1. Connor Cook, Sr., QB: Connor Cook faced a steady diet of blitzes against Maryland last week and paid the price health wise. Sadly, his best read and throw against the blitz came on the play in which he was injured, as he stood strong in the pocket and delivered a completion to R.J. Shelton even as he was hit and his throwing shoulder was driven into the ground. Cook showed off his competitive side as he tried to play through his injury before becoming irate when the coaching staff finally pulled the plug on him at halftime, presumably to make sure he’s healthy for Ohio State. Unfortunately, Cook seemed to be in considerable pain as he frequently grasped in the vicinity of his rotator cuff, and I distinctly saw the training staff popping his shoulder back into place on the sidelines. While Cook and the MSU staff have refused to discuss it, I’m afraid that his injury may be much worse than is being disclosed, as rotator cuff and labrum strains don’t tend to heal rapidly.
Current Draft Projection: Early to mid 1st round. Status unchanged.
2. Jack Conklin, Jr., LT: Jack Conklin gave up a rare sack when he was caught lunging on a speed rush by Maryland defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. To be fair, Ngakoue is a top pass rush prospect, but it’s odd to see Conklin get beat that badly. Conklin did hold his own for the rest of the game, although Maryland did move Ngakoue around on the defensive line for most of the game. Next week Conklin faces the potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, which is a match-up that scouts around the country will be looking at very closely.
Current Draft Projection: Mid 1st round. Down from early to mid 1st round.
3. Shilique Calhoun, Sr., DE: In a game where I would have expected him to dominate, Shilique Calhoun didn’t seem to show up against Maryland. With three offside penalties in the first half alone, Calhoun looks like he’s pressing to live up to his hype as a pass rusher. While he was credited with half of a sack, I didn’t see it in reviewing the film. Calhoun will need a strong finish against some top notch opponents in order to re-establish himself as a first round draft prospect. Fortunately, he should get those opportunities.
Current Draft Projection: Late 1st round or 2nd round. Status unchanged.
4. Malik McDowell, So, DT (not draft eligible until after the 2016 season): Malik McDowell set the tone up front on defense for the Spartans against Maryland with a forced fumble and a ridiculous 4.5 tackles for a loss. McDowell continues to be a disruptive force up front as a true sophomore despite facing regular double teams. McDowell is looking more and more like a future 1st round draft pick, although I’m curious to see what position he ultimately projects at when all is said and done. Personally, I’d love to see what he could do coming off the edge as a pass rusher, but he could also possibly fill a J.J. Watt type of role at defensive end in a 3-4 defense, or play either defensive tackle position in a 4-3.
Current Draft Projection: 1st or 2nd round. Status unchanged.
5. Jack Allen, Sr., C/G/T: While Jack Allen was solid in his individual run and pass blocking assignments against Maryland, the Michigan State offensive line struggled as a whole against the blitz. It’s tough to tell how much of recognizing those blitzes fell on the shoulders of Allen, Connor Cook or the coaching staff, but it’s clear that the Spartans are going to continue to see a heavy dose of pressure going forward until they can demonstrate the ability to effectively pick them up.
Current Draft Projection: 2nd to 4th round. Status unchanged.
6. Aaron Burbridge, Sr., WR: Aaron Burbridge was shut down for the most part against Maryland. Matched up with NFL prospect William Likely for most of the game, Burbridge struggled to get open, and with Connor Cook leaving the game due to injury at half time, he did not get the benefit of seeing any 50/50 throws from the less experienced Tyler O’Connor. Burbridge will need to shine and demonstrate the ability to generate separation against Ohio State in order to maximize his value as a potential day two NFL Draft pick.
Current Draft Projection: 3rd to 4th round. Down from 2nd to 4th round.
7. Demetrious Cox, Jr., CB/S: Demetrious Cox moved back to free safety for the Maryland game and looked extremely comfortable. Cox did not struggle in coverage like fellow safety and true freshman Grayson Miller did, and had a nice pass breakup on a third down play that forced a Maryland punt. While Cox has been one of Michigan State’s better corners this year, it is clear that he is a more natural fit at free safety, which is becoming a much more valued position in today’s NFL.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 6th round. Status unchanged.
8. Joel Heath, Sr., DT: Joel Heath sat out the Maryland game after suffering leg injury on a cheap shot from an opposing Nebraska player. Heath has been a fine compliment to nose tackle Malik McDowell all season, and his return will be essential in establishing Michigan State’s defensive front against Ohio State, as he’s been one of Michigan State’s most versatile pass rusher/run stuffer all season.
Current Draft Projection: 5th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
9. Lawrence Thomas, Sr., DE/DT: Lawrence Thomas made more of an impact against Maryland than he had in recent weeks. While his inability to win one on one match-ups as a pass rusher this season has been disappointing, Thomas did nearly record a sack on a strong pass rush that forced an incompletion against the Terps. He also showed good downfield pursuit in helping make a tackle on Maryland ball carrier William Likely. Thomas will need a strong performance against a powerhouse like Ohio State to prevent his draft status from tumbling.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
10. Riley Bullough, Jr., MLB: Riley Bullough played a monster game against Maryland. He started with a tackle for a loss/no gain on the first play of the game, followed by a quarterback pressure and another tackle for a loss on the second and third plays. Throw in a pick six at a time when the Spartan offense was struggling, and Bullough was MSU’s MVP against the Terps. Bullough even seemed to diagnose and call out the run play on Maryland’s lone touchdown, but was just a fraction of a second too late from making the play.
Current Draft Projection: 6th to 7th round. Status unchanged.
11. Josiah Price, Jr., TE: As Connor Cook’s red-zone security blanket, Josiah Price was probably affected the most by Mark Dantonio’s decision to remove Cook from the game at half time due to a shoulder injury. Becoming more physical as an inline blocker would be beneficial to Price’s game, as he would see fewer match-ups against safeties who have little trouble covering him and more against linebackers who he can exploit down the field.
Current Draft Projection: 7th round. Status unchanged.
12. Darien Harris, Sr., OLB: Darien Harris continued his solid play against Maryland with a quarterback pressure that lead to an incompletion on third down, as well as a beautiful read and react as he blew up a screen pass. After a slow start to the season, Harris has played some of his best football as a Spartan in recent weeks with solid tackling and better lateral range, and is looking more and more likely to at least earn an invite to a NFL training camp.
Current Draft Projection: 7th round or undrafted free agent. Previously unranked.
Next up on the draft board:
Demetrius Cooper, So., DE: Demetrius Cooper continued his strong play as a rotational defensive end with a forced fumble and recovery against Maryland. He has all of the tools to be Michigan State’s next playmaker at defensive end after Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas leave for the NFL.
Macgarrett Kings, Jr., Sr., WR: Despite some occasional drops, Macgarrett Kings, Jr. has developed into a strong target at receiver for the Spartans. While he is a bit undersized, Kings plays much bigger than his listed height of 5’10, frequently bringing down 50/50 balls against bigger defenders, best demonstrated by his spectacular one-handed catch down field against Maryland. Kings would project as a slot receiver in the NFL, and could see his value as a pro enhanced by being more productive as a punt returner, where he has been surprisingly unproductive despite an ability to make athletic moves in traffic while playing on offense.
L.J. Scott, Fr., RB: With just two carries against Maryland, it appears as if L.J. Scott has hit the proverbial freshman wall that even Le’Veon Bell hit during his true freshman year as a Spartan. Couple Scott’s lack of playing time with two fumbles on his two carries, and I don’t expect him to receive much meaningful playing time, if any, against Ohio State.