Michigan State Football: Why early season success rests on the shoulders of the wide receivers

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.

Dion Sims

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:

1. Comfort

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.





  1. DarthProphet says

    Well written, I’m liking this isports place they seem to provide good writers. Allow me to make a prophecy, unlike Oregon, V-Tech and the Dawgs I believe Dantonio is going to go all in on his young QB and Receivers core. However he won’t hang them out to dry but use the same game plan Mouse Davis employed against Dallas in the 1991 divisional play off game. If Boise State has shown 1 thing it’s their 4-2-4 defense can stop any high powered big time running game out there and I just don’t see him following in the footsteps of the others failings.
    In Bronco Nation we debate amungst our selves what past game will this one be like. Many think it will be like the 2009 BSU vs Ducks game while others see more in common with the 2008 BSU vs Ducks game . For me it’s neither simply because both teams are going to show us all something new. again Look for MSU to use the old Silver stretch run and shoot ,dink and dunk passing ball control offense while get ready for Chris Petersen to unlesh his version of Oregon’s hurry up wild cat. Keep in mind even in the Georgia game last year he pulled out the winningest all time QB to put in Grant Hendrick to run it and they did effectively all but 1 time as well in the thrid qt in the Georgia dome BSU used the hurry up to run the Dawgs d into the ground which lead to them opening up a insurmountable lead. Kellen Moore is gone and now Boise State has 4 running QB’s of verious skills if coach Pete was willing to pull Kellen during the season I do not for see him having any problems playing multiple QB’s this season and way more often. now for the really bad news sparty .. http://youtu.be/hVKzkWgWAEo later all ..

  2. says

    I’m curious to see if Maxwell will live up to his supposed potential. If he can make smart decisions and get the WRs involved early on in games, the rest of the offense will start clicking. Balance is key.

    • James Edwards III says

      But will the wide receivers produce? That’s the biggest question. The previous qb’s had help, he doesn’t have any experience to help him.

    • James Edwards III says

      But will the wide receivers produce? That’s the biggest question. The previous qb’s had help, he doesn’t have any experience to help him.

  3. says

    I’m curious to see if Maxwell will live up to his supposed potential. If he can make smart decisions and get the WRs involved early on in games, the rest of the offense will start clicking. Balance is key.


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