This is the sixth in a series of 2014 Michigan State Football previews, looking at the positions on the team in no particular order. Previously: special teams, tight ends, cornerbacks, running backs, defensive ends.
First, the bad news: Bennie Fowler, the Spartans' leader in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season, has graduated. The good news: everyone else of note returns, meaning the Spartans return 85.5% of their total receptions and 79.0% of their receiving yards from last season. Without further ado, let's take a look at the Spartans who will be receiving most of the passes this season.
Tony Lippett - R. Sr - 6'3", 185 lbs.
Lippett led the Spartans with 44 receptions last season, and was second to Bennie Fowler in receiving yards (613 to Fowler's 622). Part of his production can be attributed to his knowledge of defensive backs (he started five games at cornerback in 2011) and playing three years of quarterback in high school at Detroit Crockett. Says Lippett:
"I learned how corners identify certain routes with certain releases, and what corners want to do,'' said Lippett, a three-year starter at Detroit's Crockett High School. " I know what are they looking for, what are they trying to take away.''
He surely showed it last season, especially on the deciding score in the Rose Bowl:
Keith Mumphery - R. Sr - 6'1", 211 lbs.
The speedster from Vienna, Georgia was a big play specialist last season. All three of Mumphery's touchdowns were on receptions of more than 25 yards, including this moment you might remember from the Big Ten title game:
But don't take my word that Mumphery has great speed. Take it from MSU receivers coach Terrence Samuel:
"It's that confidence, and with his speed, it's going to be hard for anyone to run with him,'' Samuel said. "You get up on him, he can go right by you. He knows how to get there now. He's playing with some confidence and aggressiveness.
"It's fun to watch him use that speed and quickness and go by defenders, and there's separation when he goes by you. We were just waiting for the light to come on, and the light has come on.''
R.J. Shelton - Soph. - 5'11", 204 lbs.
Shelton only caught four passes for six yards last season, but he was mainly used as a weapon on kick returns, where he recorded the most kick returns (9) and average yardage (22.1) of all the Spartan returners last season. Shelton will begin the season as the starter in the slot, where he'll look to contribute on sweeps, as he had 153 yards and 2 TD in 21 rushing attempts last season:
Playing him in the slot, we can do some more things with him with getting the ball on the sweeps and things of that nature. So it’s gonna be fun to see how he develops.
Macgarrett Kings Jr. - Jr. - 5'10", 186 lbs.
Kings was second on the Spartans in receptions last season (43), and third in receiving yards (513). He also contributed on punt returns, collecting 20 punts and averaging more than 10 yards a punt. Kings was suspended for spring ball for what was called a violation of team rules. It was later found out that Kings was arrested for a DUI offense on April 7, and sentenced to 13 months of probation on July 7.
He's got three very good receivers ahead of him in Lippett, Mumphery, and Shelton, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Kings among the leaders in receptions once again.
Aaron Burbridge - Jr. - 6'1", 201 lbs.
Ranked as one of the top 10 wide receiver recruits in 2012 by several recruiting sites, Burbridge hasn't lived up to that ranking so far. He's the second-stringer behind Lippett at the "Z' receiver position, and Terrence Samuel expects great things from Burbridge this season:
"Burbridge has great speed, he's 4.4 (-second 40-yard dash) all day, he's finally comfortable in the offense and he can play any of the receiver positions,'' Samuel said. "With Burb, the biggest thing is finishing those catches. He gets his hands on the ball well, but he has to finish it, bring it in. Now, he can finish, he's one of those fast guys who does things so quickly.
"I expect him to be a major player, and I expect to lean on him.''
Andre Sims Jr. - Jr. - 5'9", 190 lbs.
Sims caught seven passes for 55 yards and a score last season, and also had the longest punt return in 2013 (33 yards). If last season's form holds he'll probably be the backup to Macgarrett Kings Jr. for punt returns.
The Dark Horse
DeAnthony Arnett - R. Jr - 5'11", 185 lbs.
Arnett only caught one pass for seven yards last season, but by many accounts he is having a great fall camp. Here's Mark Dantonio on Arnett after the first fall scrimmage:
"DeAnthony Arnett had a great scrimmage," coach Mark Dantonio said. "DeAnthony definitely stood out. He made three big plays (20-plus yards), with two going for touchdowns."
He had eight receptions for 167 yards in that scrimmage, which is what we in the sportswriting biz call "pretty good". Arnett attributes his improved performance in part to his increased size:
Physically, Arnett bulked up from 172 pounds to 190 over the past year.
"Now, I can do what I want at the line, if I want to physical with a DB," Arnett said Monday. "It's (extra weight and strength) allowed me to be a lot more aggressive than I was in the past, usually I used my quickness to get to wherever I wanted on the field."
In conclusion, a lot of great, experienced players at wide receiver for the Spartans. While there's more receivers listed on the depth chart, I see these seven contributing the great majority of offense at this position this year for MSU. They improved continuously last season - now they need to maintain that level of performance defending their Big Ten title.