This is the eighth 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, wide receivers, safeties.
Thanks in part to an offensive line that gelled as the 2013 season progressed, the Michigan State offensive made the transition from "massive liability" to "above average at times", aiding the Spartans to the 2013 Big Ten title and a 2014 Rose Bowl win.
However, key pieces need to be replaced. Dan France, Blake Treadwell, and Fou Fonoti started a combined 38 games on the line last season; they've all graduated. Combine the loss of experiences with an injury to would be starter Connor Kruse, and the blockers for Connor Cook will have something to prove this season.
Our MSU Football position preview continues with the Spartan offensive line. I'll be listing the players from the left side of the line to the right.
Jack Conklin - R. Soph. - 6'6", 303 lbs.
It's not often redshirt freshmen earn a spot on a Spartan offensive line, especially ones who came to East Lansing as preferred walk-ons, but Conklin won the starting left tackle position last season and excelled there. He started 13 games last season (three at right tackle, ten at left tackle) on the way to being named a Freshman All-American by three publications. Conklin played at around 330 lbs. in 2013, but slimmed down to 303 entering camp. He sees the weight loss as a way to progress as a player:
"I think for how young I was, it helped (weighing more) because my technique wasn’t exactly there. The weight would save me in certain situations," said Conklin, who was named to three freshman all-America . "But now, my technique is coming along. Losing the weight will help that even more."
Dennis Finley - R. Fr. - 6'6", 305 lbs.
The lone offensive lineman signed in the 2013 class, Mark Dantonio managed to snag Finley out of Cass Tech. He'll back-up Conklin throughout the 2014 season.
Travis Jackson - R. Sr. - 6'4", 291 lbs.
The only 2014 captain on offense has had to suffer through injuries for a good portion of his Spartan career. In 2012 a broken leg against Ohio State sidelined him for the rest of that season, and in 2013 it looked like he would hold the starting position at center. However, Jack Allen then won the center spot after the South Florida game, and Jackson filled in on several positions on the line, ending the season starting at right guard in place of an injured Dan France in the Rose Bowl.
Now the starting left guard and a captain, Jackson's taking both positions to heart:
"So you're always learning, and taking stuff from players and coaches, and adding it to your game and your leadership skills. You learn from everyone. Being an offensive lineman, you just kind of like to preach toughness and you also want the guys to have fun and let them know you love them. I just want to be known as a team guy, who will do anything for the team."
In addition, Jackson had one of the touchdown celebrations of last season:
Benny McGowan - R. Soph. - 6'3", 312 lbs.
The third-year player out of Centerville, Ohio only played once last season, against Youngstown State. He'll see time this season backing up Jackson at left guard.
Jack Allen - R. Jr. - 6'2", 299 lbs.
Allen began the season behind Travis Jackson at center, but after injuries took Jackson out of the Youngstown State game, Allen started at that position from every game out, picking up second-team All-Big Ten honors in the process. Offensive line coach Mark Staten thinks Allen's background as a state champion wrestler in high school also serves him well on the gridiron:
"He was the bulldozer," Staten said, "the guy that kept things going, brought that bit of nastiness every single play. He cannot stand to lose; it doesn't matter if it's a play, a series or a game. "As combative as he is with the wrestling, it just suited us."
Brian Allen - Fr. - 6'2", 294 lbs.
Get ready to hear this tidbit constantly -- Brian Allen is Jack Allen's younger brother. Also a state champion wrestler, the brothers had a friendly sparring session over the summer:
"I took him down," Jack said. "And it ended there. Because then I knew I could stall out the rest of the match and he (wouldn’t) be able to take me down."
Said Brian: "Apparently he was telling people he took me down. It was a draw if I could remember."
Allen could be a rarity though -- a Spartan true freshman who sees significant time playing on the offensive line. Dantonio's not worried though:
"He looks like he belongs," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said of Brian, who has been getting work as the No. 2 center behind Jack. "Tough. Just a chip off the old block. It’s exciting to have him, he’s gonna be a great football player for us."
Donavon Clark - R. Jr. - 6'4", 306 lbs.
Clark started last season as the starter at left tackle for four games before being displaced by Jack Conklin at that position. Clark filled in in various spots on the line last season, and entered camp as the starter at right tackle until Connor Kruse's injury pushed Clark inside.
Clark also had problems with stuttering growing up and when he first entered Michigan State, but overcame that issue. Says Staten once again:
"He has overcome so much," offensive line coach Mark Staten said. "He can share it with the rest of the nation that it’s OK, to tell young people that it’s OK. He has gotten so much more comfortable in his own skin. It’s when he gets put on the spot, sometimes, when he has to stop and take a breath."
"It’s tough," Staten continued. "You feel for those guys. Why are they having to go over that hurdle?"
Brandon Clemons - R. Jr. - 6'3", 290 lbs.
Clemons started camp on the defensive side of the ball, but Kruse's injury necessitated a backup at right guard, so Clemons made the transition. Look for him to see some time early in an effort to get him better adjusted to life on the OL.
Connor Kruse - R. Sr. - 6'5", 325 lbs.
While Kruse didn't start last season, he saw time at all five positions on the offensive line. He was the starter at right guard heading into camp until a knee injury during MSU's second fall scrimmage sidelined him for an indefinite amount of time. Luckily, indefinite doesn't mean the whole season in this case, so hopefully he's back sooner than later.
Kodi Kieler - R. Soph. - 6'6", 304 lbs.
Kieler saw time mostly on special teams last season, and was the backup right tackle heading into camp. When Kruse's injury pushed then-starter at right tackle Donavon Clark into starting at right guard, Kieler claimed Clark's starting spot. While Kieler was listed as the backup, it's clear Dantonio feels little trepidation about starting the redshirt sophomore:
"We're very comfortable, Kodi Kieler is one of the guys I looked at in the spring,'' Dantonio said. "He had an outstanding spring. He's a very athletic big guy, he's tough, and he knows what to do.''
Miguel Machado - Jr. - 6'6", 306 lbs.
A Rose Bowl title wasn't the only thing the Spartans took out of Pasadena last season. Machado is a junior college transfer from Pasadena City college, and he didn't take the JUCO route because he had bad grades:
"I had very good grades (but) I was taking credits that didn’t transfer to the Division I level," said the 6-foot-6, 306-pound Machado. "I didn’t know, and they didn’t tell me. I basically got my (associate’s) degree in one year."
Now at Michigan State, Machado thinks playing offensive tackle at an FBS level is more complex than in the JUCO ranks:
"Way more plays," Machado said. "At my junior college it was step left, step right, stretch left, stretch right. Basic plays that anybody could remember, not as hard and difficult as here. I never even pulled before I got here — this is all new to me."
The line is the big question mark on offense. While there are proven starters like Conklin and Jackson still around, the new guys will have to step up fast -- Oregon is a couple weeks away.