SCOUTING REPORT Late last year Michigan State looked like a program on the move, a Big Ten power in the making. After a disappointing 6-7 record in 2009, the Spartans had marched to an 11-1 regular season and a share of the conference title. They whipped Wisconsin in East Lansing, steamrolled Michigan in Ann Arbor and flattened Penn State in University Park. The Spartans were seemingly not only a Big Ten power but also a national power. Then they met Alabama in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando."That game showed us that we're not an elite program," says Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio of his team's devastating 49-7 loss to the Crimson Tide. "There's still a lot of work to be done."Now, after having turned around a floundering program, can Dantonio help the Spartans rise to another level? The team has the talent to win another conference championship, but its brutal road schedule will be a tough hurdle. Michigan State has a potentially explosive offense led by quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker, as well as a deep and talented crop of receivers including seniors B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol. The offense's success, however, will rest on an inexperienced offensive line that will have two returning players who started last year ... on the defensive line."People look at the line as a question mark, but in reality we have more depth there than we've had in the past," says Dantonio. "I really like the experience of our offense."A defense that was exposed in blowout defeats to Iowa and Alabama will have to overcome the loss of all-conference linebacker Greg Jones, but the unit has potential stars in cornerback Johnny Adams (second-team All-Big Ten in 2010), tackle Jerel Worthy (honorable mention) and end William Gholston. One of the strengths of the defense will be its big, intimidating line led by Worthy, who at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds is a force both at run stopping and pass rushing."There are a lot of good things happening with the program; we just need to keep building from each year," says Dantonio, in his fifth season at Michigan State. "There's reason for a lot of excitement around this team."
THE BIG IF Will depth along the offensive line help the Spartans compensate for a lack of experience at tackle and center?
TELLING NUMBER 13 -- Fewer TD passes allowed in 2010 than in '09 by the Spartans, whose scoring defense went from 69th in the FBS to 39th.
KEY RETURNEES Edwin Baker, RB, Jr. -- Baker was one of the team's biggest breakouts last year, as he rushed for 1,201 yards and 13 TDs and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. The dynamic back is poised to become a Heisman candidate.
B.J. Cunningham, WR, Sr. -- The big wideout (6-2, 223) will step into the spotlight with Mark Dell gone. Cunningham was an honorable mention Big Ten selection last year, with 50 catches for 611 yards and nine TDs. As a fourth-year starter he'll be Kirk Cousins's favorite (and most familiar) target.
Keshawn Martin, PR-WR, Sr. -- One of the team's most dynamic playmakers, the speed-burner is a threat to score on long bombs and punt returns. Martin missed time in 2010 with an ankle injury but still made 32 receptions for 394 yards and averaged 12.3 yards per catch.
Trenton Robinson, FS, Sr. -- A second-team all-league pick last year, Robinson was especially dominant in a win over Michigan, when he had seven tackles, an interception and a key pass breakup. He was fourth on the team with a career-high 76 tackles.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Sr. -- Cousins has been overshadowed by his flashier opposite numbers in the Big Ten, but he continues to get the job done for Michigan State. He threw for 2,825 yards and 20 scores last season and also showed admirable toughness.
BREAKOUT PLAYER William Gholston, DE, So. -- Healthy, starting and primed to pressure QBs. Gholston was the Big Ten's most touted recruit in 2010 but mostly struggled in a backup role as a true freshman (with 13 tackles in 10 games) before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in early November. Now the 6-7, 265-pounder is ready to terrorize Big Ten quarterbacks as he slides into a starting role.
TOP RECRUIT Lawrence Thomas, LB, Fr. -- Motown native will be an asset in East Lansing. The Spartans lost star linebacker Greg Jones but add Michigan's consensus top recruit, a hard-hitting player who could make an instant impact. The 6-4, 232-pound Thomas (97 tackles, eight sacks in nine games as a senior at Renaissance High) could eventually move to the defensive line.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.
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