The road to a Big Ten Championship will go through East Lansing in 2014. On November 8th the Buckeyes have a date with Mark Dantonio’s boys in a tilt that will most likely decide the B1G East champion.
There’s no need to rehash what happened in Indianapolis last December. Ohio State’s defense was exposed plain and simple. Since, the Buckeyes have put in significant work on that side of the ball, hiring two new coaches while snatching up defensive talent on the recruiting trail.
Unlike Ohio State, the Spartans will lose quite a bit of juice from their top defense of a year ago. With that said, they’ll charge into 2014 with most of their offensive weapons intact. So, let’s take a way-too-early look at how the Spartans are shaping up.
For the first time since Kirk Cousins, the Green and White will have a defined starter heading into the season. Connor Cook emerged as the Spartans go-to, consistently getting better as the season wore on. In the final two games of his 2013 campaign, Cook put up career bests pinning 304 yards and 3 TDs on the Buckeyes then following that up with a Rose Bowl MVP performance where he threw for 332 yards and two TDs.
Joining Cook in the backfield will be running back, Jeremy Langford. The senior-to-be put together an amazing 2013, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 TDs.
Making the sledding a little tougher for Cook and Langford is the fact that three of the Spartans’ starting hog-mollies ran out of eligibility. Offensive line coach, Mark Staten is forced to replace right tackle Fou Fonoti, right guard Dan France and team captain, left guard Blake Treadwell. Staten claims the Green and White went eight deep on the line for most of the year, so replacing the familiar faces shouldn’t be a problem.
If Cook get the protection he needs, he’ll be throwing to a lot of the same guys. The only significant change will be the departure of Bennie Fowler, who exhausted his eligibility and will take his game to the NFL. Depth will be supplied by Keith Mumphery, Andre Sims Jr. and Monty Madaris, with some projecting the starters to be Aaron Burbridge (22 receptions for 194 yards), Macgarrett Kings (43 receptions for 513 yards and 3 TDs), and Tony Lippett (44 receptions for 613 yards and 2 TDs).
On defense things aren’t as static. The Spartans are losing two starters on each level of their staunch D. Gone is the B1G’s best cornerback Darqueze Dennard as well as strong safety Isaiah Lewis. From the LB position the Spartans lose the incredibly talented duo of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and on the line the Green and White will be forced to replace tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds.
Lucky for Pat Narduzzi the defensive line will return two phenomenal ends in Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun. The two combined for 67 tackles and 12.5 sacks in 2013. As aforementioned the Spartans will lose both tackles. Junior backup Damon Knox looks to have one of the spots locked down, filling the other will be a toss-up Joel Heath (who would be converting from defensive end), James Kittredge, Noah Jones and Devyn Salmon.
Taiwan Jones will return at the weakside linebacker position. The senior put together an admirable 2013 campaign notching 57 tackles including 8 in the Spartans’ Rose Bowl win. Possibly the biggest question heading into 2014 is who will join Jones on the field?
It seems the coaches have tabbed backup Ed Davis for one of the two open spots. In limited playing time last season Davis tallied 17 tackles and 4 sacks. He should get a look at the strongside slot as well as the middle linebacker position. Ideally the coaches would love either Shane Jones or Jon Reschke to step in and fill the middle linebacker void. Both redshirt freshmen were four-star recruits who have the size, intellect and athleticism to see the field. Also battling for the Mike spot will be Darien Harris and Riley Bullough.
In the secondary, the heralded “No-Fly-Zone” will be tasked with replacing the team’s best player, Darqueze Dennard. Dennard was a force to be reckoned with, and finished out his career in the Green and White as the Spartans’ first Jim Thorpe Award winner and consensus All-American.
The soon-to-be junior Trae Waynes looks to be that replacement. Waynes put together an impressive 2013 notching 35 tackles and 3 interceptions including a beauty in Pasadena. With a player like Dennard, teams constantly challenged Waynes and more often than not, he delivered. He wants to be the man next season and claims he is ready to accept the responsibility.
Replacing Isaiah Lewis at strong safety is also going to be a challenge. RJ Williamson filled in for Lewis after an injury in 2013 and played admirably. Conventional wisdom would suggest he will be the starter but Demetrious Cox is also in the running.
There are questions for Michigan State heading into 2014 and the offense appears to be further along than the defense in terms of answers. The Spartans are losing some of the best defensive talent in the country. If they want to continue their dominance (particularly their “No-Fly-Zone” reputation) they’ll need to find replacements who have the confidence and ability to step into some incredibly large cleats right away.