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2012 MSU Football Preview: The Offense

Preliminary reading: the depth chart for the Boise State game.


A team with a third-year starter at quarterback and a receiving corps led by the most prolific WR in school history but an inexperienced offensive line threw the ball extremely well but ran the ball poorly. Not the most shocking result.

Okay, a bit more detail. Kirk Cousins capped his career with a season where he wasn't as efficient as he was previously (145.12, 30th nationally in 2011; 150.68, 18th nationally in 2010), but was still awfully good. Cousins mostly avoided the interceptions that plagued him earlier in his career (bowl game excepted, for reasons made clear two phrases ahead) and came up big in some of the season's biggest games -- in particular, the game-tying 4th quarter touchdown drive against Georgia will remain etched in memory for a long, long time. Furthermore, while I'm averse to ascribing too much to intangibles, everyone connected with the program described the team as his team. Given that he was the first three-time captain in the history of the program, there was undoubtedly something to that. Either way, Cousins was great and irreplaceable, but here we are, without him.

Cousins was made great in large part because he had B.J. Cunningham to throw to for three years. Cunningham was 3rd in the conference in receptions, 2nd in receiving yards, and departs as the all-time receiving leader for a school that's seen its share of outstanding wideouts over the years. The loss of Keshawn Martin will perhaps be felt more on special teams than on offense, but his ability to create first downs and touchdowns from nothing is unlikely to be replicated. (Bennie Fowler will try.) Keith Nichol's wild college odyssey was punctuated by a starring role in the highlight to end all highlights. After the departure of Charlie Gantt in 2010, Brian Linthicum finally emerged from the depth chart in his senior year to become a consistent receiving threat.

Edwin Baker's career fell short of expectations -- though 26 carries for 167 yards and a touchdown in your last game against Michigan isn't the worst sendoff -- but the team will miss his speed along the edge. But, as Jim at SLS said:

I had a theory that Baker’s regression in 2011 was tied to the fact that he would run to where the hole was supposed to be. If the hole didn’t develop for him, he’d just run right up the backs of his offensive linemen.

This happened a lot. Baker needed good blocking to be successful; Le'Veon Bell could run over people to create his own holes. It wasn't surprising to see Baker marginalized as Bell made his star turn.

The offensive line loses LG Joel Foreman, a four-year starter and a consistent performer in offensive lines that weren't always great. The other four linemen who started the bowl game are back.

The numbers bear out that in 2011, this was a solid but not great offense:

Category Total Conference Rank National Rank
Total Offense 390.43 yds/game 4 56
Scoring Offense 31.00 points/game 3 37
Passing Offense 252.50/yds game 2 41
Pass Efficiency 144.33 3 28
Rushing Offense 137.93 yds/game 11 78

Decent, decent, decent, decent, WOOF. The team needs to run the ball better this year. The good news is that they seem primed to do just that. More, after the jump.


1. Andrew Maxwell, Quarterback. Obvious answer is obvious. Maxwell is charged with replacing a three-year starter/three-year captain/legend/perhaps best ever in school history/media darling/leader of men/destroyer of evil/all-around swell guy, and at the most important position in team sports. Hooray for reasonable expectations!

It's insane to expect anything other than a drop-off at this position. The coaches have done a reasonable job getting Maxwell reps during blowout games in the past two years -- taking over for Cousins against Alabama was a particularly notable baptism by fire -- but Maxwell has attempted only 51 passes in two seasons, and none of them in critical situations. Maxwell missed most of spring practice, including the spring game, with a sprained knee, which was obviously concerning not only because Maxwell has had limited reps, but especially because the receiver corps is all-new as well. Most of the concern there has gone away, however, as the reports of Maxwell's performances during the August training camp have been glowing.

Can he carry it forward to Friday and beyond? Maxwell is a pro-style quarterback and was heavily recruited and highly regarded in high school. He saw limited action last year, but when he played, he was reasonably impressive -- particularly against CMU. (HT: SLS.) His task isn't made easier by the inexperience at receiver (see below), but, by contrast, it is made enormously easier by the defense backing him up. For MSU to be successful this season, Maxwell doesn't need to command the most high-flying offense in the Big Ten. Against the vast majority of MSU's opponents (and, unfortunately, the first opponent may not fall into this category), it'll be enough for Maxwell to avoid making critical errors, manage the game, and generally be efficient but unspectacular.

Can he? I think so, but with such a limited track record to base these predictions on, Maxwell remains the biggest uncertainty for the MSU offense.

2. Fou Fonoti, Right Tackle. Fonoti dropped into the starting lineup after Skyler Burkland suffered an awful leg injury just before halftime at Notre Dame last season. From that point forward, he made the position his own, to say the very least:

"He’s 20 years old," offensive line coach Mark Staten said. "He’s going to be a senior, and he’s younger than some of our redshirt freshmen. That’s crazy."

Fonoti, who turns 21 on Nov. 15, transferred to MSU in June 2011 after starting two years at Cerritos (Calif.) College.

"By mid-September, he’s starting for the defending Big Ten champs," Staten said. "And did a terrific job.

"He’s continuing to get better."

Fonoti (6-feet-4, 296 pounds) saw action at both right and left tackle early last season, then took over as the starting right tackle after Skyler Burkland suffered a season-ending knee injury at Notre Dame.

Fonoti started the final 11 games of the season. He did not allow a sack in 659 snaps during the regular season.

Bolded emphasis my own, because seriously look at that again. He parachuted in from junior college California, was handed the starting position three weeks into the season under difficult circumstances, and didn't allow a single sack in the regular season.

Right tackle isn't the most important position on the offensive line, but Fonoti is here because he hasn't received the preseason hype that Travis Jackson (C) and Chris McDonald (RG) have, Fonoti is my sleeper pick to really break out and have an absolutely dominating season. At the very least, he and McDonald should team up to be a very strong right side of the line.

The selection of Fonoti is also a proxy for the entire offensive line, which returns 4 of the 5 bowl game starters from a unit that pass blocked terrifically but run blocked horrifically (a big of an overstatement, but impossible to turn down the cheap rhyme). Le'Veon Bell proved that he could do much with little. If he's given much this season, watch out.

3. Bennie Fowler, Wide Receiver. Well, let's get right to it:

EAST LANSING In Andrew Maxwell’s mind, it was wide receiver Bennie Fowler who was the biggest surprise in preseason camp. Told coach Mark Dantonio said Fowler had a camp reminiscent of Devin Thomas' in 2007, Maxwell knew that came right before a big-time season.

"What'd he have, 79 catches that year?" Maxwell said of Thomas.

In fact it was 79 receptions to set a school record. Given that, the Spartans are expecting a lot from Fowler, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound junior one year after he was limited to five games due to a foot injury.

"He unfortunately hasn't been able to stay healthy for a long period of time since he's been here, but he was healthy all camp, and he had a great camp," Maxwell said. "He made more than a couple of great plays for us, and it seemed like every day he made a great play for us. If he can stay healthy all year, he’ll be a great player for us."

Devin Thomas was a revelation in Dantonio's first season at MSU, leading most of us to wonder how in the world he had been buried in the depth chart under JLS. OTOH, Fowler spottings have been infrequent because 1) he was injured for much of last year, and 2) because he, at times, played a role that was filled quite well by Keshawn Martin for the past four seasons, thankyouverymuch. That doesn't mean that Fowler hasn't taken the spotlight from time to time:

Fowler also scored on an end-around that day, drawing further Martin comparison. And yet, he's absolutely not Keshawn Martin. Fowler is 6'1", 218 while Martin is 5'11", 194. Thomas was 6'2", 218 while at MSU, so the Fowler comparison isn't off, in that respect. Says Maxwell:

"Physically, they're similar, bigger guys," Maxwell said. "They've got speed. They've got the ability to go up and get the ball and make the tough catch.

Fowler has all the makings to be the leader of a receiving corps that desperately needs one. While DeAnthony Arnett and Aaron Burbridge (before the injury that's likely to result in a redshirt) received most of the attention, and Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett will probably also start, Fowler is the one to watch.

THIS UNIT WILL BE SUCCESSFUL IF: it runs the ball effectively. Simple. The offense scored points last season in spite of a moribund rushing attack because it featured 1) a greatly experienced and talented quarterback, and 2) greatly experienced and talented receivers. As has already been beaten into the ground here and elsewhere, this season's team features plenty of talent at those positions, but little experience. The experience is in the offensive line, where 4 of 5 starters return, and at running back, where Le'Veon Bell is fancied by some as a darkhorse Heisman candidate (not by me, but he'll be good), and Larry Caper has tons of experience (and in addition to his change-of-pace value as a runner, is a terrific pass-catching threat from the backfield).

While the early returns from training camp leave me encouraged about the progress and potential of the passing game, it's absolutely true that the running game will have to shoulder the load early. That's a challenge because the games themselves will be challenging: home to Boise State, away to CMU, home to Notre Dame. A loss is possible in any of those three, particularly if the ground game can't get going. And so it's really on the line and Bell, the two most visible assets of the 2012 offense, to make it happen.

PROBLEMS THAT COULD ARISE: The strictures of blogging require me to answer this question, but the answers are fairly obvious, right?

  • Maxwell could falter. Jim at SLS had a nice rundown of how first-year starters at quarterback have fared in recent years. The answer: great, terrible, and everything in between, as you might expect. If Maxwell succeeds, the sky's the limit for this team. If he disappoints, things could unravel quickly.
  • The receivers could disappoint. Fowler could be not-quite-as-advertised, Arnett could struggle to fit into a new offense, Dion Sims could continue the inconsistent play that has marred his first two seasons in East Lansing. No matter how talented and Devin Thomas-like the replacements are, losing Cunningham and Martin is. a. big. deal.
  • Bell might not deliver the goods. We have two years of excellent history at this point, and that certainly alleviates the worries. But Bell was lightly-recruited out of high school, and it's possible that when he's no longer a guy but now the guy, he'll take a step back. If he falters, it's thin behind him: Caper has not proven to be an every-down back, and beyond that we're into the sphere of lightly-used underclassmen, populated by Nick Hill and others.
  • The defense isn't as advertised. This may be the least likely of all, but could be the most damaging. Right now, it appears that for MSU to be successful, the offense needs to be good but not great. If that calculus changes, and the offensive priorities necessarily change from "do no harm" to "do great things," that could not only lead to losses but also stunt the growth of a unit short on experience but long on potential.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN. In short, growing pains and then success. There are too many variables and uncertainties to expect that this unit won't regress a bit this season. It seems very likely that the regression will be concentrated exclusively in the passing game the running game should be significantly improved but in the first five games of the season, MSU will play 2 teams seemingly capable of shutting MSU down (Boise State and Ohio State), and another that can score enough points to send our own offense into desperation mode in trying to keep up (Notre Dame). I expect that the offense will falter in at least one of those three games. If it's only one of three, that's manageable (particularly if the one is against BSU or ND). If it's more, ugh.

All that notwithstanding, I think the regression will be small. The offensive line is healthy, experienced, and talented -- a rock to build an offense around. Bell has all the potential in the world to make this a breakout year. The early returns on Maxwell and the receivers are terrific, and it's difficult to overstate how much their development will be aided by the presence of a strong rushing attack and a stronger defense.

There will be bumps in the road early on. But by the time the conference season arrives, this should be well on its way to be well above-average. And with MSU's defense backing them up, "well above-average" is plenty good enough for MSU to contend for, and win, the conference title.