The 2012 football season is now in the rearview.
It was a season that many thought could end in a Rose Bowl appearance, but the Spartans stumbled to 7-6, shortening many fans' lives in the process. The defense was as good or better than most predicted, the offense was much worse, and the special teams was good at times, but inconsistent. They had nine games decided by four points or less, going 4-5 in those games — including 1-3 record in games decided on the final play from scrimmage.
It did have a happy ending, with senior Dan Conroy making up for some past misses with a clutch field goal to beat TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but it was merely a conclusion to an otherwise frustrating year.
So where is the program at? Six years into the Mark Dantonio era, the Spartans have six bowl games, five winning seasons, four wins over Michigan, three wins over Notre Dame, two 11-win seasons, two bowl wins, one Big Ten championship and one Legends division title. Flashing back to 2006, these accomplishments are fantastic, and have likely surpassed the imaginations of many.
But the 2010 and 2011 raised the expectations of all, both inside and outside the program. Add in new scoreboards and increased ticket prices, and fans were rightfully upset with the results on the field in 2012.
However, let's hold off on the sky-is-falling mindset that is setting in for many. With the early departures of Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston, suddenly Dantonio's program is in a free fall full of unhappy players willing to jump at the chance to leave and will be lucky to reach bowl eligibility next year? I know that's not all of you. But I've had interactions with people who have expressed these frustrations.
I don't mean to open up this topic again, but sending your players to the NFL is never not a good thing. MSU had six players drafted last year. At least four will be this year. The last time MSU had 10 players drafted in a two-year span was 2000-01 — Nick Saban's recruits. This coaching staff has proven they can evaluate and maximize talent. Of the six drafted last year, five were given three stars or fewer out of high school. The same with Le'Veon Bell and Johnny Adams this year.
Talent has been brought in and coached up, especially on defense. Losing a few players early to the NFL is not going to be the downfall of this program. MSU has lost good players before and filled in just fine: Javon Ringer to Edwin Baker, Brian Hoyer to Kirk Cousins, Greg Jones to Max Bullough. They will do it again.
That turns things to the 2013 season. The defense should, again, be really good. As for that offense? It's not as simple as saying, "MSU had a bad offense and lost its best players, so the offense will be even worse."
In 2008, MSU averaged 343.5 yards per game — and 140.5 of those came from Javon Ringer. After the season, the Spartans lost their do-everything running back, as well as two-year starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, who also moved on to the NFL.
What happened the next year? With a new quarterback and running back-by-committee in the backfield, the Spartans averaged 406.2 yards, had the No. 2 passing offense in the Big Ten (while splitting time with two QBs) and actually averaged six more rushing yards per game.
Why did this happen? A few reasons. For one, players get better. In 2008, MSU had a junior receiver in Blair White and a number of sophomores and freshmen in Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. They all returned in 2009. White's and Cunningham's numbers went up, Martin had the same amount of catches (but many more yards) and Dell's numbers went down.
As for that backfield, Caulton Ray was actually your opening day starter. But he was benched due to fumbling, Baker dealt with some injuries, Glenn Winston suffered a season-ending injury midway through the year. Larry Caper performed well, as did Baker when he came back from injury.
Another reason things improved: the playcalling was opened up. In 2008, Don Treadwell only had faith in "Hand the ball to Javon Ringer and hope he does something." Without that crutch, they became an unpredictable offense, passing a lot, but also running the ball more effective.
I know the record from 2008 to 2009 went from 9-4 to 6-7, but that was because of the defense, as well as all the breaks going right in '08 and wrong in '09.
So here we are in 2013. A do-everything running back is gone and all the receivers return. I'm not saying this offense is going to be great, or even much better, but I really don't agree with the assumption that losing Bell and Sims means this offense will get worse. There's not much room to go down, really. MSU was in this situation a few years ago, and it worked out.
Dan Roushar can no longer go with the "Hand the ball to Le'Veon Bell and hope he does something" offense. This is when his playcalling can accurately be judged. There were legitimate reasons to complain in 2012, but when you can't block or catch, it limits your confidence. He deserves the chance to succeed in 2013. After that? Who knows.
So as we begin the college football offseason, here's a position-by-position breakdown if where things stand.
The most popular issue. Dantonio said Andrew Maxwell is the starter entering spring ball, but that's what it had to be. This will be an open competition, but I still give the edge to Maxwell. It's unfortunate that, if Maxwell is the starter out o spring, that people are probably going to assume it's blind loyalty by Dantonio. Still, he's going to be a fifth-year senior with a year of experience under his belt.
Elsewhere, sophomore Connor Cook will be a popular choice for fans after his earth-shattering 4-for-11 performance against TCU. Still, he showed athletic ability and poise at the position people were hoping to see more with Maxwell. Cook got a lot of experience last spring after Maxwell suffered a knee injury and Cook was all-time quarterback in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor has been highly-touted, but I don't know much about how he's done on scout team. I still think it's a longshot true freshman Damion Terry doesn't redshirt, but I've been wrong before.
While the focus will be on the quarterbacks, this is the most pressing issue for MSU. With Le'Veon Bell leaving early and Larry Caper graduating, this position is wide open. Junior Nick Hill would appear to have the edge, being the only guy with much experience. He had a couple good runs in 2012, but he wasn't able to do anything behind a questionable line that would make most running backs look bad. He's shifty, but hasn't shown a great burst.
Behind Hill, redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins reportedly has looked really fast. Jeremy Langford is also fast, but I'm not sure what position he's playing these days. Incoming freshmen Gerald Holmes and and R.J. Shelton reportedly had great seniors years in high school. They'll certainly have a shot. It's possible true freshman athlete Delton Williams ends up as a running back.
Whoever starts, it's clear MSU is going to need to get a lot more out of its offensive line. Bell was the only one who could avoid negative plays, so that's why he got every carry. If they can't run block, I'd love to see MSU spread it out, given the speedy backs.
Nowhere to go but up, right? Everyone returns. Bennie Fowler will be a senior, but I think sophomore Aaron Burbridge takes over the No. 1 spot. Fowler, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey all looked decent at different times and will all have to fight for playing time. Mumphrey probably showed the most consistency out of the group. We'll see if junior DeAnthony Arnett and sophomore Macgarrett Kings can crack the rotation with another year in the program.
The absurd amont of drops to start the season seemed to tail off as things went along. Hopefully it stays that way. Still, they need to run better routes and get open more, or it doesn't matter who is throwing the ball.
Remember the days of Charlie Gantt, Brian Linthicum, Garrett Celek and Dion Sims all being on the team? A luxury has now become thin in experience. There is "depth," but it's mostly untested. Junior Andrew Gleichert was used in the running game, but finished with just one catch. Sophomore Paul Lang led returning tight ends with three catches. Sophomores Evan Jones and Josiah Price reportedly have looked good on the scout team. Sophomore receiver Juwan Caesar reportedly moved to tight end during bowl practices. He would seemingly have the ability to catch the ball.
Given the number of options at receiver, not having a great pass-catching tight end isn't a huge worry. But they have to be able to run block to get on the field.
Before I say anything, praise be to the holy #AMSUOLHG.
With that out of the way, this should be MSU's best offensive line in the Dantonio era. For real this time. Senior right tackle Fou Fonoti went down for the year before the Notre Dame game and was given another year of eligibility. Junior center Travis Jackson should also be back after a season-ending injury against Ohio State. The only loss is right guard Chris McDonald.
My guess is the line will be (left to right): Dan France - Blake Treadwell - Travis Jackson - Jack Allen - Fou Fonoti. As backups, you'll have Skyler Burkland and Donavan Clark with starting experience. Overall, this looks like a decent line. But you can bet your ass MSU will have three different staring lines entering Big Ten play as a key player or two go down to injury. MSU redshirted a number of true freshmen offensive linemen last year, and they'll slide into the depth chart. Other notable backups will include Nate Klatt and Michael Dennis,
Gone are senior Anthony Rashad White and junior William Gholston. While MSU had one of the top rushing and overall defenses in the nation, there was a huge dropoff in sacks and tackles for loss from 2011, as the defensive line didn't get as much of a push as it did with Jerel Worthy. The likely replacement for Gholston is sophomore Shilique Calhoun who supposedly is the best pure pass-rusher on the team. He'll be flanked by junior Marcus Rush, who had a very underrated year, and was more consistent than Gholston.
Inside, Tyler Hoover is back for a sixth year, but we haven't seen much of him at defensive tackle of the last two years due to injuries. Hopefully he'll be able to stay on the field. Junior James Kittredge played very solid at times at nose tackle last year and will compete for a starting role. The big question mark here is going to be sophomore Lawrence Thomas. The former five-star linebacker recruit redshirted his first year with an injury and bulked up, as a move to the line seemed imminent. With not much room for playing time there, he was the fullback for most of 2012 and performed quite well, showing good hands out of the backfield. But I expect him to stick back to defensive line and contend for a starting spot in the spring, if all goes according to plan.
As for backups, end Denzel Drone is still around and will be a senior. He was used a lot in MSU's 3rd-and-long packages and consistently made plays. Big Joel Heath will be a sophomore. Inside, Damon Knox reportedly has looked good, and Micajah Reynolds will surely be in the mix, no matter which side of the line he plays on.
No problems here. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen return for their senior seasons, and Junior Taiwan Jones takes over the STAR lineback position in a full-time role. Jones really looks like a star in the making (no pun intended) on a defense that still has its share of stars. Kyler Elsworth will be a senior and continue to make plays in MSU's 3rd-and-long package. We didn't see much of sophomore Darien Harris in 2012 after a lot of hype. We'll see if he can crack the rotation. Sophomore Ed Davis also reportedly has a lot of skill.
Throw in the possibility of true freshmen Jon Reschke and Shane Jones fighting for spots, and there's a lot of talent here.
The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl was a preview of 2013. As much as Johnny Adams was ragged on in 2012, he was still one of the top corners in the Big Ten and there are big shoes to fill. Sophomore Trae Waynes struggled to start the bowl, but finished with a decent overall performance. Redshirt freshman Ezra Robinson reportedly looks very good, and will likely compete for that spot, too. On the other side, Darqueze Dennard is back for his senior year. The former two-star recruit could be the top corner in the Big Ten this coming season.
On the back end, All-Big Ten safety Isaiah Lewis will be a senior, and junior Kurtis Drummond was very solid, though he got banged up quite a bit. Redshirt freshman Demetrious Cox has a lot of hype and will probably see time here. All in all, three of these positions could earn All-Big Ten honors, with that other corner spot likely being the spot attacked in the passing game.
Mike Sadler, robbed of the Big Ten Punter of the Year award, will be a junior, and should again be one of the best. Hopefully he doesn't have as much work to do this year.
Dan Conroy has graduated, and the kicking duties are probably up for grabs between senior kickoff specialist Kevin Muma and incoming freshman Michael Geiger, who is the Rivals No. 1 kicker in the class of 2013.
On returns, Hill has been a serviceable return man on kickoffs, while Andre Sims Jr. took over the punt return duties and was decent, given the terrible punt return coverage the team had.
The schedule gets rid of Boise State, Ohio State Wisconsin and replaces them South Florida, Purdue and Illinois. Michigan is the only home game that looks difficult, while there are road games at Notre Dame, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. Those are some tough road games, but the schedule is much more manageable.
Overall, I think the bar should be set at nine wins for 2013. Is that enough for a Legends division title? Michigan's and Nebraska's schedules also get easier, and Northwestern will probably be in the mix.
All in all, the program should bounce back with another good season. If it doesn't, I'm guessing there will be some changes. But let's remember where things came from before you think the sky is falling or that the house needs to be cleaned. Things are going to be just fine.