Flozell Adams remembers the gleam in his mother's eyes. After
nearly every game last season, Rachel Adams would greet her son
in the tunnel outside the Spartans' locker room. "Good game,"
she would say. "You're the best, Flo." She was proud not only of
Flozell's football prowess but also of his dogged pursuit of a
criminal justice degree.
Adams, a senior offensive tackle, had promised his mother he
would graduate from college. His resolve only grew stronger
after he received a phone call last January. He was told to come
home to Chicago immediately; his mother was in the hospital
again. Rachel had been battling breast cancer for more than five
years, and now her chemotherapy was failing. When Flozell saw
his mother, he reiterated his vow--he would return to school for
a fifth year and not enter the NFL draft, in which he might have
been a first-round pick. A few days later Rachel Adams died.
"She kept her illness from me for years," says Adams, who
learned about his mother's cancer in December 1995. "I wish she
would have told me sooner because I could have taken care of
her, but she wanted me to graduate. I can still hear her voice.
She'd say, 'You made a good decision, Flo, when you chose to
stay in school.'"
Adams's decision sat well with Michigan State, too. The 6'7",
330-pound tackle, nicknamed the Hotel, headlines a group of 17
returning starters for the Spartans, including much of a unit
that in 1996 averaged 399.6 yards per game in total offense,
second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State.
But for all its offensive potency, Michigan State finished 6-6
and was blown out 38-0 by Stanford in the Sun Bowl. The Spartans
beat many of the teams they were favored to beat, but mental
lapses cost them chances to upset Michigan, Iowa and Penn State.
Of the three-point loss to the Nittany Lions, coach Nick Saban
says, "We lost in the last two minutes because we didn't feel we
should win. That's been the story with this team. We've been
young, but we've certainly been talented."
Perhaps the most talented is sophomore tailback Sedrick Irvin, a
cousin of Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin. Last fall he
scored a team-high 18 touchdowns and became the first freshman
in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards. The passing
game was also effective at times--i.e., when quarterback Todd
Schultz (1,693 yards, seven TDs) was healthy; he sat out three
games after injuring his left knee against Nebraska in
September. A senior, Schultz had arthroscopic surgery during the
off-season and is expected to be ready for the Sept. 6 opener
against Western Michigan.
On defense the Spartans welcome back the core of a unit that
held five opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. The unit is
built around 6'3", 220-pound outside linebacker Ike Reese, a
four-year starter. Michigan State also has the good fortune to
face Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State at home. If the
Spartans win those games, they should take their first Big Ten
title since 1990.
"We have the talent to win the league; our problem has been
self-imposed limitations," Saban says of a team that ranked last
in the Big Ten in takeaways with 16. "You need the mental
toughness to go along with your ability. We haven't had that."
18 Touchdowns scored in '96 by freshman Sedrick Irvin, who led
the Big 10 in scoring with 108 points (9.82 points per game).
TWO GAMES TO WATCH
OCT. 25 VS. MICHIGAN Home-field advantage is powerful in this
intense rivalry; hosts have won the last five meetings.
NOV. 29 VS. PENN STATE The Spartans can't afford to squander
opportunities as they did in last year's 32-29 loss.
Passing Todd Schultz Sr. 130 comp., 209 att.,
1,693 yds., 7 TDs
Rushing Sedrick Irvin Soph. 1,067 yds., 16 TDs
Receiving Irvin 40 catches, 337 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles LB Ike Reese Sr. 115
Interceptions FS Sorie Kanu Jr. 3