Welcome to the first, and probably most prominent, of the few Spartan question marks: the Offensive Tackles. With the departure of one year starter J'Michael Deane and two year starter DJ Young, these spots will have two new faces this fall. Which, of course, means they're GOING TO TOTALLY SUCK.
Wait, no. That's not right. What I meant to say was: It means they could be better, or worse, or basically the same (way to go out on a limb, huh?). They're younger than last year's tackles, and more athletic than last year's tackles, but it remains to be seen if they'll be better. It sure would be nice to have a truly elite offensive tackle or two for the first time since... Flozell Adams? Can any of these guys be that guy? Let's take a look:
Left Tackle Candidates
Dan France (6'6, 315 lbs, RS sophomore)
I know, grumble, grumble, converted defensive lineman, right? Maybe, but don't be so quick to ignore Mr. France. He actually was recruited to the program as an offensive tackle before depth (which by now has vanished, see: Heuter, Barrent) pushed him to the other side of the ball.
Yes, there is certainly some reason for concern. There are troubling quotes from when he switched to the tackle position during bowl practice that he'd never really done pass blocking before which, yeah, is kind of a big deal for a left tackle. But, to be fair to him, that was over half a year of reps ago, and I think there are some reasons for optimism on that front.
A further troubling quote from Staten:
They're still competing. I thought the left tackle was one way. Dan France, who came over from the defensive side, really, really stepped forward [in the spring]. Then he -- I don't want to say he got overwhelmed, but I don't know what happened. Then Jared McGaha, the senior, kind of started stepping it up a little bit. So they're still battling there.
The rumors from the scrimmage are he's getting caught doing things like false starts (understandable) and a couple illegal formations (You're a left tackle, how do you even-). Those are easier to correct than blocking errors, and I'd hope they disappear after the first three to six games. The other silver lining is that even if he's being chewed out for penalties, that's still better than being chewed out for letting Taiwan Jones decapitate Kirk Cousins off an edge rush (hopefully both these things aren't happening).
But there are reasons for optimism. First off, he wasn't your typical defensive tackle. 6'6 315 is bigger, in some cases much bigger than other switch projects (John Stipek, Deane, Young). At that size, and with those crucial years in the program, he has a physical head start on being prepared for life on the offensive line in the Big Ten.
Second, he's a strong athlete (something the staff has emphasized), not only playing a successful defensive end in high school, and winning an award as Ohio's best blocker as a tight end from Scouting Ohio, but also achieving some pretty good stats on the hardwood (13 points, 8 rebounds).
Third, I think his play the past two springs says something about his will and ability to push onto the field. He was the first non-senior lineman taken in the 2011 spring game draft. He was the first non senior defensive tackle taken in the 2010 spring game draft. He moved into the DT two deep during the season. He's clearly raw at the Offensive Tackle position, but coaches rave about how quick he's picking it up.
If, at the start of last year, you'd told me our starting left tackle next year was going to be Dan France I would've walked calmly to my nearest bomb shelter. And to be sure, mistakes are going to happen as he learns the intricacies of the college position. But as we near Opening Day, the strong possibility that he protects Cousins' blind side isn't really worrying me, to be honest.
Maybe it's the excitement at his raw tools, how the coaches usually talk positively about his performance, or how he has pretty firmly locked down this spot since spring (recent Staten comments non-withstanding, I think France beats McGaha here), but I think the Dan France experiment is going to be okay (the lack of established kickass DE's in the Big Ten definitely helps).
Read after the jump for more...
Jared McGaha (6'6, 298 lbs, RS Senior)
McGaha is a versatile, career back-up who has admirably plugged holes in the offensive line whenever and wherever called upon. And yet, I just cannot see him starting this year at left tackle. It's a little unfair, but I think his age works against him at this point. Experience is valued on an offensive line, but I have the feeling the staff isn't too interested in having to search for a new Left OT next year, as they would have to if McGaha is the pick, and as they wouldn't if it is anyone else. McGaha would have to be quite a bit superior to France, Fonoti, etc. to win this job, and the general sense around the camp (talk from coaches, reporters, observers) is that McGaha just isn't getting the talk you'd expect to get about a starter (compared to say, France, who Dantonio seems to make a point to mention in interviews).
What McGaha is, though, is a tested, veteran, and trust-able backup who can play guard or tackle and should know the system cold. It's likely at some point or another that in the season he'll get a start or two due to injuries or suspensions, or what have you. Furthermore, he'll hopefully be able to get playing time in a handful of blowouts that MSU has to be due for some year, right?
Right Tackle Candidates
Skyler Burkland (6'7, 305 lbs, RS Freshman)
Burkland is probably the exemplification of the new guys on the Michigan State offensive line this year. I'd wager from what I've read and what (very little) I've seen of him, that's he's probably the most athletic natural tackle we've had in the Dantonio years. This doesn't mean he's the strongest necessarily, but it means he's the most fluid moving, the quickest, and the most explosive. He tests very well for a lineman in things like shuttle runs, etc. This is great for a right tackle, as he can use that nimbleness to seal off ends on run plays, push ends off the line, and get to the second level (along with the obvious benefits it brings to pass protection). The fact that the athleticism is there in addition to the kid being gigantic bodes well.
He appears to be the type of tackle that teams like Wisconsin and Michigan have been turning out for years now: Big, agile, strong.
But all that comes with a caveat. Like the rest of the line (well, no, more so) he is startlingly inexperienced. The idea of a player with only a single year in college under his belt stepping up into the breach at a critical run blocking position is a little frightening. So-called freshman mistakes (false starts, holding penalties, personal fouls) are likely to be an inevitability as he adjusts to the speed of the college game. I'm left to hope that this first year his bright moments of natural skill can outweigh the rookie mistakes as he possible solidifies himself as a promising three or four year starter at tackle.
Fou Fonoti (6'4, 300 lbs, Junior)
Fonoti is an interesting pick-up by the staff. A very highly rated JuCo player (top five among JuCo OTs) who has strong family ties with the program everyone is probably already aware with. He has three years to play two, so if he doesn't win the Right Tackle job, it wouldn't be unthinkable for him to take a redshirt and try again next year.
But right now he is firmly entrenched in a dogfight with Burkland for the Right Tackle spot. And if he fails to win that, there is also the slim possibility he will be moved over to the left side if France or McGaha don't impress there.
Fonoti is also going to be an data point on the question of OT's and the importance of height. Obviously, I and everyone else was salivating a few years ago over the idea of a Conway and Barrent (both 6'7+) wall guarding the ends of our line. And obviously that hasn't worked out. But why are we so fixated on those extra inches that typically separate a guard and a tackle? One theory is the taller guy will typically have longer arms, more leverage, and provides a bigger frame for defensive players to get around. But I don't see why a shorter OT can't make up for most of that with technique. Obviously guys like Mike Adams, Gabe Carimi, and Bryan Bulaga are prototypical 6'7+ guys the NFL loves. But others like Dennis Landolt, Gerald Cadogan, Rodger Saffold, and DJ Young have all had great Big Ten success at tackle listed at 6'5 or shorter. So it remains to be seen whether Fonoti can punch into that second group, but don't hold his height against him without seeing him play first.
Henry Conway (6'6, 318 lbs, RS Sophomore)
Henry Conway is a goddamn mauler. A pure tackle, according to his MSU profile he had a ten pancake (blocking a defender into the ground) game in high school. He's big, he's strong, and he was supposed to be the road grading right tackle that would bookend the line with David Barrent. But Barrent retired due to back problems and Conway has been troubled with chronic neck injuries for the past year. But after the general feeling was that Conway too, would have to retire early, we began to get some encouraging news: Conway had been cleared to play and was fighting for time at right tackle.
With that said, the time he missed has clearly set him back. When coach's discuss the RT spot it is a two man battle (Burkland and Fonoti) and when they do mention a third, it is guard Chris McDonald, not Conway, who typically comes up. This is understandable, and Conway is almost certainly going to want to take this year to catch up in terms of strength and conditioning, and practice reps, before trying to mount a challenge for a spot next year (not to mention, make sure his neck problems don't reoccur).
Injuries to the neck aren't something to take lightly and I hope they are in Conway's past and not his future. Because if he can stay clear of the injury bug, he's a very promising prospect
Expect missed blocks, expect penalties, expect confusion.
But also expect pancakes, stable pockets, and a good push upfront.
Expect some games where it seems like only one of these groups is happening, and expect games where both happen seemingly at random. The comforting consistency of last year's offensive tackles likely won't exist, but the upside of whoever comes out of these two battles is almost certainly higher.
Furthermore, if, as I've predicted here, France and Burkland win out, a Fowler-Mumphery-Maxwell-Bell-Hill-France-Burkland-Sims-Jackson offensive core is looking pretty good for 2012-2013.
Just- please, no position battles lingering into mid-season. Offensive lines need time to gel, and if unnecessary shuffling costs us a game or two like it almost certainly did in 2009 at the QB spot, I'm going to be a very sad panda.