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Five Fall Camp Storylines

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, it's almost Fall practice, which means it's almost the start of college football season, which means FOOTBALL IS ALMOST BACK. After a largely news-less chasm of voluntary workouts and recruiting periods and dead periods (no news is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember, big Summer college football news stories are much more likely to be "Player consumed ALL the liquor and then decided to drive backwards down the highway at 3AM in a stolen car, while rolling a joint and shooting his unregistered gun into the air." not, "Player quietly works at improving his strength and conditioning, goes to class."), Fall practice will likely provide a wealth of information to cradle us through these final, slow, weeks until August 31st. To get us started, here's a couple topics that have at least been discussed less than "So, how about that passing game huh?". Let's talk about it.

1. How, and how much time, do they prepare for Boise State?

It's been a long while since MSU has opened their season with this sort of marquee game, and it might be tempting to spend a much greater than normal amount of time game-planning for the tricky Broncos to really get the season off on a good note. But would that time tradeoff with generally practice reps, coaching, and player development that might occur if the opening opponent wasn't as strong?

Boise's schemes raise particular concerns with maintaining a proper balance. On defense they've traditionally run a 4-2-5, which is a scheme not often seen as a base defense in the 4-3 heavy Big Ten (It's probably not radically different MSU's 3-3-5 third down package, particularly with Boise's tendency to stand up a defensive end, but it is their base defense. Something to keep in mind).

On offense they, well, they do a lot of stuff:

Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, "We run plays, we don’t have an offense. It makes it difficult to defend." At that time he was working with the running backs. Before this project, I wondered how an offense can’t be a system. Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: "It’s what we do" is a common mantra among the coaching profession. Urban Meyer at Florida has his spread option, Chip Kelly at Oregon has his QB run game, Steve Sarkasian at Washington has his pro-style offense that he developed at USC. Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football — their lack of identity is their identity. Although I may not have understood it then, the method behind this apparent lack of cohesion became much clearer to me after hours of study.

Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football: numbers, leverage and grass.

That quoted article is quite lengthy but also mandatory reading for a better understanding of the BSU offense, even if it might be slightly outdated (see: Kellen Moore; Urban Meyer before he had to retire from coaching to, LOL, 'spend more time with his family').

Last year it seemed like the team came out 'flat' against a Friday night opponent. Could the same thing happen this year? Or could they come out 'too hyped'? I'd imagine the staff and veteran players of the team are working to produce the right emotional balance for this game.

I'd guess that MSU will treat this as a pseudo bowl game, and should be able to use the lessons from the past five years of preparations in setting up an effective balance here, but this is still new territory for the team and coaching staff.

2. This MSU team is young, but, importantly, not dangerously young.

The MSU two deep breaks down by class like this:

Sr.-11 players (7 starters; 2 O, 4 D, 1 ST)

Jr.- 17 players (12 starters; 6 O, 5 D, 1 ST)

So.- 8 players (6 starters; 3 O, 2 D, 1ST)

RS Fr.- 10 players (0 starters)

There's a senior presence there, but no one so large that a huge chunk of the team will be graduated by next year. There's a huge contingent of juniors many of whom have extensive starting experience already. There's a block of talented sophomores hungry to prove themselves for the first time in starting roles (with the exceptions of Travis Jackson and Marcus Rush, who I still can't believe both have three full years of eligibility left, if they want it). And finally, there's a crop of RS freshman plugging holes here and there, but, crucially, are not being forced into starting roles (well, yet... *crosses injury prevention fingers*).

It's not an ideal class distribution for a football depth chart, but it's pretty close in my opinion. And typically, the younger the team, the more important the Fall Practice is to their overall development and performance. I'll be especially curious to see how some of those new sophomore starters, or RS freshmen in the two deep, perform at their last big auditions before the season starts.

3. Will any of the new recruiting class be ready to see playing time? Or maybe even start against Boise?

Well, there are about 20 new guys coming in. Some of them are rookies entering into unsettled positions (WR, PR,) one is a JUCO heading to the currently shallow position of TE, and lots of them are stuck behind very foreboding two and three deeps at their positions. Could a member of the talented incoming WR corps starting at one of the three WR positions? Could offensive/defensive playmaker like Demetrious Cox see time in MSU's 3-3-5 or at Wildcat QB? Could a rookie come in and take over punt returns? Sure, but I wouldn't bet on any of those things.

if they're good enough, they'll see minutes in garbage time or specialized packages this year, and if they're the best at their position, or if the team suffers injuries, Dantonio has shown a willingness to put true freshmen on the field (Bell, Sims, Dennard, Baker, Dell). Buuuut, I seriously doubt it this year. The guys above them seem too good and too experienced, and only one of these true freshmen enrolled early, putting nearly all of them behind the learning curve for such an important game as BSU. Maybe by the end of the year. But seriously, probably not.

4. So what's going on with Arthur Ray Jr.?

Yeah, this is something I haven't necessarily read a lot about, but is a pretty uncomfortable side-plot. Every good Spartan knows Ray's story: after signing his LOI in 2007 he started chemo on a cancerous growth in his leg and didn't enroll until the Spring of '08. He then faced a reinfection that forced numerous more surgeries and missed the 2008, 2009, and 2010 seasons. All through this time Dantonio and MSU stuck by Ray, and in 2011 he was healthy enough to see the football field. He got a (ceremonial, but nonetheless) start against Youngstown State and saw the field in two other blowout games. He also graduated, and won a handful of awards for his battle back to the field. A truly inspiring story. That now gets awkward.

See, Ray wants to play his 6th, and maybe 7th, year of eligibility at Michigan State. Dantonio, somewhat understandably, seems reluctant to give a 6th year to a player who has already graduated and isn't currently breaking into MSU's 3 deeps at any position. This situation raises questions about what exactly a school owes an athlete who's struggled with a non-athletics based injury that has hurt the athlete's past and current prospects at playing time. Do they owe five years, until the player graduates, or as many as the NCAA grants the player? My reaction would be give him the 6th year because, fucking BONE CANCER man, but then, I'm not the guy with the huge salary and expectations, and limited scholarship numbers. This is where I'm glad I'm not the head coach of a major athletic organization. Enjoy that stress sandwich Coach.

5. Andrew Maxwell and WRs (Oops, I lied)

Plz be gud dudez. Thx.


TOC will, of course, be keeping up with the stories, stats, and reports from Fall Camp as they come out, but until Saturday, consider the comment section your place for Fall Camp discussion, thoughts, concerns, or questions.