Having walked on mostly solid ground up to this point in my musings on the football roster, I now venture forth into equal parts speculation and advocacy. It's no secret to even casual observers of this team that there is an urgent need for playmakers to identify themselves; whether last year's starters are returning or not, there is a lot left to be proven by pretty much every single guy at all these positions. Grounds for hope? Sure, but nothing is certain yet.
There's obviously some flexing with personnel groupings here such that, for example, there are not always 3 WRs on the field. And yes, guys like Keith Mumphrey sometimes line up outside as well as in the slot. To these objections, I say 'shush'. The format I chose here demands some pigeonholing.
The roles I project various guys into is premised on whoever the new OC is continuing the offensive system largely unchanged. It's true that Roushar made some tweaks when he took over, mostly related to using tight ends and H-backs to disguise the play (even if none of us were fooled). So while we might see that type of adjustment again, and Dantonio has hinted at wanted to modernize the offense somewhat, I'll believe we're going Air Raid when I see it.
Wide Receiver 1
(co-) Starter (returning): Aaron Burbridge, So; Bennie Fowler, RSr
Backups: Monty Madaris, RFr
Wide Receiver 2
Starter (returning): Tony Lippett, RJr
Backups: MacGarrett Kings Jr., So.; Kyle Kerrick, RFr
Starter (returning): Keith Mumphrey, RJr
Backups: Andre Sims Jr., RSo; DeAnthony Arnett, Jr
Ah, the receivers. A group that began the year by dropping everything thrown their way made some progress through the middle of the season, at least on the drops front, though route-running and separation continued to be lacking. Whether the struggles of the passing game are more properly laid with the receivers or QB is, to me, kind of a chicken-and-egg argument, so I won't go there, and in any event there's plenty of blame to go around.
The important thing with this group is that every single contributor from last year returns, and there are some promising new additions as well with Madaris and Kerrick coming off redshirts. I don't think any of the true freshmen are likely to see the field this fall, but there are plenty of bodies without them. In particular, I'm excited to see what Aaron Burbridge can do with an offseason of coaching. I would also really like to see Arnett involved to a greater extent than a handful of touches over a season, given the volume of hype we heard about his transfer home from Tennessee, where he was substantially involved as a freshman.
Starter (projected): Paul Lang, RSo
Backups: Andrew Gleichert, RJr; Derek Hoebing, RSr; Josiah Price, RFr
It's a coin flip between here and the RB spot for biggest mystery on the roster. Although Lang, Gleichert and Hoebing all saw the field last season, most of their work was strictly as in-line blockers (Lang did have a good dig off his shoes for a play-action goal line touchdown against Michigan).
With Dion Sims leaving for the league, there is a big need for a receiving threat from this group. Juwan Caesar spent last season moving to TE from WR, and as a former 4-star recruit from Florida he'll probably get a lot of discussion as a potential receiving threat. It's also possible that one of last year's redshirts, Price or Evan Jones, could force themselves into the mix. I wouldn't expect incoming freshman Dylan Chmura to see the field this season with the number of candidates on roster.
Starter (projected): TyQuan Hammock, RSr
Backups: Niko Palazeti, Jr; Trevon Pendleton, RSo
My thought here is that, honestly, Lawrence Thomas's talents are wasted as a lead blocker, and I hope the staff makes his move back to defense permanent. Hammock played pretty well in the bowl game, and Pendleton has turned into a nice find as a walk-on as well. I'm not sure how Palazeti is progressing in his recovery from injury, but if healthy he figures to give us a nice rotation here come the fall.
Starter (projected): Nick Hill, RJr
Backups: Nick Tompkins, RFr; Gerald Holmes, Fr; Delton Williams, Fr; Jeremy Langford, RJr
Remember, the title of this post is, If TODAY Were August 31. This projection assumes that Hill will be able to hold off the incoming freshman at a position where the staff hasn't been shy about playing true freshmen if they're ready. The experience edge that Hill and Langford both have might turn out to be a double-edged sword, since the staff has also seen what they AREN'T capable of, albeit in limited snaps. Of all the available backs, I would suspect in the abstract that R.J. Shelton may be the least likely to see the field, if only because Hill, Langford and Tompkins all offer a similar running style (speed/slasher).
I would also suspect we're looking at a timeshare for the RB carries this fall. Though Dantonio does like to ride one back if he can find a capable guy, the group we're looking at doesn't, from my lousy vantage point, seem to have a guy capable of taking even 300 touches, let alone the 400+ Bell and Ringer both accumulated in their bellcow seasons. There's nothing wrong with a timeshare; we got pretty good results in 2010, for example. So long as we settle on a couple of guys eventually and not repeat 2009, we should be OK here.
Starter (projected/returning): Andrew Maxwell, RSr
Backups: Connor Cook, RSo; Tyler O'Connor, RFr; Damion Terry, Fr
Yeah, I said it. I expect Maxwell to win/retain the starting QB job, and I even expect to feel pretty good about it after the spring game. We've lambasted him ad nauseum about his lack of touch, his sideline demeanor, everything about the guy really. But, as mentioned above, it's not like he's setting up behind Alabama's offensive line, throwing to Charles Rogers. Maxwell could certainly have performed much better, but that doesn't mean he can't and won't improve, and as mellow and accepting as he's sometimes sounded about his own poor performance, there's no way he wants his legacy to end up staying the way it looks now.
Most of us will probably pull for one of our younger, more exciting options. Despite his poor stats, the spark Cook gave the team in the bowl game was undeniable, and that kind of thing really, really matters for this position. O'Connor will get a look as well after doing reportedly great work on the scout team while redshirting, though he'll have to get into the real playbook full-time before practice starts and is probably running a distant third at this point.
And lastly, there's the intriguing freshman, Damion Terry. I'm curious too guys, I really am, and at the very least he looks like a promising future. But starting a true freshman at QB is an extremely risky proposition. First, he'll have a shortened timeline to work with an unfamiliar group of receivers and linemen, and winning the respect of those guys as a freshman would not be an easy task even if Terry has the ability to play immediately at the game's most demanding position.
A secondary concern with starting Terry is the effect on the other quarterbacks, and potentially on recruiting the position as well. Obviously, if Terry is head and shoulders above the rest, then play the best guy. But if it's close and you start the freshman, Cook and O'Connor would be nuts to not consider transferring. And any QBs we're talking to on the trail know that they have to either unseat an established starter (who was good enough to win the job as a freshman) or wait multiple years before they get their shot. Again, these factors shouldn't make the decision, performance should. But if it's a close question, there are secondary benefits to letting Terry soak in the playbook and run the scout team for a season. If Maxwell wins the job this year, Terry has a chance to compete with Cook and O'Connor next year for a potential multiple-year run as starter.
So that's it. This post, together with the three others, sums up who I would expect to see on the field if we had a football game today. As I think I qualified the other posts with, I don't have any inside information to make me any better informed than the rest of you; I mostly just want offseason football discussion, but it's the offseason, so the team won't produce anything, and it would take more time and skill than I possess to do something as sophisticated as Heck's indomitable Better-Know-A-Series, so this is what you get. 54 days until the spring game!