Bloodied, not beaten.
As discussed earlier this summer, the current college football theory du jour revolves around the importance of offensive line experience. Unfortunately, this is not exactly something we have in spades: The Wall Street Journal's calculations indicate that in the conference, only Penn State has a more inexperienced line than we do. (Cue Don LaFontaine voice) In a world where we must replace our entire offensive backfield, will the Spartans' inexperienced offensive line DOOM any chance of offensive competency?
Eh, maybe. More after the jump.
Last Season: Up and down. The line often dominated lesser opponents, and was dominated by more physical teams: our cumulative rushing total against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Georgia was 143 yards. (Of course, this wasn't helped by Ringer's late-season injury, but still . . . awful.) Says Joel Foreman:
"Mistakes happen. But you've got to be able to play in the big games, and we didn't do that," said sophomore Joel Foreman, who learned on the fly as a starting redshirt freshman in 2008. "You've got to be able to come through."
As we all know, MSU's running game maintained a very odd dichotomy last season: we had at once a historically productive running back, and, statistically, one of the worst running games in the conference. At least some of those who have tried to resolve the conflict have put the blame squarely at the feet of the o-line:
I've also heard from a couple of educated Michigan State fans that the reason last year's Michigan State team had about one run play—power off tackle—was the ineptness of the offensive line. That's all they could do. [Ringer] was not put in a position where he could succeed, and he managed to get drafted despite Dantonio treating him like a pack mule.
Now, you can doubt Brian's objectivity-type substance as pertaining to Michigan State, but I have no particular reason to doubt this explanation. Perhaps more telling: no MSU running back other than Ringer was able to get anything going last season. Perhaps Ringer's exceptional talent allowed him to overcome the shortcomings of the line.
Well, Ringer's gone, and so is half of the line. Can the guys who are left step it up and allow our non-Javon RBs an opportunity for success?
THIS SEASON: Training camp hasn't gone as well as everyone had hoped, as Rexrode explains:
Camp was going to be crucial for Dan Roushar's rebuilding and still-developing unit, but three projected starters - Rocco Cironi, Joel Nitchman and J'Michael Deane - missed time with various ailments.
So instead of building chemistry with that first unit, MSU has done a lot of mixing and matching. That may pay off down the line, but it's scary in 2009.
"I've just been proud of the guys," sophomore guard Joel Foreman said, "because we've had guys going in and out, in and out."
Yeesh. Not exactly the brightest of starts; we can only hope that we're getting through our injury problems early.
THE SURE STARTERS:
Joel Nitchman, Center: While the line as a whole is inexperienced, it's certainly fortunate that the most experienced player will be calling the shots at center. Nitchman already has two years' starting experience, and appears to have put behind him the knee injury which plagued him at times earlier in his career. Nitchman is on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy (awarded to the country's best center); this distinction would be more impressive if he didn't share it with 42 other players. Nonetheless, he should be the closest we get to a "sure thing" one the line this season. Nitchman only allowed 1.5 sacks last season and should be similarly strong this year. If there's one thing to be concerned about, it's that Nitchman wasn't selected as an offensive captain; given his experience, I thought that was odd, particularly for someone who's apparently a great character guy. (Rexrode was similarly surprised.)
Joel Foreman, Left Guard: Simply, our best offensive lineman last season. The Other Offensive Lineman Named Joel was a first-team Freshman All-American last season, and allowed only two sacks all season long. Unsurprisingly, Foreman was selected for nearly all of the notable preseason All-Big Ten teams: The Sporting News (first team), Phil Steele (first team), Lindy's (second team) and Athlon (second team). If Nitchman is the surest thing on the line, Foreman is certainly our best breakout-player candidate. His play will be especially important this year, as he'll be protecting the blindside for one of two very inexperienced quarterbacks.
Rocco Cironi, Left Tackle: The big question: how's his shoulder? Cironi tore his labrum during training camp in 2008, and played the entire season injured. Under the circumstances, he had a decent season which pretty much mirrored the team's fortunes: he played well against lesser players, and badly against superior ones. (Most notably, his repeated pwning at the hands of Tim Jamison.) The New York Times thinks that he could contend for an all-conference slot; that may be a bit optimistic (only Athlon ranks him as a preseason all-conference player, and as a third-teamer at that), but if his shoulder stays healthy, even in a worst-case scenario he should be servicable.
THE CONTENDAHS: Well, we have openings at right tackle and right guard.
J'Michael Deane, Right Tackle: The awesomely named Deane played at tackle throughout the spring, and emerged as one of the team's breakout players. While he was injured for a time this past month, the plaudits largely have continued. For example:
"J'Mike can come off the ball and hit people like no one I've ever seen," Foreman said.
It's been widely assumed that we'll see him mostly at tackle, though Rexrode has reported that the coaches may exploit his run-blocking ability by playing him some at guard. The obvious problem is his lack of experience: he only appeared in the EMU game last season; perhaps it'd be a better idea for him to master one position before we start shifting him all over the place. Nonetheless, the high hopes many Spartan fans have for Deane don't seem to be unjustified.
Jared McGaha/Brendon Moss, Right Guard: Here's where things get a bit dicey. At the end of the spring, it was assumed that McGaha would be the starter. However, Brandon Moss has played himself into the discussion. I think it's going to be McGaha, but I won't be shocked if the coaches go in the other direction.
In any event, Nitchman has has been highly complimentary of McGaha's play:
He is a good guy. He works hard; he is very explosive and very strong in the weight room. I think he has one of the best cleans on the whole team. He just has to keep working with Coach Roushar, keep developing his technique, and he is going to be a great player here.
McGaha, like Deane, only saw action in the EMU game last season, so there's not too much information available with which to make a prediction. RG will be a critical position on the line this season, as our inexperienced running backs may struggle to run inside without substantial help from the interior line.
Moss is similarly inexperienced at right tackle, although he did see some time at tight end in 2007. Moss is a senior; unless he distinguishes himself substantially from the pack, the coaches may be inclined to go with a player who can help us not only this season, but in the future as well.
D.J. Young, Left Tackle. Transfer from Bowling Green, where he saw significant playing time in 2007; currently a walk-on, though he may receive a scholarship when one opens up. Interesting backstory on him is here. Apparently the coaches have been impressed:
Young's work on the field has put him in a "real tight" competition with senior Brendon Moss for playing time at tackle, offensive line coach Dan Roushar said.
"I'm thrilled that he's here," Roushar said of the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Young. "He's going to factor in the two-deep, and he'll be a guy that will play. You'll see him play."
Rexrode noticed the same thing:
Young has opened eyes with his pass-blocking ability. The former Sexton standout transferred from Bowling Green, has walked on at MSU and is making a real push to start right away.
But the problem is, of course, that a walk-on is this high up on the depth chart.
Other players who may see playing time: Nate Klatt (more information on his play during training camp is here), Chris McDonald (left/right guard) and Ethan Ruhland (RS freshman who has impressed some during camp). Not too much about any of these players; they'll see playing time if the injury problems return.