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Before Notre Dame received a commitment from stud linebacker Jaylon Smith in the class of 2013, tight ends coach Scott Booker already had started working on 2014 linebacker Raekwon McMillan in the heart of SEC country.
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Can you tell me why Notre Dame is even remotely considered a BCS/playoff factor? Granted, the Golden Domers were once a football juggernaut, but for the past 20 years or so they’ve been an also-ran. —tommybob8168, via e-mail
Notre Dame has its own television network. Notre Dame still has the broadest following in college football. Notre Dame would be welcomed by any conference it wanted to join. Are the movers and shakers of the top conferences—not to mention the TV executives who’ll be bidding massive amounts on rights to the playoff—really supposed to pretend the Irish don’t exist? (That’s the UK’s job.) (No, not the University of Kentucky!)
As to your point about ND’s on-field product, well, it’s kind of irrelevant. There have never been any stipulations against, say, Minnesota or Virginia or the UK competing on the sport’s biggest stage. (Yes, Kentucky.) Why in the world would anyone want to permanently keep the Irish out of the mix?
Michigan State Preview
When Notre Dame heads to East Lansing to face Michigan State for the third game of the 2012 football season two things will be certain: 1. Kirk Cousins will not be the Spartan quarterback and 2. Mark Dantonio will be the Spartan head coach.
After a record-setting career in East Lansing Cousins is gone to the NFL, while Dantonio is entering his sixth season at the helm in 2012. Dantonio has amassed a 44-22 record in his first five seasons, including back-to-back 11-win campaigns in 2010 and 2011.
Last year’s team fell to Wisconsin in the inaugural B1G Championship Game in Indianapolis and missed out on a BCS berth. They ended-up in the Outback Bowl where they defeated Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime.
I turned to longtime Michigan State beat reporter Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal for this look at the Spartans.
Quarterback: Replacing Kirk Cousins
The most glaring hole Dantonio and Michigan State have to fill is under center. Kirk Cousins is gone after four years of leaving his mark in the Spartan record books. Cousins is Michigan State’s career record holder in passing touchdowns (66), passing yards (9,131), completions (723), passing efficiency (146.1 rating), total offense (9,004 yards) and 200-yard passing games (26).
Cousins was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins and Andrew Maxwell is the guy who will replace him. All signs say the Spartans feel good about the junior to be who has seen action in just nine games in his first three seasons.
“I think they feel as good about a guy who really hasn’t played as you could feel. He’s had some action the last couple seasons as Cousins’ understudy,” Rexrode said of Maxwell. “He was a very highly thought of, highly ranked recruit coming out of Midland, Michigan. (He is) similar to Cousins in some ways. He’s your classic pro-style quarterback, although he’s got a little more athleticism, I think, than Cousins. He was a high jump champion in high school things like that. Maybe a little more arm, although Cousins certainly had a live arm.”
Maxwell totaled 294 yards and one touchdown on 29-of-54 pass attempts in 2010 and 2011 as Cousins’ backup. He did not see action as a freshman in 2009. While the physical tools at least seem to be there, the biggest question Rexrode sees for Maxwell is intangibles.
“Cousins was a three-time captain,” Rexrode said of the current Washington Redskin. “He really, especially in his junior and senior seasons, really owned that locker room and, I think, had a lot to do with how that team was able to win so many close games and have such great seasons. Andrew Maxwell is fine as a player, but can he come close to replacing Cousins as a locker room presence?”
The 6’3 Maxwell missed Michigan State’s spring game with a sprained knee, but Rexrode says he likely would have played or at least been a game time decision had it been a regular season game. If Maxwell were to miss time during the season Connor Cook would likely be the next player in line.
Cook stands 6’4 and redshirted this past season. With Maxwell out, Cook saw extensive duty during the spring game. He took snaps for both sides.
“They’re excited about Connor Cook, but Andrew Maxwell is going to be a fourth year junior,” Rexrode explained. “When you have that kind of experience and you’ve been in that room for that many years plus you’ve been sitting there watching how Kirk Cousins prepares and learning from him. I think he has a vast edge.”
Quarterback is such an important position in football, so it would be an easy assumption to make that Cousins’ loss would be MSU’s biggest offensive question heading into 2012. That is not the case in Rexrode’s eyes though. He says the bigger question than the guy throwing the passes is the guys who will be catching Maxwell’s passes next fall.
“I think they’re a bigger question mark than he is,” Rexrode began. “They lose B.J. Cunningham, they lose Keyshawn Martin and they lose Keith Nichol. Even though Nichol wasn’t a starter, he was a real solid player, he caught the ball and he was a solid blocker. The other two were outstanding players.”
Cunningham led the Spartans with 79 catches for 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns. Martin was MSU’s second-leading receiver with 66 grabs for 777 yards and four TDs.
The two players Rexrode thinks could be Michigan State’s top targets in 2012 have battled injuries recently. That starts with junior Benny Fowler, who Rexrode thinks could be the Spartans’ best receiver. Fowler two receptions and played in just five games last year. He has had surgeries on both feet.
“He’s a huge question mark,” Rexrode said of the 6’1 Fowler. “But if he is healthy and he can finally get past all that I think he’s a bona fide number one receiver in the Big Ten.”
The other target is 6’5 tight end Dion Simms, who played in all 14 games in 2011, but saw his receiving productivity drop after suffering a broken wrist. Simms had 12 receptions for 99 total yards.
“They really need tight end Dion Simms to be a star this year,” said Rexrode. “They have a lot of good athletes there (as receiving options), but really no one who has really proven himself on Saturdays.”
On the flip side, the strength of MSU’s offense should be its running game. The bruising Le’Veon Bell leads the rushing attack. The 6’2 240 pound back ran for a team-high 948 yards last year. His backfield mate Edwin Baker, who ran for 665 yards, is gone though. The two split time with eight and six starts, respectively, last year.
Whoever is carrying the ball will have plenty in front of them though. Rexrode sees the offensive line as the strength of the offense, if not the entire team.
“They should have the best running game they’ve had under Mark Dantonio, because they finally have the bulk of an offensive line returning,” Rexrode said. “Every year it seems they have seniors step-up as one-year starters, and now they’ve got four starters back (and) really six guys with starting experience back.”
The bulk of a solid Michigan State defense returns in 2012. Their biggest losses are in the trenches where tackle Jerel Worthy and nose tackle Kevin Pickelman (310 and 288 pounds, respectively) are gone. They do return Anthony Rashad White up front though, who was a big part of the D-line rotation in 2011.
“That to me is their biggest question,” Rexrode said of the losses in the defensive interior. “Can they find guys at tackle that can do the job?”
The Spartans’ defensive strength should be their cornerbacks with Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard back to start. The duo had three interceptions apiece in 2011 while also combining for 93 tackles. Adams was also active off the edge with four tackles for loss and three sacks.
With Adams and Dennard in coverage and Will Gholston and Marcus Rush playing defensive end, Rexrode sees big possibilities for the Spartans this fall.
“That’s really going to be the key to their defense,” Rexrode began. “Getting a front four pass rush without having to blitz and having cornerbacks that you can just leave out there on an island and feel ok about it. I think overall they’ve got a lot of experience back on defense and they should be really good on that side of the ball.”
Rexrode expects both Adams and Gholston to possibly be first round NFL Draft picks next year.
Juniors Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are back to lead MSU’s linebacking corps. Bullough led the Spartans with 89 tackles and two forced fumbles in the middle.
Allen was second in tackles with 83, while recording 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.0 sacks.
Dantonio’s entire coaching staff returns intact from last year’s campaign, but that nearly was not the case. Texas A&M and Tennessee both came after defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to take the same position with their programs.
“He also had a shot at the Akron head coaching job,” Rexrode said of the position that was filled by Terry Bowden after back-to-back 1-11 seasons under former Irish assistant Rob Ianello.
“I don’t expect him to be around a lot longer, but Michigan State gave him a raise. He went up from $233,000 to $500,000, and he also has a $250,000 buyout if he leaves for a coordinator job. Michigan State’s trying to make it so if he leaves it’s for a head coaching job. I mean, there are SEC schools out there now paying a million dollars for a coordinator’s job.”
Rexrode added that continuity in the coaching staff has been an “underrated” key to success during Dantonio’s five seasons at Michigan State.
True depth on a football team can be a problem at most places, but it has been even more so over the years at Michigan State. However, Rexrode believes that has changed in Dantonio’s tenure.
“In a lot of years they’ve had front-line players that can compete with the best teams on their schedule,” Rexrode examined. “But they get later in the season and the just don’t have the twos and threes that the Ohio States and Michigans have. I think that’s where they’re a lot better in most areas.”
The one spot where there could be an issue though is cornerback.
“They love their starters, but after that there’s a big drop off in experience and talent,” Rexrode stated. “They have some young guys they like a lot, but they’re very unproven, so that’s a concern.”
The other spot Rexrode thinks could lack depth, or at least legitimate early options, is defensive tackle.
“They have a lot of candidates, but how many actual guys they feel comfortable throwing out there on Saturdays is hard to tell right now.”
The overall depth that Rexrode says is in place now is completely different than when John L. Smith and Bobby Williams were running the show.
“Compared to Michigan State of five years ago it’s a drastic difference,” Rexrode said. “Dantonio has been able to recruit quality players. Not a ton of five star guys, but a lot of, you know three star guys that end-up being really good and then keeping them too and keeping guys enough to have some depth.”
Mister Motivated By Offer
As contact increased from various Midwestern schools, Tommy Mister had to sense his recruitment heating up, but the 2014 athlete from Oak Lawn, Ill., never imagined his first offer would come from Notre Dame.
“It caught me off guard completely,” said Mister, who plays quarterback for Richards High School. “It was the first time I’d heard from them. I was hearing from Illinois for a while and a lot of other schools. Notre Dame just came out of nowhere.”
The Irish extended the offer last week after Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin watched Mister in 7-on-7 action. Illinois followed up just days later with an offer as well.
“I’m excited,” Mister said of his first two offers.
He’s also receiving interest from most of the Big Ten, including Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern.
Mister’s followed Notre Dame a bit and one player in particular.
“I know there’s a lot of tradition,” he said. “I know everybody has seen Rudy. I know that the quarterback Everett Golson is somebody that could start this year. I like to base my style off of him. I like a lot of what he does.”
Mister discovered Golson during his own preparation to start at quarterback as a sophomore.
“I was younger, so I searched the internet for kids who started on varsity at quarterback as a sophomore to see what I had to do to be good,” he said. “I was going through a bunch of videos on Youtube and I saw his highlight tapes. I was like, ‘Dang, this dude is a beast.’”
He is hoping Golson earns the starting job, adding, “He can throw that rock.”
As for Mister, he could end up playing a number of positions, including wide receiver and safety in college. The offer from the Irish is as an athlete right now, although that could change.
“I’ve played various positions throughout my entire life,” he said. “I’m ok with whatever. I just want to help the team out.”
But Mister also admits that he wants to play quarterback in college.
“I was excited they offered me, but I was like, ‘I’m going to prove to you guys that I can play quarterback just as well as everything else I can do on the field,’” he said.
Mister will have the opportunity to do just that when he heads to Irish’s camp on June 22nd. In addition to working out, Mister is also looking forward to using the trip to learn more about Notre Dame.
“I just want to meet the coaching staff, see the campus and facilities and just ask a bunch of questions to get to know everyone,” he said.
Mister, who competed at the NFTC in Champaign, Ill., this past weekend, will visit Illinois this coming weekend.
He's already identified a few factors that will play roles in his decision.
“The system, is it an ok fit, do I see myself playing there and helping the team out a lot,” he said. “My family, am I still going to be able to have contact with my family. Academics, if football doesn’t carry me to where I want to go, am I still going to have an education to fall back on. I don’t want to do nothing.
“I don’t want to have to rely on football completely.”
Morgan Comments On ND Offer
When Chuck Martin made a stop at Crete-Monee High School in Crete, Ill., last week, the Notre Dame offensive coordinator wasn’t there just to check on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who is one of the Irish’s top targets in 2013.
Martin was also there for 2014 linebacker Nyles Morgan.
Morgan had picked up his first offer a week earlier, from Illinois, and by the time he got on the phone with Martin following the Notre Dame assistant’s visit to the school, he had one from the Irish.
“I was very excited and joyful,” said Morgan.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Morgan is also receiving interest from schools like Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State and other Big Ten heavyweights. Oregon, Boise State and Oklahoma State are among another schools that have expressed interest.
Morgan knows a little bit about Notre Dame to this point.
“I know they have a very good defense and are exciting to watch,” he said.
Martin made it clear that the Irish are hoping he’d like to join the group.
“They think I would be a great addition to the team and defense,” said Morgan.
At this point, it’s still early in Morgan’s process, but he is looking to get to South Bend for more information soon.
“I plan to visit sometime in June,” he said.
He’s already visited both Michigan and Illinois.
Morgan was an honorable mention selection to the 2011 Illinois All-Area Football squad.
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