Kevin Thomas Gives Us Part One of His MSU Football 2008 Preview

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SPARTAN FOOTBALL UNIT PREVIEW:Â Offense

Every fall I get questioned on the outlook of the Spartan football team and some already want to know how this year will shake out in terms of strengths and weaknesses. So here we go…

Quarterback:

At QB, Brian Hoyer is probably the most underrated QB in the country. He possesses a stronger arm than former MSU QB Drew Stanton. He had a great first year outside of the Champs Bowl. He shifted smoothly from the spread offense to a run-oriented attack. Brian is a guy that learns from his mistakes. Hoyer is often criticized, but on many occasions last season, it wasn’t warranted.

At times receivers didn’t get separation from defenders, or the scheme was poorly designed for the situation. Depth is thin here—Kirk Cousins will have to continue to improve. Nick Foles and his John Elway like arm have left the program, Connor Dixon transferred, and the green and white must wait for future additions Keith Nichol and Andrew Maxwell. Cousins isn’t the most athletic QB around, but he is smart and was recruited by Colorado and a host of mid majors. I like Cousins, but he threw a lot of interceptions in high school his senior year (10). He will be put in a passing scheme that can produce interceptions, especially in the red zone. Don’t automatically assume Nichol is the penciled in lock at QB for the 2009 season. Andrew Maxwell is among the top performers at the Elite 11 camp and can make all the throws and knows where to go with the football. Actually, there should be plenty of playing time for both in today’s physical game. Nichol, as touted as he is, doesn’t have the strongest arm in the land, but brings the running dimension that you need at the collegiate level. He is known for having a high completion to interception ratio and the kid is just a winner. The Spartans are excited to have him.

Bottom Line: Okay, back to this year. Since Hoyer has a year under his belt, and Cousins doesn’t have Foles looking over his shoulder, I’ll rate this group as slightly ahead of last year, but one injury changes everything since everyone else is unavailable. Hoyer plays well when he doesn’t try to do too much, and had a great first year in a new system, passing for 2725 yards, with 20 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. That’s not a bad TD to INT ratio, but could be better considering how proficient the running game was last year and he’ll need to be a little better. Hoyer rated himself as a “6 or 7” last year and I think he was a little hard on himself. I would rate him between a 8.5 and a 9, and he will continue to get better. Cousins is a pre-med major and was the valedictorian of his high school class. He also has a strong arm, a quick release and is very accurate. In fact, Dantonio says he makes great reads and his eyes never give away where he is going with the ball. He held his own in the spring and should get better.

Running Backs:

At running back, Javon Ringer will be called on to carry the load for the Spartans as Jehuu Caulcrick has now departed. Ringer, when healthy, has been money for the Spartans and delivers when there is a crease. Ringer is unique combination of game breaking speed, power and determination. He will not hesitate to reverse the field when defenses have him hemmed in. The question is, who will step up for the departed Caulcrick in short-yardage situations? It looks like Dantonio is looking for someone from the remaining committee of three to emerge. Ashton Leggett might get the nod if he can hold onto the football. Leggett fumbled four times during the spring; his progress was slowed by a broken wrist last year. He did rep with the ones and twos during bowl prep after spending time on the scout team. Dantonio hoped this extra practice would get Leggett ready. He does have decent speed for a guy 232-pounds (4.6) and scored 31 touchdowns his senior year in high school. He disappeared in his high school championship game and he still doesn’t have Caulcrick’s 4.5 speed. There is a difference between forty times and football speed. Leggett will get a chance. AJ Jimmerson can do a good job and is dangerous as a pass receiver, but has to do a better job blocking. He should get the first crack off the bench to spell Ringer. He has done some good things in previous springs, but needs to pick it up now. Andre Anderson has lighting speed and is strong and explosive, but will have to prove he can break tackles. He is durable enough to carry the rock many times during a game, but again, has to prove he doesn’t have “Aaron Roberts Syndrome.” Old time Spartans may remember Roberts—one of the highest touted backs to come to MSU, who once in the open field was exciting, but was plagued by not being able to break tackles and get in the secondary. Hopefully, Anderson’s career is different. Anderson did have a 97-yard touchdown run in the spring, but finished that scrimmage with 98-yards total on fourteen carries. He got just one yard with the other 13 carries. He has to be more consistent and avoid dancing when he hits the hole. Andrew Hawken and Jeff McPherson should be fine at the fullbacks They will have help from converted LB Josh Rouse. It’s possible Hawkin could also be the short yardage back in goal line situations. Depth will be provided by true freshmen speedsters Glenn Winston and Caulton Ray. Winston does have the speed (4.4), power, and the size of a Caulcrick, but time will tell if he is anywhere close to being that type of player. There is a lot of speculation that he will change positions. Dantonio likes Winston’s toughness. Ray is small, powerful and fast (4.34). He impressed MSU coaches with his versatility to play corner and defensive back as well as running back in summer camp. He has good balance and change of direction. Like Ringer, he is a karate champion as well. Caulton and Javon will have a lot to talk about.

Bottom Line: Ringer can’t carry the load by himself and will need help. Anderson should produce some exciting plays but consistency may be an issue. Jimmerson is finally getting his time to shine, but will he take advantage of it? Leggett and Winston have potential but are unproven. Until somebody replaces the underrated Caulcrick, I’ll rate this group as slightly under last years group. By the way, I do expect Ringer to have extra motivation after being snubbed by the conference as its preseason player of the year on offense and he may get some extra carries. Eventually I believe someone will step up and help Ringer and it will be exciting to see who that player may be.

Wide Receivers:

At wide receiver the Spartans lose Devin Thomas and they will miss his explosiveness. Losing guys like Thomas, Kerry Reed, Terry Love and others the past few years may take its toll if guys don’t step up this year. Right now the starters penciled in are Mark Dell and Deon Curry. Dell had a big touchdown catch against Notre Dame, but didn’t progress as much as people hoped despite his twenty catches. He needs to be more consistent with is hands. Deon Curry is a possession receiver, nothing more, nothing less. Blair White is making the most of his limited talent. David Williams was an explosive kick returner in high school, but has yet to produce. Carl Grimes has yet to live up to the hype he garnered in high school after spurning Florida State for the Spartans he is coming off his best spring. All these guys have the potential to step forward and the Spartans haven’t given up on them. Much is expected from BJ Cunningham. Many felt BJ could have played last year. He received lots of quality reps during bowl prep and this spring. Cunningham can make tough catches in traffic, but may not be as explosive as the Spartans need. Chris D. Rucker (#16) is coming off a redshirt year and showed promise this spring. Chris L. Rucker (#29) saw plenty of action last year for the Spartans. He shared reps this spring as both a DB and a wide receiver to give this position some added strength. He will likely see majority of his plays on defense, but may see some action with the offense this fall if he is needed. Highly touted freshman Fred Smith will be counted on for immediate impact. Smith is big, fast, strong, and physical,. Dantonio spoke highly of his great hands. Keyshawn Martin and Myles White are true freshmen who will probably redshirt. Martin drew the eye of Ron Zook at Illinois at the end of the recruiting process. Martin has 4.38 speed, but will need to adjust to the wideout position after spending most of his time as a prep QB. Martin is versatile in that he can play many positions. White is an explosive track hurdler that has great hands and speed, but will need to get bigger and stronger. He developed his skills as a punt returner in the Spartans summer camp which caught the coaches eyes. He catches the ball in traffic and runs great routes.

Bottom Line: My feeling is that either Cunningham, Rucker, or Smith need to step up big to replace Thomas or this group may not be as good as last year. Replacing Thomas could be a bigger chore than people realize despite having more depth and experience than last year. So I’ll rate this group a notch below last year until someone comes through. So we’ll have to see who will step up. Chris D. Rucker (#16) was the 100-meter champion in the state of Michigan in 2007. I believe it was a good move by Dantonio to get some more speed and big play ability in the receiver group. The enigma is Grimes, who was very vocal in the spring, but he is running out of time to salvage his career. He needs to step up. The veterans at this position are young. Veteran Ryan Allison was moved from receiver to LB in the spring and he was really the only upper classman outside of Curry to handle the football at this position for MSU. BJ has to step up and Mr. Smith needs to be ready.

Tight End:

The Spartans lost Kellen Davis. I honestly don’t think this is as big a loss as some may think. Davis made some big plays on offense and defense, but also hurt his team with questionable plays and penalties. This position has lost some depth as Eric Andino has graduated and Dwayne Holmes has moved back to defense. This leaves Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek to lead the way. Celek has great ball skills, 4.6 speed, a 34” vertical jump, and has broad jumped 9’10”. (10 feet is the standard for DB’s at an NFL combine). In fact, Jim Tressel told Dantonio that Celek was the best football player at their (OSU) camp. David Duran is considered a tough, solid blocker as well and is still working on his receiving skills. Michael Jordan was added to this group in the spring to add some size and power. Jordan failed to impress so he was moved back to defense for the fall. Chris McDonald will start as a TE, but can play on the defensive line or offensive line and is a track athlete. He was an exceptional 400 meter track athlete and could be asked to put his speed and athleticism on display right away.

Bottom Line: Even with the losses of some talented players, I expect this group to block a little better than last year despite their youth. Someone will have to come up and make plays in the passing game. With the blocking better and the receiving still questionable, I’ll rate this group even to last year. They will have to find some to replace Davis in the receiving department, who caught 32 passes for 532 yards and six touchdowns. They should be able to do that, although the production may not come from just one player.

Offensive Line:

The offensive line loses four guys as that all started at points in their careers. Pete Clifford covered Hoyer’s blind side while Mike Gyetvai was counted on to fill in at either guard or tackle. Big Kenny Shane and Center John Masters graduated. All is not lost here, Joel Nitchman is actually an upgrade over Masters at center. Remember, he was the starter when he was healthy. Jesse Miller is solid at right tackle, and if Roland Martin can overcome injuries and be more consistent, he should solidify the right guard spot, giving the offensive line a solid core with three dependable players. Martin is flexible enough to play both guard spots if shuffling needs to be done. Rocco Cironi will be taking over at the all important left tackle spot and protecting Hoyer’s blindside. Cironi has a rep as a solid pass blocker and being sound fundamentally which should help. Athletic Brendan Moss is slated to back-up Cironi heading into fall camp. He is also versatile enough to play guard. In fact, last year he backed up Shane at guard and is ready to go. Starting at left guard heading into fall camp is Joel Foreman, with help coming from Jared McGaha. Jared is a solid pass blocker and has great feet. Dantonio found McGaha ironically, when visiting OSU’s summer camp. Both these guys had big springs and are really coming on. Some thought Moss might start at a guard spot before the emergence of Foreman Foreman was the MVP of his high school conference as offensive lineman. That should tell you something about the respect that Foreman has from opposing coaches and players. Behind Nitchman at center is Mike Bacon. Patrick Rigan is battling injuries to get back on the field as a back up center but his future is up in the air. Behind Martin at right guard is John Stipek, and behind Miller at right tackle will be Mike Schmeding. So this gives the Spartans some depth and most of these guys have the versatility to play other positions. One true freshman that might have the ability to break into the depth chart is highly touted true freshman Ethan Ruhland, who could play any of the five front positions including center. He will likely start out at guard. MSU has recruited well here, John Deyo, huge Zach Hueter, and powerful Anthony Woods are true freshmen that bring athleticism to the O-line in that most of these guys are exceptional basketball players and have good feet.

Bottom Line: Normally losing four starters along the offensive line would spell trouble, but MSU has enough coming back and enough solid reserves to form a solid tandem as they gel. However, since they have lost four starters, I’ll call this unit equal to last years to begin with despite the lack of starting experience and the abundance of youth on hand. I think Foreman, McGaha, and even Ruhland may surprise.