Perhaps Michigan State can breakthrough this season. For that to happen, Dantonio and his staff must answer some questions. None of them are glaring issues, but it will be key to see how the new quarterback and receiving corps develop. And the defense looks stacked with nine starters returning, but a big hole looms on the line and in the secondary.
I talked to three writers who cover Michigan State to get their views on what they think the Spartans need to work on this spring in anticipation of 2012. And you can find my previous roundtables over here.
Matt Charboneau, Detroit News (@mattcharboneau)
“The biggest question has to be Andrew Maxwell. Can he fill that void left by Kirk Cousins at quarterback? This fall will be the start of his fourth year in the system. The only issue is he hasn’t had a lot of reps, I think 26 pass attempts last year. He’s obviously not a proven guy, but he’s a guy they have a lot of confidence in. He’s a lot like Kirk Cousins, he has a strong arm and he seems like a good leader. That’s what the coaches say, and his teammates echo the same thing. For him, it’s just gonna be a matter of how quickly it all translates for him. Obviously, he knows the system. But as has admitted: When the bullets start flying, it’s a whole different kind of deal. It has been a totally different mind-set for him up to this point.
“People ask me if Michigan State can be better on defense. I say ‘yes.’ Even with Jerel Worthy gone. I think (safety) Trenton Robinson was in some ways a bigger part of the defense. How quickly does the new safety figure it out? Is it Kurtis Drummond? Is it a freshman like R.J. Williamson? But defensively, they have talent all over the field. I think they have the potential to be even better. You bring back nine starters. What makes me think they’ll be better is this is an area Mark Dantonio has recruited very well the last few years, especially up front on the line and in the linebacking corps. They had some good players redshirt last year who are fighting to get on the field. Just that talent and depth he has created up front is something Michigan State hasn’t seen in a long time.
“Also, keep an eye on the receivers. You lose three guys like (B.J.) Cunningham, (Keshawn) Martin and (Keith) Nichol, they worked so well with Kirk Cousins. The question now is, who takes that step? A true freshman? (Tennessee transfer) DeAnthony Arnett if he’s ruled eligible? Tony Lippett, who played on defense last year? There are plenty of guys who will have that chance to take over. They love Arnett and hope he can (get a waiver to play this season). The line will be solid and they are bringing back most of their running backs. They may run a lot early to give Maxwell and the receivers time to work together. I think the defense will give them time to grow as an offense.”
Joe Rexrode, Lansing State Journal (@joerexrode)
“Building a receiving corps has to be No. 1. Tight end is kind of the same. But at receiver, they have a lot of talent, but it’s just inexperienced. At tight end, they have Dion Sims and a bunch of walk-ons. Sims needs some backups. They have two freshman tight ends coming in who they like a lot and maybe one will have a chance to play right away. They also have to get Andrew Maxwell ready. Just the whole passing game is being completely overhauled.
“They need to develop someone at defensive tackle. They have Anthony Rashad White. They lose Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman, who people don’t talk much about but he was really good last year. Tyler Hoover is in there now and a bunch of redshirt freshmen. Anthony Rashad White lost a starting spot to Pickelman and will take Worthy’s spot. They had a good three-man rotation. He was really good in the bowl game. He is their anchor is he’s healthy and in shape. He could be a pro. Hoover at three technique. (Micajah) Reynolds is in there. He is promising. Damon Knox they like, too.
“Safety is another spot to watch with Trenton Robinson’s spot to fill. Kurtis Drummond is the leader. He has a year on R.J. Williamson. Drummond was a nickel back last year. He has a nose the ball. But Williamson may be a little more talented. They are super excited about Demetrius Cox kid from Terrelle Pryor’s school. Isaiah Lewis is really good, a future pro.”
Jim Comparoni, Spartan Magazine & SpartanMag.com (@JimComparoni)
“They have to get Andrew Maxwell as ready as they can without benefit of playing a live game. He’s a fourth-year junior, so that’s how you want to bring a backup quarterback along. Now it’s his show with Kirk Cousins gone. All indications are he’s doing well. He has some calmness that the coaches like. And they like his physical tools, too.
“Defensive tackle is an area to watch with Jerel Worthy gone. They need a 3-technique tackle. Tyler Hoover has moved in from end to tackle. He started two years ago and redshirted last year with an injury. I don’t think anyone expects him to be Jerel Worthy, but if he can become Kevin Pickelman, that would be excellent. Pickelman was a nose and Hoover is playing the 3, so they are different positions. No one is asking him to be a star. But if he can be good, I think it can enable what was a very good defense to remain a good defense and maybe take another step. With (Marcus) Rush, (William) Gholston) and Anthony Rashad White, I think they have three really good defensive linemen.
“An overlooked spot is the replacing Trenton Robinson at free safety. Kurtis Drummond (sophomore) and R.J. Williams (redshirt freshman), who they thought was good enough to play last year but had the luxury of redshirting him, are in the mix. They are two able-bodied guys. What they need there is the leadership Robinson provided. He had knowledge of the defense, had been around a long time and played a lot of games. You can be a good defense with a lot of ability, but it doesn’t mean much if you make a mistake in the back end. And deep middle and safety is where mistakes become most costly. What is a good defense can be a really good defense if the defensive backfield is on the same page. And that free safety spot is key.”
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.