team. Athlete Onaje Miller was released in June.

"We haven't had a lot of guys quit," Dantonio said. "We haven't lost guys to grades. We did have some guys who were seniors who played themselves into backup positions. They weren't starters, but they had significant value to our team. Chemistry was excellent; because of that we haven't had a lot of attrition."

[ More Michigan State: SpartanMag.com ]

None of this is to say Michigan State didn't have quality freshmen to play.

The top prospect in the class, four-star linebacker Lawrence Thomas, was set back by an injured shoulder in August. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun earned a look when William Gholston was suspended, but the Spartans held back in pulling his redshirt. Incidentally, Gholston was opposite a redshirt freshman in end Marcus Rush, who was third on the team with 12 tackles for a loss.

RANKING THE ROOKIES
Big Ten teams played as many as 16 true freshmen (Indiana) and as few as one (Michigan State). Here's how many true freshmen each Big Ten team played last year.
TeamNo.
Indiana16
Ohio State14
Iowa10
Minnesota10
Illinois9
Michigan8
Purdue8
Nebraska 6
Wisconsin6
Penn State4
Northwestern3
Michigan State1
Center Jack Allen practiced as a backup behind redshirt freshman Travis Jackson, but Michigan State never needed him to play in a game.

Defensive tackle Brandon Clemons played in one game against Central Michigan, but retained his redshirt.

If anything, the redshirt-heavy class boosted Spartans' practices.

"Our scout team was very good," Dantonio said. "We were able to put scholarship-type players on our scout team at every position."

This may be a short-lived trend, however. Michigan State will have some attrition after this season. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and junior running back Edwin Baker both left early for the NFL draft.

On offense, Michigan State will need an instant impact, especially at receiver. The Spartans lose seniors B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol. To replace those three, Michigan State has three wide receivers committed for 2012, including four-star wideout Aaron Burbridge. The Spartans signed two receivers in the 2011 class and add former Tennessee receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who is seeking a waiver to play immediately.

Le'Veon Bell started six games (Baker started the other eight) but was the Spartans' leading rusher. Rising junior Andrew Maxwell is the heir apparent to outgoing starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, with redshirt freshman Connor Cook as the potential backup.

The depth built from the 2011 class allowed Michigan State to spot recruit for 2012. Of 14 commitments for 2012, seven are offensive skill players.

On defense, starting spots may be tougher to gain on the for the redshirt class.

Michigan State will return eight starters on defense, meaning the 11 defensive recruits who redshirted last season may need to wait longer for a chance to start. The Spartans return all three starting linebackers and both defensive ends. The 2011 recruiting class included seven players at those two positions. With those numbers, the 2012 class includes only two (end/linebacker Jamal Lyles and linebacker Riley Bullough) at those positions.

Redshirt freshman cornerback Trae Waynes and safety R.J. Williams, however, could fill spots in the secondary and defensive tackles Matt Ramondo and Mark Scarpinato could be key players on a line that loses both tackles, including potential the first-round pick Worthy.

The low rate of attrition at Michigan State will mean smaller signing class in 2012 than many. The Spartans have 14 commitments and might gain only three or four more by National Signing Day on Feb. 1.

That's an easy tradeoff for a program hoping the 2011 signing class will pay off in depth. For Dantonio, the class meant the best of both worlds - they were part of team that won a division title and a bowl game, but their inexperience never was a liability on the field.

"They experienced those things, but we didn't have to play many of them," Dantonio said. "It should be good for our future."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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