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2016 Michigan State Spartans Position Preview: Pass Catchers

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Sorry, tight ends, you don’t get your own post but we still love you!

Michigan State v Michigan
Can RJ Shelton become the go-to guy?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
As always, I encourage you all to follow me on Twitter @acsmith06 and tell me how wrong I am.

The 2016 MSU football team will feature a lot of fresh faces is in the pass-catching department. The Spartans have been able to churn out the last two Big Ten Receiver’s of the Year in Tony Lippett and Aaron Burbridge but there is a lot of work to do if they want to make it a three-peat. This year’s unit features some names you may know — RJ Shelton and Josiah Price — but it is mostly a group of question marks. The upside is, well, just that: the upside, which is tantalizing. Some highly recruited youngsters like Donnie Corley and Cam Chambers are looking to make an immediate impact this fall.

Let’s take a look at who will be on the receiving end of the (hopefully) many touchdowns to come this year.

WHO’S GONE?

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan State
Replacing this man will be muy dificil
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
WR Aaron Burbridge (Graduation — Selected in the 6th Round of the NFL Draft by San Francisco), WR MacGarrett Kings (Graduation), WR AJ Troup (Graduation), TE Paul Lang (Graduation)

As you can see, the Spartans lose a lot of firepower, namely in Burbridge.

The now-49er had far and away his best season in 2015 on his way to winning Big Ten Receiver of the Year. Just how good was he? In his first three seasons he totaled 80 catches for 916 yards and 3 touchdowns. In 2015 ALONE Burbridge racked up 85 catches for 1,258 yards and 7 touchdowns. Plus, he bailed out the MSU offense with incredible catches more times than anyone would care to admit. For all the talk about how much they will miss Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun, it will take a lot to fill AB’s size 11’s.

Kings was a steady contributor on both offense and special teams for his four seasons, but it seemed that for every big play he made there was a bonehead mistake not far behind. His explosiveness and route running will be missed, however.

Troup had moments but ultimately couldn’t stay healthy enough to contribute and Lang provided a nice replacement while Price was nicked up a year ago. His blocking was exemplary and is one of those little things that goes a long ways on the playing field.

IS THERE ANYONE LEFT ON THE ROSTER WHO CAN CATCH?

Michigan State v Michigan
Shelton will be called upon to have a big senior year
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
WR RJ Shelton (Sr), WR Monty Madaris (R-Sr), WR Felton Davis III (So), WR Darrell Stewart (R-Fr), WR Donnie Corley (Fr), WR Cam Chambers (Fr), WR Justin Layne (Fr), WR Trishton Jackson (Fr), TE Josiah Price (R-Sr), TE Jamal Lyles (R-Sr), TE Matt Sokol (R-So)

Just like with Cook, replacing the Burbridge is a tough task. Luckily, MSU’s pass-catching corps begins with a few reliable seniors in Shelton, Price and even Lyles.

Shelton has grown from gadget player to reliable target in the span of three seasons. In 2015, RJ was second on the team in catches (43), third in yardage (503 to Kings’ 519) and fourth in touchdowns (four to Kings’ five and Price’s six). He also had 127 yards rushing to boot. With such a young group behind him, the pressure is on to take it up another notch and become MSU’s go-to option.

At tight end, Price and Lyles serves as a Thunder and Lightning combination. Price is a great blocker and red-zone threat, while Lyles has the athleticism to stretch the field. Neither of their stat lines to date will wow you, but whomever ends up under center for MSU will have two nice safety blankets in this duo. Sophomore Matt Sokol is a receiving type who could fill in Lyles’ role should he play some defensive end (the position he played before converting to TE) or in case of injury.

Tight end is pretty locked up, but receiver is a different story. After Shelton, there are a lot of snaps available and several players in the mix to take them. First up, is Madaris. The once highly-recruited Cincinnati Moeller product has been dogged by injuries and a stacked depth chart but finally has his chance to shine. Mark Dantonio said Monday that he is currently a starter and even compared him to Bennie Fowler. Physically, it’s a solid comparison and if Madaris could approach Fowler’s senior stats (36 catches, 622 yards and 6 TD’s) Spartan Nation would be thrilled.

Further down the line are sophomores Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart, neither of whom have been heard from all too much. Davis had his redshirt burnt during the middle of last year in an effort to get him ready to contribute in 2016. The true sophomore stands at 6’4" and sports long dreadlocks but what makes him really tough to miss are his sticky hands. He only had two receptions a year ago, but both were nice grabs. Davis is currently listed as the co-starter with Madaris and figures to get a lot of looks in the red zone thanks to his height and leaping ability. He may be a touchdown hawk in the making.

Stewart has yet to register a collegiate catch but was a good get out of Texas who committed to MSU over offers from LSU, Louisville and Boise State. At 6’1" 198 he has good size is currently the starter at the F wideout position.

The biggest challenge for the sophomore tandem will be holding off the incredible class of true freshman that are already making waves in East Lansing. Donnie Corley, Cam Chambers, Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson were all four-star recruits with offers from all over the country and they come along at the perfect time.

Given that there are already four guys with multiple years "experience" in this unit, chances are at least two freshman redshirt while the other two play. Both Chambers and Corley enrolled in the spring and giving them a leg up on Layne and Jackson in the playbook and the early edge for the two playing spots.

Chambers was one of the first commits in the class and is a load at 6’2" 210. He not only looks the part physically but made a couple really nice grabs during the Green and White game including a touchdown from presumptive starter Tyler O’Connor.

Chambers looks serious about contributing but Corley is the real name to watch. The Detroit King grad was the crown jewel of the 2016 recruiting class, choosing MSU over an incredible list of schools* but most importantly Big Ten rivals Michigan and Ohio State. His running style is smooth, he makes catches look effortless and has a knack for the big play (see: his State Title-winning Hail Mary catch over Lowell last year). He’s already 6’2" 186, but should be able to add a good 10-15 lbs throughout his career without sacrificing speed. Corley possesses an all around skill set that will make it very difficult to keep him off the field. It’s very early, but he looks to be the real deal.

*Corley’s offer list was bonkers. It included Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Iowa, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, USC and Wisconsin. Not bad!

THAT ALL SOUNDS GREAT...BUT WHAT’S THE CATCH?

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State
Let’s hope Price can get this open during the season
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Pun intended. Nice.

It’s not a shocker but the challenge for the 2016 Spartan pass catchers will be a lack of experience.

Shelton and Price give MSU two reliable senior targets but after that there is very little actual in-game experience on the roster. Couple that with breaking in a new quarterback and replacing a few All-America lineman and it’s understandable why pundits would predict a sluggish MSU passing game.

The caveat to that narrative — at least for this group — is two-fold.

First, there is a TON of potential on this depth chart. In terms of pure talent, I’d wager MSU has as much as any team in the Big Ten they just haven’t had the chance to show it. Shelton is established, Madaris and Davis have each flashed in games, while Stewart and the freshman are, by all accounts, playmakers that could force their way onto the field this fall. The ingredients are there.

Secondly, productive wideouts regularly emerge from nowhere. Aside from 2012 when MSU accidentally replaced all the wideouts hands with bricks and Andrew Maxwell’s pocket awareness with a bag of cats, the passing game has been a relative strength of the Spartan offense. Talent-wise, there is no reason to think that changes this year.

In Mark Dantonio’s time, we have seen players at seemingly every position go from no-name one year to major contributor the next but at no position has the happened more than wideout. Blair White, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, Fowler, Lippett and Burbridge are all examples of guys emerging from nowhere to become contributors in a short span of time. You could even include Shelton in there.

There may not be another superstar in this group — not yet, at least — but Spartan fans should be cautiously optimistic. The talent level is high and Terrence Samuel is a damn good receivers coach. If he can turn talent into production, this group could go from unknown quantity to position of strength before long.