As we get closer and closer to the Spartans Friday night season opener against Boise State on August 31st, it’s about time we start looking at the strengths and weaknesses of this years team.
It’s clear that the Spartans strong suit is on the defensive side of the ball, as they have eight returning starters, six of which were named to the All-Big Ten team. William Gholston, a junior defensive end, is not only being watched as the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten, but the best defensive lineman in college football. Senior cornerback Johnny Adams is one of the eight returning starters from a year ago, and has been predicted to be one of the top defensive backs taken n the 2013 NFL Draft.
While many believe that defense wins champions, and in most cases rightfully so, this year in a conference like the Big Ten you’re going to have to score points, and that’s where I believe the Spartans will struggle early on.
Unlike the defense, the Spartans offense has lost some very key components. Kirk Cousins, the best quarterback in the history of Spartan football, is gone and first-year starter Andrew Maxwell is looking to takeover where he left off. Michigan State also lost two very exceptional tight ends in Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek, and are hoping that junior Dion Sims can fill the void at tight end.
Many would think that losing the school’s best quarterback of all-time would be enough to set a team back for a season, but in the Spartans case, it’s the wide receivers that seem to make Michigan State quarterbacks a little more glamorous than they actually are.
Aside from losing two reliable tight ends and a winning quarterback, the Spartans lost their three best wide receivers from a year ago in B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol.
I’m not going to discredit the abilities of former Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins (2007-2012) and Brian Hoyer (2004-2008), but I believe it was a case of the receivers making the quarterbacks, and not the other way around.
During both of the former QB’s tenures they had some of the best offensive receivers/tight ends in recent Spartan history such as: Blair White (NFL), Devin Thomas (NFL), Kellen Davis (NFL), B.J. Cunningham (NFL), and Mark Dell (NFL).
These guys helped build confidence in Cousins and Hoyer, which led to an obvious comfort level between the quarterbacks and their receivers.
Now starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell is throwing to targets, like him, lacking experience, which may put a damper in his confidence.
It is clear that Dion Sims will start at tight end for the Spartans and has shown some flashes of play-making ability, but it’s still a toss-up on who will start on the outside for Michigan State.
Right now it seems like the starters will be sophomore Tony Lippett and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett. These guys have showed promise throughout spring ball, but one thing that neither has is much experience on game day.
With a new quarterback taking snaps under center you would at least want veteran guys on the outside to take pressure off of the young QB, but MSU’s most experience weapon on offense is starting junior running back Le’Veon Bell.
The lack of experience on the outside will hurt MSU early on in three ways, and here they are:
It’s going to take a few games for Maxwell to get comfortable with his receivers. No matter how comfortable he feels with them in practice, hopefully Maxwell quickly realizes that a game setting much more intense and aggressive than a practice setting. Maxwell needs to find comfort with his receivers as soon as possible, but with the lack of experience from both positions, I think that will take a few games to figure out.
2. The 3rd and 7 Factor
While it’s pretty clear that the Michigan State offense will be centered around their running game, not as extreme as Javon Ringer’s 2008 season, but the question still remains what will happen when the Spartans are out of range to run, but need a first down? In most cases like this teams go to their go-to-player or go-to-play, but with the inexperience it may be a while before Maxwell finds a go-to-target, or the Spartans offense finds a go-to-play for this situation.
3. Single Coverage
What have Lippett and Arnett done to put fear in the eyes on defenses? If these guys don’t get out to a good start at the beginning of the season it is likely that defenses will stuff the box to stop the proven Le’Veon Bell and not worry about the “no names” on the outside. Lippett, Arnett, and Sims need to make noise against Boise for defenses going forward to respect them, so that Le’Veon Bell and the rest of the backfield is not the sole focus of defenses.
It’s going to be one interesting start of the season for MSU mainly because we don’t know what to expect. We don’t actually know how good these new guys will be, or what the Spartans attack will look like.
If Maxwell shows a comfort level with his receivers early on the season then you reading this was meaningless and a waste of time, but the lack of experience on the outside will noticeably affect the Spartans offense in a negative way, at least until they start getting into the flow of the season.
If this team gets off to a great start early offensively then they will be a force in the Big Ten, but if not, it will be a long season for Spartan fans.