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July 14, 2009
THE SCHEME: Mark Dantonio has junked the fancy spread sets of John L. Smith and installed a power scheme that brings back memories of the days of George Perles. It's all about pounding foes, wearing them down and setting up play-action passes. Last season's attack revolved around RB Javon Ringer, who averaged more than 30 carries per game. Look for the coaches to open things up a bit this fall with their workhorse gone.
STAR POWER: There is no one who stands out with Ringer gone, but keep an eye on senior WR Blair White, an underrated athlete. He went from little-known walk-on to being a key contributor last season en route to catching a team-high 43 passes and earning honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors. White, who already has been accepted into dental school at the University of Detroit, looks primed to take that proverbial next step in an offense that likely will feature more passes than last season's ground-based attack.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With Brian Hoyer gone, who will be the quarterback? Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol are in a battle that won't be decided until fall camp. Each could play early in the season, with the most effective quarterback eventually earning the starting nod. Each is a good athlete, which is why the Spartans are toying with the idea of running some option. Nichol is the more ballyhooed of the tandem; he began his career at Oklahoma before transferring back to his home state. But Cousins' experience gives him a slight edge.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: With Ringer gone, coaches are listing four players as co-starters at running back. You have to figure someone will emerge as the main ball carrier. For now, there will be a committee approach in hopes of coming close to duplicating Ringer's numbers – 390 carries, 1,637 yards, 22 TDs. Ashton Leggett, Andre Anderson, Caulton Ray and A.J. Jimmerson are in the running to be the man.
STRONGEST AREA: WRs White, Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham must help the new quarterback get into a rhythm and block well for the running game. In addition, the dropped passes must stop. There are four serviceable tight ends, including good ones in Charlie Gantt and Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: For too long, the line has been a weak point. Dantonio slowly is changing that, but the unit still isn't a vintage Big Ten front. Three starters return, but there's a new right side that features G Jared McGaha and T J'Michael Deane trying to replace G Roland Martin and T Jesse Miller. Can the duo get the job done?
THE SCHEME: This is a disciplined 4-3 set that relies on technique and positioning. With eight starters back, look for the Spartans to implement some more complex coverages and blitzes in hopes of confusing foes.
STAR POWER: It's all about LB Greg Jones, who is one of the fastest players at the position in the conference. Jones is moving from strongside linebacker to the middle, so there could be a period of adjustment. He'll have to adapt to taking on blockers and playing in traffic. Expect him to excel.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Jerel Worthy is likely to start at tackle. He is a nice blend of size and speed. Worthy needs to be a disruptive force while also anchoring at the point of attack, helping muck up the running game of opponents.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Michigan State needs to generate a consistent pass rush. That's junior E Colin Neely's cue to step up. With Brandon Long gone, Neely will assume the slot opposite standout E Trevor Anderson. Neely needs to take advantage of the one-on-one blocking he's likely to receive and provide an up-field push.
STRONGEST AREA: SS Otis Wiley is gone, but the secondary still has talent. The cornerbacks have size and skill, and all three players competing for a starting spot at safety – Dan Fortener, Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde – have started, but redshirt freshman Trenton Robinson is a fast-riser who may be better than all of them. Bottom line: There will be two good safeties in a secondary that will be even better with a consistent pass rush.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Are there enough playmakers up front? Anderson is a star, as he racked up eight sacks last season. But he needs help. Too often last season, Michigan State had to blitz to get pressure.
There may not be a better kicker-punter tandem in the nation than K Brett Swenson and P Aaron Bates. Swenson nailed 22-of-28 field-goal attempts, including 6-for-7 from 40-49 yards. Bates averaged 42 yards per punt, with 15 covering more than 50 yards and 22 landing inside the 20. The search is on for return men, but there is no shortage of athletes to compete for the roles; Dell will get first crack at both jobs. The coverage units must improve.
Dantonio is a throwback coach who stresses discipline and accountability. The result: The Spartans rarely commit silly penalties, and mental breakdowns have been reduced. Michigan State has good coordinators in Pat Narduzzi (defense) and Don Treadwell (offense); each looks destined to be a head coach.
The first two games are must-win contests, and Sparty needs to be on upset alert in Game 2 when Central Michigan visits. After that comes a four-game set that will set the tone for the rest of the season: at Notre Dame, at Wisconsin, vs. Michigan, at Illinois. Splitting those four would have to be considered a success. There's a chance Michigan State could be favored in the rest of its games. Dropping Ohio State from the schedule is huge, but Indiana also is missing, which is bad.
It's time to start dreaming big in East Lansing. Dantonio has given Michigan State hope of better days by instilling a tough, disciplined style that has paid quick dividends by producing consecutive bowl appearances. That may not sound impressive, but before those back-to-back trips, Michigan State had not been to bowls in successive campaigns since a three-year run from 1995-97. Last fall, MSU was in contention for the Big Ten crown until late November and landed a New Year's Day trip to the Capital One Bowl. Paced by a strong defense, Michigan State may be a sleeper Big Ten title contender this fall. The key will be the offense rounding into form. And the Spartans need to begin playing better in big games. Last season, Michigan State lost to Penn State and Ohio State by a combined 69 points.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.