As spring football season draws to a close across the country, BlueandGold.com will be providing a breakdown of how things wrapped up for each of Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents courtesy of the reporters that cover them on a regular basis.
Cornerback Johnny Adams (5) and defensive end William Gholston (2) lead a talented Michigan State defense.
Sept. 15, 2012 — 8 p.m. EST
Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
Head coach:Mark Dantonio (44-21 record entering his sixth full season)
2011 record: 11-3
Overview: Dantonio and his staff have been together for nearly a decade and are starting to get very comfortable in East Lansing after back-to-back 11 win seasons. Expectations for the Spartans this year are as high as they have been in a decade, according to Dan Kilbridge of 247Sports.
Michigan State brings back eight starters and some key role players from the sixth best defense in the country last fall. They have at least two future high NFL Draft picks in defensive end William Gholston and cornerback Johnny Adams. They lose a pair of tough interior linemen, but should have a strong enough group behind them to be one of the top units in the Big Ten against next season.
“They’re as high as they’ve been in a long time across the board in this program. I think they’re counting on that defense to get them back in the title game,” Kilbridge said.
The defense will need to carry an offensive group that loses almost all of its core contributors from a season ago. Junior Andrew Maxwell has to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, who graduated after setting a handful of career passing records at Michigan State. Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, who was usually good for 100 yards and double digit catches against the Irish, is also one of the program’s all-time record holders. He was drafted along with fellow receiver Keshawn Martin and running back Edwin Baker. Wide receiver Keith Nichol signed with an NFL team as a free agent.
The Spartans have realistic sights set on a trip to the Rose Bowl this year and talk of a national title shot started during the spring. While that still may be a stretch, it didn’t draw the type of laughs it would have when Dantonio took over six years ago.
Biggest Strength After Spring: Linebackers
Michigan State’s trio of starting linebackers combined for nearly 240 tackles last season and all three return this year. Senior Chris Norman has 37 games under his belt heading into the season. His partner at outside linebacker, junior Denicos Allen, led the team with 11 sacks last year. Junior Max Bullough runs the defense from his spot in the middle with the make-up and intelligence of a future pro.
“He’s big, fast and smart, and he’s got a great command of the defense,” Kilbridge said.
Kibridge also said redshirt freshman Darien Harris was one of the bright spots during spring ball this year. Harris has the potential to get on the field in third-and-long packages this year and won’t be much of a drop off if one of the starters gets injured.
Biggest Question Mark After Spring: Wide Receivers
The skill positions in general leave a lot of questions about where the playmakers will come from next season, but no group took a bigger hit on the depth chart than the pass catchers. Junior Ben Fowler has the most experience with 16 receptions in his first two seasons, but he’s had injury problems to deal with in the past year.
“They have a lot of guys that are showing potential, but they don’t even have, right now, one receiver who has proved himself as a legitimate threat,” Kilbridge said. “They will bring in a few good-looking freshman but you never know what you’re going to get with these guys.”
With a new quarterback to break in as well, the Spartans will need to develop at least one threat in the passing game if they want to fulfill their goal of a conference championship.
Biggest Surprise of the Spring: WR Andre Sims, Jr.
One contender for that role is Sims. The redshirt freshman emerged this spring as someone who needs to get the ball in his hands. At 5-foot-9, 190 pounds the Georgia import will need to prove his durability, but he has the speed to become a top target quickly in the Michigan State offense.
The Spartan coaches divide their team for the spring scrimmage with a full draft the week before the game. Sims surprised a lot of people when he was selected as the first receiver off the board.
“He’s shown himself as someone who can be a threat in the slot and someone they can rely on,” Kilbridge said.
Summer Storyline: Finding a new leader
The loss of Cousins is a bigger hit to Michigan State’s locker room than it is to the offense. Cousins was a three-year captain who typically went above and beyond as a team leader. Maxwell had plenty of time to learn under Cousins, but it remains to be seen what kind of leadership role he can take as the team’s new quarterback.
On offense, the Spartans will also look to junior running back Le’Veon Bell who cemented his spot as the team’s workhorse last season. Senior Larry Caper, who started as a running back his freshman season, also has the experience on and off the field to help replace Cousins’ leadership. Filling that gap may be as important as any if Michigan State is to get off to a strong start in September. They open the year with Boise State before welcoming Notre Dame two weeks later.