Before Moving to the Fall, Here is a Complete Spartan Spring Football Recap to Get You Ready!

Hondo S. Carpenter

It is critical to know what was learned in the spring, so you are ready for the start of fall camp.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.
It is critical to know what was learned in the spring, so you are ready for the start of fall camp. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

 

The Spartans came into the spring with several questions. At the conclusion of the spring game, I asked Mark Dantonio if he got the answers that what he was looking for. “Yeah, I think we did get it. The number one thing that I wanted to make sure we do is build team chemistry and allow our leaders to take over this football team and I think first of all we got that. We have a good feel for each other. Our leaders are stepping forward and they’re not just sitting there, they’re active. And that’s the first thing.”

 

In Mark Dantonio’s first two seasons, this team had good chemistry. In year one, I would call it great. In year two, it was good. Last year, it struggled. I agree with his assessment that this group needed to come together and this spring was a culmination of what started after the Alamo Bowl.

 

The offensive line still has questions, especially at right tackle, but is already much better than they were last season. This unit simply has the depth to finally compete. Super sophomore (junior in the fall of ’10) and anchor of the OL Joel Foreman told Spartan Nation exclusively, “We now get together and have cook outs and are just around each other. We really are a family and when you have to work next to each other like we do and you’re close as a unit, that is a big deal.” 

 

You can’t discount the chemistry angle on a team. Whether it is players gathering to watch extra film on their own, going to teammates’ houses for cookouts, or any other of the numerous activities that build chemistry. Those are the things coaches can’t create. It has to come naturally. I think the departure of some players helped the process. The maturity of others certainly created an environment conducive to team building. It showed throughout the spring.

 

So let’s talk about each side of the ball as we recap the spring.

 

Offense

Don Treadwell performed at the highest level of any of Mark Dantonio’s assistants in 2009. He had a tattered OL, question marks at almost every position, and yet his offense shined in 2009. 

 

Coming into the spring, the biggest question was again the offensive line. John Stipek has been the offensive line’s biggest surprise. He has made an amazing transformation. He lost 26 pounds and became an athletic center that dominated at times. Stipek told Spartan Nation, “I wanted to increase my mobility and endurance.”

 

He single-handedly had the best spring it drew the appropriate praise from his head coach. When I asked Coach Dantonio about Stipek, he had this to say, “John Stipek, I think, is one of the most improved football players in the three years I’ve been here that maybe I’ve coached or been around as a coach. …He’s changed his body, he’s changed his whole mindset and how he plays this game, and the guy has leadership skills and he knows exactly what to do and he does it at a high rate of speed and he should be a very good player for us.”

 

Stipek’s rise isn’t a slam on red shirt freshman Nate Klatt who will be a star. In fact Klatt had a very good spring. It is a testimony to the work ethic and commitment of Stipek.

 

How far has the chemistry of the OL come along? OG Chris MAGNUS McDonald told Spartan Nation in an exclusive interview, “We can now constructively criticize each other and point out mistakes. The coaches don’t have to and we don’t get mad. We really are all working together and pushing one another.”

 

We have talked about team chemistry throughout this story. The running backs have really embraced the team-first approach. Coach Brad Salem was added to the staff this off-season as the running back coach. His impact as an on the field teacher has been phenomenal, but it also can be felt in other areas. 

 

Larry Caper and Edwin Baker are both super young men. There was never any dislike or animosity, but Salem has really created an atmosphere for those two to become close. They’re coming together not just as RBs, but also as friends. Both of them have stepped up and helped true freshman early enrollees Nick Hill and LeVeon Bell in ways that they weren’t helped. 

 

Coach Salem had an immediate impact on this football team and was truly a great hire by Dantonio. He is not only a gifted teacher, but he also is a maestro in how he handles his backs. This fall the fans will instantly notice an upgrade at the already great RB position and ALL of the credit goes to Salem. 

 

We pointed out in the January Spartan Nation Magazine about how some of these young backs missed reads and made mistakes in 2009. Some of that was to be expected, some was that they weren’t properly prepared in my opinion. They are being taught and coached at a higher level now by Salem and that will pay immediate dividends come fall.

 

The TEs remain perhaps the deepest position on the Spartan team. They weren’t all active the entire spring due to some injuries. Come fall, I expect Kirk Cousins will have a full quiver of great blockers and pass catchers.  When you combine a more athletic offensive front with a more experienced backfield and the collection of TEs on the roster, 2010’s offense should be better after being outstanding in 2009.

 

That takes us to the WR spot. Keith Nichol is cemented as the number one WR along with Keshawn Martin. Nichol’s emergence at the position gives MSU another devastating blocker in the open field in addition to a playmaker with the ball in his hands. B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell will certainly get reps and there are several others lining up to get into the rotation. The issue for Don Treadwell and his offense in 2010 is going to be finding even more ways to use the weapons they have while still only playing with one football.

 

If the Spartan defense can be any better (and I think they will be) simply getting the ball into the hands of Cousins and his offense will equal points. They will score, it will be up to the defense to stop opponents and get them the ball back.

 

Finally, in talking about the offense you have to talk about Kirk Cousins. He is dedicated and committed. He spent his spring break not playing like most college kids, but working hard, and was a force in winter workouts and conditioning. Not only is he physically bigger when you see him, he is much more comfortable. I spoke about Kirk in January’s “What Went Wrong in 2009” article about the struggles that Kirk went through. In 2010 he has emerged unequivocally as the leader of this team.

 

I asked QB coach Dave Warner about Kirk’s emergence and he provided me a little more insight, “Now he is established in the leadership role. He feels more confident and is not afraid to step on some toes and lead this team.”

 

I asked Kirk specifically about Warner’s comments, he told me this about his leadership. “When you go on the field and prove yourself you earn authority.”

 

Finally on Cousins, Mark Dantonio added this comment about the growth of his junior signal caller, “I always point to Kirk Cousins because he was elected as a captain before he had ever been elected as a starting quarterback here. I think that is a tough situation to be in as well as a sophomore. Once you establish yourself as a player on the field, it is much easier to lead.  So he’s now got that experience as a player on the field.”

 

Defense

The defense was the biggest disappointment in 2009. Coming into the spring, it had the most questions that required immediate answers. In Mark Dantonio’s first two seasons, Pat Narduzzi had done a great job. He didn’t all of a sudden forget how to coach in 2009. Last year they preserved future eligibility and depth with red-shirts. That lack of depth and talent really hurt the defense last fall. Now, Narduzzi has talent to work with, but his youthful roster has to grow up quickly.

 

The linebackers are very deep. Greg Jones has had plenty said about him so nothing more is necessary. The other two MIKE (middle) linebackers are Steve Gardiner and Max Bullough. Both of them had great springs. 

 

Spartan Nation has continually reminded you about Gardiner. This talented young man from Ohio struggled his first two years with injuries, but played superb this spring and had a great spring game.

 

I asked Dantonio about Gardiner’s spring and he said, “Steve Gardiner is a guy who last year as a red-shirt freshman was hampered a lot by injuries. But he can play a couple of different positions out there for us, the SAM and the MIKE position, and again I think he had a great spring. He stayed healthy. He’s up to 225 pounds and these guys are going to be a presence on our football team now.”

 

Max Bullough has gotten a lot of accolades since he pledged his commitment to Mark Dantonio. He has done nothing to disappoint the Spartan staff. If I sound like member of the Max Bullough ‘fan-club’ than sign me up. After watching Max throughout the spring, I may have actually undersold his impact on this football team. His presence was felt all over the field. Coaches and players alike could hardly let a question go without mentioning this true freshman. He is a smart player and a freak athlete on the field. Greg Jones praised his young teammate and pupil by saying, “He is in the film room and doing all of those extra things that it takes to be great.” How good was Bullough since his arrival in January? In the draft for the spring game Greg Jones insisted his team pick Bullough. His backup.

 

Coach Dantonio notices Max’s efforts. When I asked him about his early enrollee he said, “Max, again, is another guy who should be going to his prom that comes in and spends a lot of time watching football and is becoming more instinctive. When it comes to him the better he’s going to play because the faster he’s going to play but he’s a very aggressive football player that diagnoses very well for a young player and a big physical guy.” 

 

As good as the three MIKE backers are, don’t forget that there is a lot more at the SAM and the WILL. Denicos Allen made a lot of plays this spring. Mark Dantonio is making an all out push to get his best players on the field and with Allen having played safety before, could he get some reps in the defensive backfield? Allen, Chris Norman, and Jeremy Gainer will all compete for playing time in the fall and all are talented enough to play. 

 

Two names not mentioned much are Eric Gordon and Jon Misch. Gordon is underrated because he does things right and is quiet. His presence and leadership are great. He doesn’t blitz much, so he doesn’t get the attention that comes with big sacks. Greg Jones is deserving of the attention he receives, but Gordon’s consistent play is not to be overlooked. Gordon does well in pass coverage and is a true pied piper of the younger linebackers. He leads by example. I have no hesitation saying that Eric Gordon is the most underrated player in this football team.

 

Finally if you talk linebackers you have to mention Jon “the Missile” Misch. Misch has a blue-collar work ethic that will almost certainly land him a coaching job in the future. He is not the most physically talented player on this team. With all of the young linebacker talent he probably won’t start. When he gets on the field, he contributes. His commitment to going all out in practice makes this team better.  He and all of his linebacker teammates have the Spartans sitting at the top of the Big Ten for talent level at their position and remember Misch. He is going to make plays and his presence makes this a better team.

 

As loaded as the LBs are, the DL is almost as stocked. Returning freshman All-American Jerel Worthy and Blake Treadwell both enter the fall as sophomores and perhaps the most talented (and youthful) DT tandem. Red-shirt freshman Micajah Reynolds made the switch to the DL this spring. He is learning the nuances of the position and is starting to put it together.

 

After Treadwell and Worthy, the amazing thing is that there isn’t a drop off from there. Kevin Pickelman and Dan France will both be high impact players in 2010. France was a star at the spring game and was all over the field. Even plays where he didn’t make the tackle, he was able to make an impact. The multiple holding penalties he drew in the spring game tells you just how difficult he is to control. Do not confuse his last name with the county. Unlike the French who would surrender to a 96-year old, overweight, bald security guard at the Piggly Wiggly. France is an attacker who has a motor that doesn’t quit and a work ethic that is only outdone by the character of the young man’s heart.

 

Coach Dantonio was well aware of France’s play and said, “Dan is a red-shirt freshman and he came here as a guy who played outside backer in high school. So he came here at 240 then 260 then 280, he’s 303, 305 right now. He’s very active. He’s an extremely hard worker, reminds me a lot of Tim Anderson who was with us as Ohio State when I was there. Just a tough guy, continues to get better and better and better. He’ll be a red-shirt freshman next year so he has a very, very promising future.” 

 

Pickelman faced injury issues this spring, but will be back for the fall. He is a tremendous talent that will allow Narduzzi lots of fresh bodies in the trenches. Pickelman is a star in the making. All across the interior DL you see high character and high motor young men that will be the most improved part of this team in 2009. 

 

Narduzzi can substitute these five athletic big men more like a hockey line. I think the DT/NT spot could be just as productive and talented as the LBs.

 

As far as the DEs position, Colin Neely sat out with injury issues this spring, but Tyler Hoover was a monster. Hoover has learned to play with a low pad level that is critical at the DE spot and almost impossible for such a tall 6’7” big man. He now plays instinctively and fast.

 

Hoover was an early enrollee that a lot of people had high hopes for, but is a classic example of needing time to develop prior to becoming a dominator. Hoover has all the tools to be a great defensive end. It is only a matter of time before he shows up on Saturday in the statistical column. He is going to emerge as a real threat this fall.

 

Jonathan Strayhorn and Denzel Drone along with Corey Freeman all have bright futures ahead for them. Strayhorn is heading into a red-shirt junior season.  With two years of eligibility left, he is the old man of the group. Freeman is a true sophomore and Drone a red-shirt freshman. Their youth and talent should put fear in opposing teams’ offensive tackles.

 

The defensive line from tackle to end will be the most talented of the Dantonio era and could be the most talented in many years. Youth will be served, but they are some very talented players. 

 

Dantonio addressed his DL and said, “There is a little bit of fallout because you don’t have your guys there (already mentioned injuries) others get better and that’s the positive you take out of this. I think that’s a good thing, you build depth, quality depth, and functional depth. And there’s a big difference between depth and players who can play functionally. A player who can play functionally can play the defenses and understands everything.  That’s what you get when you’re coaching those guys and you build it.”

 

As confident as I am in the defensive line and linebackers, I am concerned about the defensive backfield. There is an old adage in football that a great defensive line makes defensive backs look a lot better.

 

Last year, the Spartans couldn’t get a pass rush with four guys so they had to blitz. It is suicide to allow any QB to stand in the pocket with no pressure. The best DBs can’t defend for hours. They need each other. I think that the Spartans will be able to get pressure in 2010 from their front four. This will allow Narduzzi to blitz when he wants too; not always because he needs too.

 

That being said, our DBs should be much better for that reason alone. Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams anchor the corners. Chris L. Rucker had a disappointing 2009, but 2007 and 2008 were both good campaigns. If CLR can get to his performance level prior to 2009 he should be more than fine. He will be a ‘plus-player.’

 

Johnny Adams sat out 2009 with family issues that needed his attention. This young man is a playmaker. He is aggressive and small, but he is extremely talented. He has a nose for the ball and making plays. I said repeatedly that he wouldn’t have fixed the lack luster DB play in 2009, but he would have made them a lot better.

 

At the safety position the Spartans will have Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde. Both of them will play and play well. They both need to make reads and play disciplined as well as instinctual. If they do, they will be fine.

 

I can already hear the question that you, the readers, have. “If the four of them are good players why are you worried Hondo?” Thanks for asking. Four players don’t make a defensive backfield. There are a lot of players after those four, but there are a lot questions. Who will step up and create depth? Who will step up and possibly push some of those four for playing time? You can’t play a season with four DBs. This is big time football and injuries do happen.

 

Coach Dantonio, with the completion of the 2010 spring, is your defense better now than when the Alamo Bowl was played? “Yes, it is better than when we ended 09. I think we are more… experienced and we really only lose one linebacker and that’s Denson. We got a couple guys back that were young players who were playing. We’re going to certainly miss some of the guys that were in there, there’s no doubt about that. So I am not here to disrespect that but I think that the longer you’re in a system the better you become at that system, the more advanced you are able to become. You have an opportunity to set things right sometimes and that motivates you. So, we’re going to see as we move forward. I think we played the ball down the field pretty well for the most part throughout the spring and that’s a positive.” 

 

Those are questions we don’t have answers to. Will we get answers? I sure hope so, but as of now, coming out of the spring they are still questions.

 

Special Teams

The Spartans have, in my opinion, the best punter in the Big Ten in Aaron Bates and without a doubt the best long snapper in Alex Shackleton. Both of those young men excel at their area of expertise and neither should give any Spartan even a moment of concern. Both are truly talented football players.

 

Conroy and Muma are locked into a place kicking battle that will continue into fall camp. Coming out of the spring, neither stepped up and took command of the kicking job. They are close friends and both push one another. Neither was able to seize the position this spring and it has left the door open.

 

The good news is that incoming freshman Mike Sadler who was considered by many experts in the coaching community as the best P/K in the 2010 class is on his way. I have personally watched him kick the ball numerous times out of the end zone and I have also seen him kick three field goals of 60+ yards. Bates will make it certain he won’t be needed as a punter in 2010, but Conroy and Muma’s inability to take the job means he will get a shot in the fall.

 

Mark Dantonio addressed Sadler and his kicking talents by saying, “Mike Sadler comes in with the ability to do the same. Mike will compete for a position out there as well.”

 

Conclusion

After another solid spring, the offense emerges as the strength of the team. They will be better than they were last season. An improved running game this fall should help provide rest for a defense that still needs to get better. My optimism for an improved defense revolves simply around the fact that they certainly can’t get worse and although they are very young, they have a lot of talent. I think an influx of incoming freshman could lend some depth in the defensive backfield if no one currently on the second or third string steps up. Our DL and LB groups will be multi-talented and improved.

 

Our special teams will be very good when it comes to punting and long snapping, but kicker remains the one area of the team that keeps me up at night.

 

In conclusion, the 2010 Spartans now have the miserable three-month delay until fall camp, but this team will not struggle to get to six wins this season. They are better. Are they ready to win a Big Ten title? No. Are they closer than they have been in a long time? Without a doubt.

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