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Michigan State, one of the country's steadiest winners. Imagine saying that a decade ago.

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In a conference looking to rebuild its powerhouses, Michigan State assures the Big Ten of at least two very good teams in 2015.

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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1. Easing away from the pack

Mark Dantonio has pretty much ruined it for all other coaches taking on rebuilding jobs. Rebuilding is a difficult thing. But while there have been setbacks in Dantonio's seven years, they have been minimal and easy to explain. Dantonio's tenure has been as smooth and forward-moving as you'll ever see.

-- The 2014 Michigan State preview

Sixteen years ago, Nick Saban left East Lansing for Baton Rouge, starting a seven-year period of frustration and the "Sparty, No!" meme. Under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith, the Spartans put a lot of individual talent on the field, dropped hints of excellent play, and went 38-45. From 2002-06, they went 4-14 in games decided by one possession. Nobody snatched disappointment from the jaws of hope as frequently as early-aughts Sparty.

"Sparty, No!" is dead. Seven years of sadness have been swallowed up by eight years of growth. Sure, there have still been disappointments, but from a quality standpoint, the job Dantonio has done has been stunning. He inherited a team that had ranked 75th in the F/+ rankings in 2006 and engineered the following run: 26th, 32nd, 31st, 31st, 14th, 20th, 12th, 11th.

Like most teams, Dantonio's Spartans have gone through ups and downs based on which way the close-game winds have blown; they went 6-12 in one-possession games from 2007-09, then went 8-1 in 2010-11 before settling into a nice 7-6 groove since. But after going 22-17 in his first three years, Dantonio's gone 53-14 since, and that's including a 7-6 campaign in 2012.

In a conference laden with parity -- Monday's Big Ten power rankings are going to feature seven teams bunched together in one tier and five in another -- State is likely to stand alone in second place, a couple of steps behind Ohio State and a few ahead of everybody else. As James Franklin (Penn State) and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) attempt to turn Big Ten East blue bloods back into contenders, they'll have to clear the Michigan State hurdle before they can even think about catching Urban Meyer. And that's not going to be easy.

There are questions: can the running game remain steady without Jeremy Langford and two starting guards? Who steps up to fill receiver Tony Lippett's shoes after his breakout? Does the pass rush suffer without end Marcus Rush? Does the defensive playmaking drop off without Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes?

All told, that's not a bad list, and the potential answers are cause for optimism. The rest of the Big Ten pack isn't going to wait for Michigan State to fall; good hires and investment mean schools are coming after what is currently the second-best program in an improving conference.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 11
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
29-Aug Jacksonville State N/A 45-7 W 96% 39.9 100%
6-Sep at Oregon 3 27-46 L 45% -2.9 5%
20-Sep Eastern Michigan 128 73-14 W 96% 40.6 100%
27-Sep Wyoming 113 56-14 W 94% 37.2 100%
4-Oct Nebraska 30 27-22 W 95% 38.2 100%
11-Oct at Purdue 84 45-31 W 63% 7.5 88%
18-Oct at Indiana 88 56-17 W 49% -0.3 58%
25-Oct Michigan 54 35-11 W 96% 41.8 100%
8-Nov Ohio State 1 37-49 L 48% -1.4 6%
15-Nov at Maryland 62 37-15 W 85% 23.9 98%
22-Nov Rutgers 81 45-3 W 99% 52.0 100%
29-Nov at Penn State 45 34-10 W 87% 25.9 98%
1-Jan vs. Baylor 10 42-41 W 71% 13.2 40%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 40.1 10 21.4 22
Points Per Game 43.0 7 21.5 21

2. Blip and recovery

Good Michigan State was great Michigan State. In six of the Spartans' 12 wins, they performed at the 94th percentile (like a top-eight team) or better. Nobody's spectacular in every game, and this is as steady a performance as most could have asked for.

But there were blips, and three happened in the middle of the year.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 5 games): 85% (~top 20 | record: 4-1)
    Yards Per Play: Michigan State 6.5, Opponent 4.8 (plus-1.7)
  • Average Percentile Performance (next 4): 64% (~top 50 | record: 3-1)
    Yards Per Play: Michigan State 7.0, Opponent 5.6 (plus-1.4)
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 4): 86% (~top 20 | record: 4-0)
    Yards Per Play: Michigan State 6.1, Opponent 5.0 (plus-1.1)

Michigan State's defense under Dantonio and former coordinator Pat Narduzzi (now the head coach at Pitt) has long been about being aggressive. The Spartans would risk big plays to force turnovers and three-and-outs, and as the talent level grew, the D went from good to incredible. State ranked between 20th and 37th in Def. S&P+ each year from 2008-10, then surged to eighth in 2011 and second in 2012 and 2013.

Regression was expected in 2014, when the Spartans had to replace all-world cornerback Darqueze Dennard and half of their front seven, and they sank to 22nd last fall. They still suffocated lesser offenses, but the good ones were able to break the D a few too many times. Oregon, Ohio State, and Baylor, three top-10 offenses, combined to average 7.9 yards per play and 45.3 points against the Spartans. Everybody else averaged only 4.1 and 14.4, respectively.

Still, teams like Indiana and Purdue were also able to find more success than expected in the middle of the year. The Spartans rebounded after the Ohio State game, and even in the Baylor game, in which they allowed 41 points and 583 yards, they made enough stops down the stretch to pull off a dramatic comeback win.

By the way, did you notice that State's defense regressed, and the Spartans still improved overall in F/+? I don't think we talked enough about how awesome Michigan State's offense was.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.98 11 IsoPPP+ 138.7 6
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 48.2% 14 Succ. Rt. + 122.2 11
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.8 45 Def. FP+ 106.0 13
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.8 29 Redzone S&P+ 118.6 23
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.6 ACTUAL 15 -1.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 11 8 13 6
RUSHING 21 17 14 21
PASSING 36 6 14 6
Standard Downs 13 13 15
Passing Downs 5 17 4
Q1 Rk 7 1st Down Rk 22
Q2 Rk 15 2nd Down Rk 19
Q3 Rk 72 3rd Down Rk 32
Q4 Rk 5

3. Wanted: new big-play guys

For years, the job of the Michigan State offense was to get out of the way. The Spartans won 11 games in 2011 with an offense that ranked 41st in Off. S&P+; in 2013, they won 13 with an O that ranked 73rd. But that No. 73 ranking was deceiving; State was abysmal early but clicked when Connor Cook took over at quarterback.

State averaged at least 6 yards per play in five of its final nine games of 2013, then in 10 of 13 last fall, ranking 10th in Off. S&P+. Cook completed the shift from scattershot to one of the country's best QBs, and he found one hell of a battery mate in Tony Lippett, who went from an explosive No. 3 option to an even more explosive No. 1.

The strength of Michigan State's offense was its explosiveness. Lippett and Keith Mumphery combined to average 18.6 yards per catch, and primary running backs Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill combined to show jets in the open field, each averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. Despite a slow tempo, the Spartans ranked 18th in the country with 75 gains of 20-plus yards.

That the Spartans return three of last year's four most frequent targets and some well-regarded (young) running backs is exciting. Cook will have familiar names, even if the running back is new. But Lippett, Mumphery, Langford, and Hill are all gone. State might have to raise its efficiency to offset potential regression.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Connor Cook 6'4, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8367 212 365 3214 24 8 58.1% 11 2.9% 8.4
Damion Terry 6'3, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9177 12 19 88 0 0 63.2% 0 0.0% 4.6
Tyler O'Connor 6'3, 222 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8820 12 16 151 2 1 75.0% 0 0.0% 9.4
Brian Lewerke 6'3, 195 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8779

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Jeremy Langford RB
276 1522 22 5.5 5.4 39.5% 3 2
Nick Hill RB
107 622 9 5.8 5.5 43.0% 1 1
Delton Williams RB 6'1, 228 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8682 54 316 5 5.9 8.3 35.2% 0 0
Connor Cook QB 6'4, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8367 40 133 2 3.3 2.3 37.5% 3 1
R.J. Shelton WR 5'11, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8609 21 148 2 7.0 4.0 66.7% 1 0
Gerald Holmes RB 6'0, 218 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8568 15 44 0 2.9 1.2 40.0% 0 0
Macgarrett Kings Jr. WR 5'10, 186 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8676 12 71 0 5.9 8.3 33.3% 2 1
Damion Terry QB 6'3, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9177 12 62 0 5.2 3.2 50.0% 1 0
Aaron Burbridge WR 6'1, 208 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9557 8 39 0 4.9 6.8 25.0% 0 0
Tyler O'Connor QB 6'3, 222 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8820 6 22 2 3.7 4.5 16.7% 0 0
Madre London RB 6'1, 220 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8731
T.J. Harrell RB 6'1, 210 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8680
Gerald Owens RB 6'2, 260 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8825
LJ Scott RB 6'1, 215 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9710

4. Who gets the carries?

Despite the loss of Lippett and Mumphery, it's not hard to figure out whom Cook will turn to.

Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge each caught at least 20 passes in both 2013 and 2014, and tight end Josiah Price has had plenty of reps. And between veterans like Andre Sims Jr., DeAnthony Arnett, and AJ Troup and youngsters like Trey Kilgore, the odds are good that at least one more weapon emerges.

Still, State is a run-first team on standard downs, and we don't know who will be running. That's a little bit off-putting.

Delton Williams showed serious jets in limited opportunities, but he also showed off a gun in public in March, got himself charged with brandishing a weapon, and got suspended indefinitely. I assume he is eventually reinstated (to the extent that it matters, he did have a permit), but until otherwise noted, the job looks like it might go to either redshirt freshman Madre London or sophomore Gerald Holmes. [Update: Williams was reinstated and is back at practice.] (Both are "smaller" backs by State standards -- they're about 220 pounds each.). But even if Williams is eventually the guy, the running position is far less seasoned.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tony Lippett WR-X
105 65 1198 61.9% 27.0% 50.5% 11.4 407 11.6 200.3
Aaron Burbridge WR-X 6'1, 208 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9557 53 29 358 54.7% 13.6% 47.2% 6.8 -4 7.1 59.8
Josiah Price TE 6'4, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8725 47 26 382 55.3% 12.1% 66.0% 8.1 58 8.4 63.9
Macgarrett Kings Jr. WR-F 5'10, 186 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8676 44 29 400 65.9% 11.3% 27.3% 9.1 51 9.7 66.9
Keith Mumphery WR-Z
42 26 495 61.9% 10.8% 57.1% 11.8 178 11.8 82.8
R.J. Shelton WR-F 5'11, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8609 21 16 173 76.2% 5.4% 66.7% 8.2 -15 8.4 28.9
Jeremy Langford RB
20 11 58 55.0% 5.1% 50.0% 2.9 -79 3.1 9.7
Jamal Lyles TE 6'3, 260 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8927 12 5 74 41.7% 3.1% 16.7% 6.2 7 8.3 12.4
AJ Troup WR-X 6'2, 218 Sr. 2 stars (5.1) NR 9 7 113 77.8% 2.3% 55.6% 12.6 31 12.5 18.9
Nick Hill RB
7 4 48 57.1% 1.8% 28.6% 6.9 -1 6.9 8.0
Monty Madaris WR-Z 6'1, 198 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9100 6 5 56 83.3% 1.5% 66.7% 9.3 -2 8.8 9.4
Andre Sims Jr. WR-F 5'9, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8465 4 3 26 75.0% 1.0% 50.0% 6.5 -9 7.1 4.3
Trevon Pendleton FB 6'0, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) NR 4 1 2 25.0% 1.0% 75.0% 0.5 -14 0.4 0.3
DeAnthony Arnett WR-Z 5'11, 182 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9761 3 2 11 66.7% 0.8% 33.3% 3.7 -13 4.2 1.8
Trey Kilgore WR-Z 6'1, 187 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8453
Dylan Chmura TE 6'4, 245 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7941
Matt Sokol TE 6'5, 244 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8600
Felton Davis III WR 6'3, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8717
Darrell Stewart Jr. WR 6'2, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8585

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 112 3.26 3.27 40.9% 72.1% 16.5% 182.5 2.6% 4.3%
Rank 28 29 64 44 30 28 7 17 16
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jack Allen C 6'2, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.861 35 All-American, 2014 1st All-Big Ten
Travis Jackson LG
29 2014 2nd All-Big Ten
Jack Conklin LT 6'6, 317 Jr. NR NR 26 2014 2nd All-Big Ten
Donavon Clark RG 6'4, 317 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8782 19
Connor Kruse RG
8
Kodi Kieler RT 6'6, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8382 7
Brian Allen LG 6'2, 306 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8915 1
Brandon Clemons RG 6'3, 305 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8747 0
Benny McGowan LG 6'3, 316 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8723 0
Miguel Machado RT 6'6, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8271 0
Dennis Finley LT 6'6, 305 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8913 0
Devyn Salmon C 6'1, 313 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8225 0
Chase Gianacakos RG 6'6, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432
Kyonta Stallworth OL 6'4, 270 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9199
Noah Listermann OL 6'7, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8751
Tyler Higby OL 6'5, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631

5. "The biggest question mark probably comes up front"

Big Ten offensive line coaches earned their pay checks. Ohio State replaced just about everybody and dominated on the ground anyway. Nebraska replaced almost everybody and improved.

Michigan State lost three multi-year starters, and I felt it would be a concern heading into 2014.

The biggest question mark for the offense probably comes up front, where three two- or three-year starters are gone. The line wasn't great last fall, but it was good at two things: short-yardage run conversion and passing-downs blitz pickup. If it can maintain competence, the offense will be fine. Not great, but fine.

The offense was more than fine. With help from a late-blooming Langford, the Spartans improved their line stats dramatically, from 77th in Adj. Line Yards and 69th in stuff rate to 28th in both. And despite plenty of downfield passing, State ranked seventh in Adj. Line Yards as well. Cook's rollout ability helped, but the State line produced an All-American and two more all-conference performers.

Two of the three postseason honorees are back. So is line coach Mark Staten.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.02 123 IsoPPP+ 110.2 41
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 33.1% 4 Succ. Rt. + 138.2 3
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 34.4 6 Off. FP+ 107.0 13
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.2 47 Redzone S&P+ 108.6 37
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.4 ACTUAL 34.0 +8.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 8 12 3 41
RUSHING 1 13 1 58
PASSING 61 16 9 27
Standard Downs 32 6 80
Passing Downs 5 7 6
Q1 Rk 14 1st Down Rk 18
Q2 Rk 32 2nd Down Rk 36
Q3 Rk 17 3rd Down Rk 55
Q4 Rk 55

6. Staying in-house

The Upgraded Spartans D

Dantonio spent five years under Jim Tressel at Youngstown State and three more as Ohio State's defensive coordinator. He was at varying levels a defensive assistant for 20 years before beginning his head coaching career, and he's probably not going to lose his mind and forget his principles now that he has lost his coordinator, no matter how good Narduzzi was.

Still, Narduzzi was Dantonio's coordinator for each of his 11 seasons at Cincinnati and Michigan State. This is going to be a change.

Dantonio aimed for the smallest change possible, promoting linebackers coach Mike Tressel (who's been with Dantonio for 11 years, too) and DBs coach Harlon Barnett (ditto) to co-coordinators. Continuity has been Dantonio's friend, and in Narduzzi's absence, he still has it.

Thanks to that, it's hard to imagine the overall style changing. The Spartans have carved out a niche as the least bend-don't-break unit in the country, aiming for efficiency above everything else and showing a willingness to get burned a few times in the process. As efficiency is the most important thing in college football, this makes sense, even if the approach backfired against really good offenses in 2014.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 139.6 2.38 2.23 28.4% 76.5% 23.1% 132.6 8.4% 9.4%
Rank 3 8 6 1 115 18 18 5 28
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Shilique Calhoun DE 6'5, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8389 13 33.5 5.7% 12.5 8.0 0 0 1 1
Marcus Rush DE
13 29.5 5.0% 10.5 7.5 0 3 2 0
Joel Heath DT 6'6, 296 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8720 13 20.0 3.4% 5.0 2.5 0 0 0 0
Lawrence Thomas DE 6'4, 300 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9733 13 19.5 3.3% 4.5 3.0 0 1 0 0
Malik McDowell NT 6'6, 285 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9843 13 12.5 2.1% 4.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Demetrius Cooper DE 6'5, 245 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8603 13 7.5 1.3% 2.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Montez Sweat DE 6'6, 239 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8222 2 3.0 0.5% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Damon Knox NT 6'5, 280 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8400 8 1.5 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Evan Jones DE 6'5, 252 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8530
Craig Evans DT 6'2, 328 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9116
Enoch Smith Jr. NT 6'2, 282 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8777
Robert Bowers DE 6'4, 235 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8519
David Beedle DT 6'5, 315 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8438
Raequan Williams DT 6'5, 270 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9146
Cassius Peat DE 6'3, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8795
Mufi Hunt DE 6'6, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8560








7. #Elite up front

The depth Dantonio and his staff have built is remarkable. The Spartans' D is overflowing with former star prospects and excellent three-star athletes who slapped on 20 or 40 pounds since moving to East Lansing. [Update: Knox is out an undisclosed amount of time with injury.]

While Ohio State's Joey Bosa is the best lineman in the conference, Michigan State has the best line. Losing Marcus Rush is a little bit scary considering his pass-rushing prowess, but the Spartans still return Shilique Calhoun and ace blitzer Ed Davis, and the line is teeming with potential Rush replacements, from big senior Lawrence Thomas to sophomore Demetrius Cooper.

Assuming the pass rush doesn't regress much, the run defense will again shine. State ranked first in Rushing Success Rate+ and first in opportunity rate in 2014, and every tackle on the roster (including blue-chip sophomore Malik McDowell) and almost every linebacker return. Rush was excellent, and middle linebacker Taiwan Jones was a stalwart, but until State doesn't replace strong players with more strong players, the Spartans get the benefit of the doubt, especially considering how well they've recruited here.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Taiwan Jones MIKE
13 45.5 7.8% 12.5 4.0 1 1 0 0
Ed Davis SAM 6'3, 233 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600 13 44.5 7.6% 12.0 7.0 0 2 1 0
Darien Harris STAR 6'0, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8581 13 37.0 6.3% 3.5 0.5 1 1 2 0
Riley Bullough MIKE 6'2, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700 13 22.0 3.7% 4.0 3.5 2 0 0 0
Mylan Hicks STAR
9 15.5 2.6% 1.5 1.0 0 4 0 0
Chris Frey SAM 6'2, 226 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8597 13 13.5 2.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jon Reschke MIKE 6'2, 230 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9194 8 9.5 1.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 2 0
Jalyn Powell STAR 5'11, 195 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8622 9 4.0 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Shane Jones MIKE 6'1, 228 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9030 8 3.0 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
T.J. Harrell STAR 6'1, 210 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8680
Byron Bullough MIKE 6'1, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8763
Drake Martinez LB 6'2, 215 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8617
Tyriq Thompson LB 6'1, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8865
Andrew Dowell LB 6'1, 210 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8894








Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kurtis Drummond FS
13 63.0 10.7% 5 0 4 11 0 0
RJ Williamson FS 6'0, 214 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8715 13 46.5 7.9% 0.5 0 3 5 0 0
Trae Waynes CB
13 40.0 6.8% 2 1 3 8 0 0
Montae Nicholson SS 6'2, 216 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9174 13 24.5 4.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Darian Hicks CB 5'10, 178 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8628 13 23.5 4.0% 1 0 2 3 0 0
Demetrious Cox CB/FS 6'1, 200 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9225 13 22.5 3.8% 2 1 0 2 1 0
Arjen Colquhoun CB 6'1, 197 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8359 11 9.5 1.6% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Mark Meyers FS 6'0, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8279 13 6.5 1.1% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Jermaine Edmondson CB 6'0, 181 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8500 11 6.0 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tony Lippett CB
13 4.0 0.7% 0 0 0 4 0 0
Jalen Watts-Jackson FS 5'11, 200 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8241
Vayante Copeland CB 6'0, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8885
Matt Morrissey SS 6'2, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432
David Dowell S 6'1, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8933
Josh Butler CB 5'11, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8912
Tyson Smith CB 6'0, 177 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8805
Kaleel Gaines CB 6'0, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8550
Khari Willis S 5'11, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8522

8. Got cornerbacks?

As good as your front seven is, your cornerbacks better be phenomenal if you're going to play the Michigan State way. Losing 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard could have hurt, but State slid 2015 first-rounder Trae Waynes into the role; easy peasy. But now Waynes is gone, too.

In R.J. Williamson and Montae Nicholson, State seems to be set at safety. Williamson is a playmaker, and while Nicholson wasn't very disruptive, he held his own as a freshman. If they're set, then the spring move of Demetrious Cox to corner could be permanent, and all eyes will shift to the other corner position.

Darian Hicks was mostly strong but struggled to move past bad plays and ended up losing his spot opposite Waynes, first to Cox, then, strangely enough, to Tony Lippett (the receiver who's turning heads in the NFL as a DB). If Hicks is more stable, then State is ready to dominate in the secondary again. But if not, or if Cox cannot play as steady at CB as he did at safety, then the Spartans could get burned a few too many times.

It's hard to worry about this defense, but cornerback is a potential red flag.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Mike Sadler 52 41.2 5 15 15 57.7%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Kevin Cronin 6'1, 220 Jr. 99 63.4 46 2 46.5%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Michael Geiger 5'8, 188 Jr. 72-72 11-14 78.6% 3-8 37.5%
Kevin Cronin 6'1, 220 Jr. 1-1 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
R.J. Shelton KR 5'11, 200 Jr. 31 25.6 1
Nick Hill KR 2 15.0 0
Macgarrett Kings Jr. PR 5'10, 186 Sr. 20 6.1 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 18
Field Goal Efficiency 96
Punt Return Efficiency 72
Kick Return Efficiency 15
Punt Efficiency 21
Kickoff Efficiency 20
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 40

9. Return-proof coverage

The Big Ten was a returns-heavy conference. Nearly every team had a great return man, and consequently, most teams had bad coverage numbers. That didn't apply to Michigan State. Spartan punt returns were pretty shaky, but R.J. Shelton proved strong on kick returns, and, most importantly, MSU coverage units were among the best in the country.

Losing punter Mike Sadler is a little scary, but State boasts a solid kickoffs guy in Kevin Cronin and a good-inside-40 place-kicker, and returns and coverage shouldn't change much (as long as the new punter isn't a line-drive specialist).

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
4-Sep at Western Michigan 65
12-Sep Oregon 4
19-Sep Air Force 76
26-Sep Central Michigan 91
3-Oct Purdue 74
10-Oct at Rutgers 79
17-Oct at Michigan 35
24-Oct Indiana 81
7-Nov at Nebraska 30
14-Nov Maryland 56
21-Nov at Ohio State 2
28-Nov Penn State 37
Five-Year F/+ Rk 32.7% (15)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 22 / 24
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 19 / 8.8
2014 TO Luck/Game +3.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 9.9 (1.1)

10. A legacy year

It's a strange year for Michigan State. The Spartans are clearly the second-most proven team in the conference and should have an excellent shot at double-digit wins again. But with defending national champion Ohio State returning a monstrous load of talent and playing host to Sparty in late-November, the odds of any serious conference title run are minimal.

So we'll call this a legacy season, likely one without any newfound achievements but one that further burnishes the résumé. Win another 10-plus games, go to another big bowl, and hope Ohio State loses enough talent after the season that you can strike again (albeit without Connor Cook).

Of course, the Spartans better figure out answers at running back and cornerback. The conference schedule is tricky, with not only Ohio State on the road, but also Nebraska and Michigan (i.e., the next two highest-ranked conference opponents). Getting Oregon early (and at home), while the Ducks are still breaking in a new QB is nice, but even a top-15 squad could slip to 9-3 if the breaks don't go right.

Still ... I just mentioned 9-3 as a potentially disappointing result for Michigan State. That says everything you need to know about where Dantonio has taken this program. The Spartans are going to be awesome again, even if they slip up here or there.