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Can the Spartans stay atop the Big Ten this fall? Their unique approach could help them keep rolling

By Andy Staples
April 18, 2016

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Three massive men walked out of Michigan State's offensive line meeting room one morning in late March. Tackle Jack Conklin, center Jack Allen and guard Donovan Clark left behind the doughnuts that had been ordered for their meeting with an NFL scout. They also left behind some gaping holes on the Spartans' depth chart.

A few minutes later, guard/center Brian Allen—Jack's younger brother—sat in the same room and uttered the words he keeps hearing when outsiders discuss the program's immediate future. "This," Brian Allen said, "is supposed to be our dip year."

Allen doesn't believe that, but he can't escape the questions facing his team that went 12–2 last fall. From the outside, it does seem like Michigan State's 2016 season could resemble its '12 campaign. That was the year after Kirk Cousins left. The Spartans struggled to find a replacement at quarterback, and they went 7–6 after winning 22 games over the previous two seasons. In '13, Connor Cook seized the quarterback job and Michigan State won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Cook, along with Conklin, Jack Allen and Clark, helped lead the team to two Big Ten titles in three seasons. But Urban Meyer has built a machine in Columbus. Jim Harbaugh has Michigan poised to compete for championships again. How can the Spartans, after losing so much talent, stay atop what has become one of college football's toughest divisions?

One potential answer has its roots in that 2012 season. That year, the offense dragged down a statistically spectacular defense because of the aforementioned quarterback issues and the injuries to linemen Travis Jackson, Fou Fonoti and Blake Treadwell. When current Spartans offensive line coach Mark Staten moved from coaching tight ends and tackles to working with the full line in '11, he dreamed of a day when he would be able to trust eight or nine linemen enough to give them each (meaningful) playing time. Back then, the Spartans didn't have the desired depth. But the nightmare of '12 solved that problem. As Staten stitched together six different starting combinations that fall, young linemen gained enough experience to convince Staten that he could rotate in '13. The Spartans have been doing it ever since.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

All offensive line coaches want depth. They all wish they had five players behind the starters who could jump into a game and play at any time. But not all offensive line coaches are willing to throw a youngster into a game that hasn't already been decided. They don't want to disrupt the carefully crafted chemistry of their unit. Staten offers a practical argument against this stance. "D-lines rotate," he said. "So you're the O-line and you're constantly having to go against fresh guys."

Staten and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio agreed that for their plan to work, they would have to risk playing less experienced linemen. That meant tossing then-freshman Brian Allen in at both guard spots and center in 2014 even though older, proven players were available. Allen started at left guard in '15, but when older brother Jack slid from center to left tackle for the Indiana and Michigan games following injuries to four different tackles, Brian was prepared to start at center.

Even though the Spartans lost an All-America tackle, an All-America center and a versatile guard this off-season, they return five linemen who have started games and more who have played significant snaps. "It's not like we're going into the season throwing guys out there who haven't been in those situations before," Brian Allen said. "We've got guys who played against Oregon when there was three minutes left and it was down to the wire. … They've been in big games and big experiences like that."

Meanwhile, the possibility of playing in crunch time—and the possibility of losing those snaps if unprepared—tends to keep the linemen more engaged during weeks when they aren't starting. "You're a little more attentive in meetings," Staten said. "You're a little more aware of what's going on in practice."

This approach requires careful planning of practice time. Staten must switch up his combinations regularly so guys are comfortable playing next to one another in games. A guard and tackle executing a combination block (in which they team to take on the three technique and a linebacker) must know when one of them is ready to disengage the double team and hit the linebacker. This exchange is often more understanding than conversation. A reliable understanding of how another player operates is only achieved through repetition. "It might be our starting center playing left guard and a new center going in there," Staten said. "It might be our starting left guard playing right guard and a new left guard going in there. You're mixing and managing."

That's why Dantonio and Staten feel so comfortable with their 2016 line despite the turnover. If junior Dennis Finley recovers from the broken leg he suffered last fall and wins the starting left tackle job, that's great. But senior Kodi Kieler has started 19 games at tackle. Redshirt freshman Cole Chewins might be the future on one side, and he has started to try to prove that this spring. If Finley and Chewins play tackle, Kieler could move inside to center and Allen could stay at guard. Or maybe Kieler could play tackle and Allen could move to center. "We've just tried to make that a given to give guys experience," Dantonio said. "So when we do have guys go down or guys graduate, we have some experience. We're not starting fresh all the time. It's a luxury to have that. You have to play yourself to that."

This is just one position group, but it helps explain why Michigan State has kept rolling even though the Spartans' two chief rivals to the south have hauled in more stars on National Signing Day. Through their personalities and substitution patterns, Dantonio and his staff have cultivated a program that has lower than normal attrition. Unlike some of their brethren near the top of the polls, the Spartans rarely have to rely on an infusion of inexperience at any position. Keeping the staff fairly consistent through Dantonio's first nine seasons on campus has encouraged that stability, but Michigan State's ability to sign, keep and develop players is special even for a group of coaches that has worked together for a while.

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Think about this: In an era when quarterbacks who don't become starters as redshirt freshmen transfer seemingly as a matter of course, Michigan State has a fifth-year senior (Tyler O'Connor) and a fourth-year junior (Damion Terry) vying for the starting job. While neither has extensive experience, they combined last November in place of the injured Cook to help beat Ohio State—which could have 14 players taken in this month's NFL draft—on the road. Dantonio has no plan at the moment to name a starter this spring or even during preseason camp. "You can play very well in camp and then not play well in games," Dantonio said. "It's got to linger into the first couple of games."

Michigan State's second game this fall comes at Notre Dame on Sept. 17. Its third game comes at home against Wisconsin a week later. Going into that stretch with an unsettled quarterback situation seems dicey, but game performance in 2013 proved to Dantonio he could trust Cook. Dantonio has no intention to alter an evaluation system that has worked for him in the past.

Meanwhile, a defense that lost some star power doesn't look so depleted when one considers the returning players who didn't help the Spartans win the Big Ten and crack the College Football Playoff field last year. Linebacker Ed Davis went down to a knee injury before the 2015 campaign began. The NCAA has granted him a sixth year of eligibility, and he will play this season. Meanwhile, top cornerback Vayante Copeland was lost in Week 2 against Oregon to a neck injury. He has been cleared to play.

So, while it may seem Michigan State is due for a dip, the structure that Dantonio and his assistants have created is designed to prevent deviations from the course. Dantonio, who prefers understatement to brash pronouncements, understands why everyone on the outside is talking about Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten's East Division. But he remains quietly confident that business will remain as usual in East Lansing.

"Our guys are used to winning," he said. "They expect to win. Our coaches expect to win. Quite frankly, I think we'll have a good football team."

A random ranking

This is the final edition of Punt, Pass & Pork before the sixth season of Game of Thrones premieres. So, to get you ready for Sunday*, I'm ranking the remaining living Starks.

*I'm more excited for this season than any other. I read all the books, so I usually knew what was coming. Now I'm mostly in the dark. (I think I saw a Kingsmoot in one of the trailers, but that's about it.) I have little faith in George R.R. Martin to finish the series in print, but I have complete faith in the people who were smart enough to put Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen in the same room.

1. Arya

A girl is going to be an absolute force once the Faceless Men decide to burn her redshirt.

2. Bran

I was a little ticked when Coldhands didn't show up in the TV version to guide Bran through the lands beyond the Wall. I'm not ticked anymore. Night's King >>>>>>> Coldhands.

3. Sansa

In the books, she's a bit of a damsel in distress. That doesn't seem to be the path she's taking on the show. Warlord Sansa? There's enough pent-up rage.

4. Rickon

His direwolf got the best name (Shaggydog), but he has never had much to do. In the books and in the show, he's hiding out in parts unknown. Perhaps we'll learn what became of him.

Not ranked: Jon Snow

If he's still alive, he immediately jumps to No. 1. If he's just warging into direwolves, giants or Sam, he can slip in at No. 2 behind Arya.


1. Last Friday, the Longhorn Network released a snippet of a segment that featured Ricky Williams interviewing coach Charlie Strong. Their conversation focused on the quarterback race, and that the official house organ of Texas put this out when it did suggests one thing …

It seemed the Longhorns were trying to prepare their fans for what they were about to see during Saturday's spring game. After a month of giving lip service to the competition between senior Tyrone Swoopes and true freshman Shane Buechele, Strong and Williams tipped off what would become obvious once the scrimmage began. Swoopes looked less than comfortable in new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's Baylor-inspired Veer-N-Shoot offense. Buechele looked as if he was born to play in it.

In a spring game shortened by bad weather, Buechele completed 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns. Swoopes completed 4 of 16 for 71 yards with two interceptions. The players split time between the first- and second-team offenses. In an offense that requires quarterbacks to work quickly and decisively, Buechele did both. "Today, Shane did have a good day," Strong later told reporters in the understatement of the day. "A really good day."

There are a few caveats before we anoint Buechele the second coming of Colt McCoy. (Unless we're calling Case McCoy the second coming of Colt McCoy.) First, redshirt sophomore Jerrod Heard missed the tail end of this spring with a shoulder injury. He might also excel in a read option-based offense, and he will get his chance to prove that in preseason camp. The other thing to consider is that all of Buechele's success came against the Longhorns' defense. The ultimate spring game conundrum is that every positive on offense is a negative for the defense—and vice versa. So, we won't really know anything until Texas kicks off against Notre Dame on Sept. 4, but it certainly seems Buechele is comfortable in the offense.

2. Thanks a lot, West Virginia president Gordon Gee, for shutting down the budding sportswriter cottage industry of Off-season Realignment Speculation. Unless Gee, who is a member of the Big 12's expansion committee, is righteously sandbagging, the Big 12 isn't expanding any time soon.

"In the Big 12, it helps us in the fact that we don't have to expand in order to be able to have a conference championship game," Gee told Saturday after a college sports symposium that also featured Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens and Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock. "I think everyone is now working very hard to keep us together. I would have said maybe two years ago there was a real possibility of a disruption, but I feel that it's much less now."

What am I supposed to do in June if I can't speculate on potential conference realignment? I guess I'll have to find another play that could have changed everything and dive back down the rabbit hole.

3. The vote to ban satellite camps keeps looking weirder and weirder. Last week the San Marcos Daily Record reported that Texas State coach Everett Withers was against the ban. "It was a snap decision. It was a bad decision," Withers told the paper. "It's not very good for kids who need coaches like myself and other coaches in the Sun Belt to be able to go to Texas and Ohio State's camps and see those kids."

However, Texas State AD Larry Teis cast the Sun Belt's vote to ban satellite camps in an NCAA Division I management council meeting. It would be one thing if Teis was carrying out the wishes of the league, but Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told the paper Teis wasn't even doing that. "A majority of the Sun Belt membership was in favor of satellite camps. It wasn't unanimous, however," he said. "Larry is not locked into or obligated to side with the majority. He had the latitude to make a decision that was not necessarily in the best interest of Texas State or a majority of the Sun Belt but in the best interest of college football. To throw Larry Teis under the bus and to call him out for not representing the Sun Belt is uncalled for."

Actually, it's completely called for. First, Teis didn't represent the interests of the Sun Belt, which is his role on the committee. Second, as anyone who understands the core issue knows, the ban certainly isn't in the best interest of college football. Third, as discussed here last week, voting against one's best interests is stupid, corrupt or both. As we continue to unpack this vote, we'll find out how much of each category applies.

4. The Notre Dame quarterback competition will rage through the summer, but coach Brian Kelly said after Saturday's spring game that it's likely a two-man race. DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire still have a shot, but Kelly hasn't been able to work sophomore Brandon Wimbush into the fray. Zaire's injury forced Wimbush into the backup role last year, so he could conceivably redshirt in 2016.

"I haven't figured out how I can get him involved in this race for starting quarterback," Kelly said. "Somebody would have to give up reps, and I'm not prepared to do that right now. I'm not prepared to give up reps on Kizer or Zaire to fit Brandon in. And so I would have to make that decision on my own to give up reps on those two guys to give more to Brandon to actually give him a fair chance.

"So this is on me more than anything else. Brandon's doing everything that he's been asked to do. He just doesn't get enough work. And when he gets in there, he shows—you can see it from the physical talents what they are. Just doesn't get enough work."

5. Good luck to Notre Dame receiver Corey Robinson as he decides his football future. Robinson, the son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and Notre Dame's student-body president-elect, is pondering whether he should play his senior season or retire from the game because of concussions. Kelly said Robinson met with Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, the national director of the Sports Neurology Clinic at The CORE Institute, to discuss his options.

"I think it was an extremely educational meeting for him," Kelly told reporters Friday. "I'm very hesitant to go into the details because I think that's a private matter for Corey. But I know this. He came back feeling really good about the meeting, and I think a decision will be forthcoming relative to what his future is. It was great that we were able to get him with somebody with that kind of knowledge, and I know he feels a whole lot better about that meeting."

6. Georgia enters 2016 in a different situation than Texas, but both programs had a true freshman quarterback impress the crowd at the spring game.
Jacob Eason showed why he was so coveted as a recruit with some wow-worthy throws. Click here and scroll to the 1:02 mark.

The question for first-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is whether to throw Eason into the mix or initially start one of the veterans (Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey) on the roster. Lambert won 10 games as Georgia's starter last year, so Smart's choice is more comfortable than Strong's. Still, if Eason is mentally ready, then Smart may want to consider the tale of a touted true freshman who played his first college game in Sanford Stadium in 2014. Clemson coaches inserted Deshaun Watson to briefly spell Cole Stoudt in a 45–21 loss that August. By the time the Tigers rolled into Tallahassee three weeks later, it was clear that Watson was Clemson's best quarterback. Had Watson started that Florida State game, Clemson probably would have won it (the Tigers lost 23–17 in overtime) and gone on to win the ACC.

Georgia has the talent to compete in the SEC East. If its coaches believe Eason can handle the between-the-ears part of being the starting quarterback, then he should start if he has the best physical tools.

7. Speaking of great physical tools, Ohio State is not lacking in that department despite losing a whopping 14 (likely) NFL draftees. Here's sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker, who intercepted this pass this way because he has an injured finger on his left hand. (Also because he's a freak athlete.)

8. Alabama's quarterback competition will last into preseason camp, but redshirt freshman Blake Barnett tried to keep one sack off his résumé during Saturday's spring game by using Nick Saban as a human shield. Saban ended up getting the sack.

The play was eerily reminiscent of this play from Papke's lone appearance at quarterback in relief of Scott Bakula in the cinematic classic Necessary Roughness.

9. Good luck to Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who runs the Boston Marathon on Monday to benefit the Mullen Family 36 Foundation, which supports children's charities throughout Mississippi. Unfortunately, race organizers think Mullen is from Starkville, Mich., instead of Starkville, Miss.

10. Want to shed a tear or two? Watch Jake Olson connect on two field goal snaps in USC's spring game.

What's eating Andy?

There was supposed to be another name in that Game of Thrones ranking. It was taken out by editor Ben Glicksman because [spoilers]. Sorry for trying to spoil a book you could have read 15 years ago, slackers.

Andy Staples

What's Andy eating?

The bartender at Acre could see my disappointment. He probably has a knack for reading people, but I've never been great at hiding my feelings. Of course my mouth drooped and my shoulders slumped when he told me the menu had rotated and the bacon-fried ribeye—the dish I'd come to taste—wasn't on it anymore. Pretty much everything else on the menu also sounded excellent, but once a man has been tempted by the notion of a ribeye cooked in bacon grease, a mental point of no return has been passed.

I didn't press the issue. Acre, with its garden out front and thoughtful sourcing, wasn't toying with the menu to toy with my emotions. Still, I thought, other items on the Auburn, Ala., eatery's menu included bacon, so there had to be some grease on the premises. No. This is the wrong attitude. I don't want to make demands of people who clearly care about food as much as I do. They know best. So I ordered two appetizers and pondered my next move …

… and then the bartender reappeared.

He had visited the kitchen, and yes, there was bacon grease. Yes, the cooks could pan-fry a ribeye in it.

The only thing I conceal worse than my disappointment is my delight. The place had just opened, so only a handful of people caught the audible squeal.

Andy Staples

I shouldn't have been so worried about the entree. I could have walked out happy after the appetizers. I ordered the breadboard, which is less about the bread than it is about the spreads. Slices of ciabatta and sourdough surround house-made pimento cheese, rosemary butter and bacon sorghum butter. Pimento cheese is the only reason mayonnaise should exist, and the pimento cheese at Acre is sublime. The bacon butter mixes bacon and butter, so it never had a chance to taste anything but great.

Next came a softshell crab fried like a piece of Nashville hot chicken. I named mine Pinchy. The heat coming off Pinchy didn't match the face-melting spice of Nashville institution Prince's, but the crispy skin had enough capsaicin to make it interesting. Pinchy sat atop a thick slice of white bread that soaked up all of the excess spice. After Pinchy went for a swim in my stomach, I slathered the excess bacon butter on that spicy bread.

Then came the steak. After a bite, I realized I shouldn't have been so worried about the bacon fat as a cooking aid. The bone marrow butter made the ribeye even richer, but that wasn't necessary either. The additional flourishes added some depth, but the fine folks at Acre knew they didn't need to do much to enhance a thick, one-pound hunk of marbled meat that in most places would cost a lot more than the $32 Acre charges for it. I ordered it rare, and the chef wasn't afraid to actually cook it that way.

Even though the raw material was of such high quality that it didn't need bacon gimmickry to taste wonderful, I appreciated the staff at Acre working extra to make sure I got exactly what I wanted. That, more than any particular preparation, will ensure I return on my next trip to Auburn.

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