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Recruiting Report: Now Big Ten champ, where does Michigan State go from here?

 

Michigan State Spartans After going 13-1 last season, Michigan State hopes to make a run at the playoff. (Mark Cunningham/Getty Images)

 

Throughout the offseason, Campus Union will talk with a few team experts to go over some of the most intriguing storylines and questions in advance of the 2014 campaign.

Last year brought a dream season for Michigan State. The Spartans beat Ohio State to capture the Big Ten title and edged Stanford to win the Rose Bowl. Paced by a ferocious defense, Sparty played a throwback style, a change of pace from the offensive-minded Baylors and the Oregons of the world.

It's a testament to just how good Michigan State's defense was that the offense underwent a dramatic transformation over the course of 2013, yet the vast majority of articles written about the team still spotlighted the defense. Heading into this fall, however, Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are gone. The Spartans' offense will be asked to lead the charge.{C}

To help assess the state of Sparty -- from its progress replacing key contributors to its recent recruiting efforts -- we brought in Chris Vannini of 247Sports.com's Spartan Tailgate.

SI: The Spartans are coming off a high after winning the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl last season. Although several defensive standouts are gone, Michigan State returns coveted coordinator Pat Narduzzi. What is the team's early outlook?

Chris Vannini: The early outlook is positive, especially after a spring that featured plenty to like. Compared to a year ago, when the offense was a disaster in the spring game, this year's scrimmage saw playmakers shining on both sides of the ball. Despite the loss of some key defensive players, this might be the deepest team in the Mark Dantonio era, and perhaps in at least a decade.

SI.com’s 100 things we can’t wait to see: 100-81 l 80-61 l 60-41 l 40-21 l 20-1

SI: It has been a relative marvel to see the Spartans' offensive growth since early last season. Is its success a byproduct of quarterback Connor Cook's maturation, or is there more to it? And what should fans make of Jeremy Langford, arguably one of the Big Ten's most underrated backs?

CV: It just seemed to be a bit of everything. The offensive line blocked better, the receivers stopped dropping passes, Langford emerged as a consistent runner and Cook saw the field better. I've never seen such a drastic turnaround: The Spartans began last season as one of the worst offenses in the nation and ended it as one of the best of Dantonio's tenure. I can't pinpoint any one thing that keyed the transformation. Maybe the blowout of Youngstown State last September gave the offense confidence. But after a year-plus of going nowhere, everything suddenly clicked.

SI: With so many defensive stars off to the NFL, is the offense the strength of the 2014 team?

CV: Last year the defense held down the fort while the offense figured things out. Maybe this year the offense will be the strength while the new defensive starters get their bearings. But I don't expect a major drop-off on defense. Dantonio always says one of the keys to success is continuity. This will be Narduzzi's eighth season running the defense. The players have grown up in it. There might be some early hiccups, especially at Oregon on Sept. 6, but the unit should rank among the top 20 nationally by season's end.

SI: Which players from the defense should fans keep an eye on?

CV: Junior Ed Davis will slide into one of the outside linebacker spots. He came on late last season, finishing with four sacks and 17 tackles in the pass-rushing role Allen mastered. In the secondary, Trae Waynes will move into the top cornerback spot. He had three interceptions and five pass breakups opposite Dennard as a sophomore last fall. As for the other corner spot, sophomore Darian Hicks appears to have the edge. He impressed in the spring game and could end up starting.

Remember, Dantonio is a former defensive back and coached the position under Nick Saban. It's his specialty. For these young players to be near the top of the depth chart says a lot. On the line, star Shilique Calhoun returns, and keep an eye on Joel Heath, Damon Knox, Lawrence Thomas and incoming five-star recruit Malik McDowell.

SI: Beyond McDowell, who signed with Michigan State following a strange and prolonged courtship, who are the centerpieces of the 2014 recruiting class?

CV: McDowell, Enoch Smith Jr., Craig Evans and David Beedle could all have opportunities at defensive tackle as true freshmen. There always seems to be a defensive back or two who avoid redshirting, and Montae Nicholson, Jalen Watts-Jackson and Vayante Copeland could make an impact. Still, with the lack of truly elite recruits who come to East Lansing -- based on the rankings, anyway -- it can be hard to predict who surprises in camp and finds the playing field right away.

RICKMAN: Where does Michigan State land in the post-spring Power Rankings?

SI: How about redshirt freshmen? Are there any who have real promise?

CV: Defensive end Demetrius Cooper is the first name that jumps out. He redshirted in order to put on weight, and he's up to about 240 pounds. Cooper showed great speed around the edge in the spring game. There are also linebackers Jon Reschke and Shane Jones, who came in as highly touted prospects and could see increased playing time if the new starters don't jell.

SI: And on offense?

CV: If an offensive true freshman could contribute last season, he almost certainly avoided a redshirt. R.J. Shelton was used in a lot of jet sweeps in a hybrid running back/receiver role. Delton Williams proved to be a solid backup for Langford. The big wild card is quarterback Damion Terry, who did redshirt. He is currently listed at third string on the depth chart, but the first play of the spring game for the white team was a two-quarterback look in which Terry took a handoff for a touchdown. He has great athletic ability and should be used in some situations (perhaps trick plays).

SI: Since they're the returning champs, should the Spartans be considered Big Ten favorites?

CV: I think it's fair to name Michigan State the favorite based on the offensive returnees and the fact that it plays Ohio State in East Lansing on Nov. 8. MSU hasn't always lived up to preseason hype, but after finally reaching what is considered the mountaintop for Big Ten teams, the goal this fall is the College Football Playoff and contending for a national championship.

SI: What about Rich Homie Quan? Will he be back in some capacity?

CV: Michigan State got King Leonidas Gerard Butler to a game in 2010. Anything is possible.

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