It’s that time of year again — we are officially in the opening week of the college football season, which means the Michigan State football team is set to take the field Friday night against FCS opponent Jacksonville State.
The Spartans are coming off a magical season that saw them win the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State and win the Rose Bowl against Stanford — so the expectations are as high as they’ve ever been in East Lansing.
With a large portion of last year’s talent returning and a favorable schedule the Spartans have for 2014, many are selecting them as preseason favorites to make the new college football playoff in its first year.
Regardless of the talent returning and all other things going in their favor, it’s still going to be extremely difficult to run the table like many are predicting and there are still some significant questions that need answering for Mark Dantonio’s squad. Here are some of the biggest questions and things to look for heading into the season opener.
1. The Offensive Line
2013 was an amazing season for the Spartans for a number of reasons, but one of the most notable things and something that went under the radar was the health and experience of the offensive line. There were no extensive injuries all season long, something that has plagued Dantonio during his time coaching the green and white.
The line loses three players who played a ton of snaps with the departures of Fou Fonoti, Dan France and Blake Treadwell. In 2014, Jack Allen returns at center and Jack Conklin returns to left tackle as well as Travis Jackson moving to left guard, but the right side of the line will have a new look Friday with Donavan Clark at guard and Kodi Kieler at tackle. Clark saw significant playing time last season in the offensive line rotation, but Kieler has yet to see valuable minutes and was bumped into the starting spot after an injury to Connor Kruse.
You can have all of the experienced skill players in the world but if you can’t set the tone at the line of scrimmage, you’re not going to perform well on offense. It’s important this group comes together and helps keep the offense balanced.
2. Darian Hicks and Taiwan Jones
How do you replace the production of players like Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard? Well, you just don’t. Players of that caliber don’t come around too often and expecting anyone to play at that level is unrealistic, but Hicks and Jones are the two that will fill their shoes.
Jones has essentially been a starter for two years and contributor at the STAR linebacker position, but will move to the MIKE linebacker spot for his senior season. Jones has all of the physical ability in the world, but the biggest question is can he be extension of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi like Bullough was? That remains to be seen, but we’ll get a taste of how capable he is in the first two weeks with the up-tempo offenses MSU faces.
As for Hicks, he will step in as the new corner hoping to excel under Dantonio and Narduzzi and we’ll found out how good he is right away. Trae Waynes will move to Dennard’s old boundary corner spot, which means Hicks will play the field corner position in his first year as the starter. Teams are going to attack the wide side of the field right away, looking to test how ready the young corner is.
3. The Other Running Backs
We all know about Jeremy Langford and what he’s capable of as a runner after his breakout 2013 season. The bigger question that’s looming is finding out who the second back on this team is going to be.
Nick Hill returns for his senior year but has never really made an impact in the running game. Sophomore Delton Williams was strong in limited appearances last season but never really got a real chance at making an impact. Redshirt freshman Gerald Holmes is unproven and true freshman Madre London has had a strong camp but hasn’t separated himself.
If all goes according to plan Friday night, all three of these guys should get some looks in hopes of separating themselves from one another and finding the clear number two back.
4. The Freshman Defensive Lineman
The world of college football recruiting is bigger than ever and Dantonio was able to experience instant recruiting benefits from winning the Rose Bowl with the commits of 5-star lineman Malik McDowell and 4-star lineman Craig Evans.
All reports from camp have shown that these two kids can both play, along with a few other freshman defensive lineman. Dantonio said McDowell and Evans will both for sure play Friday, so we’ll see what kind of impact they can make.
5. Macgarrett Kings
How much will we see out of 2013 standout Macgarrett Kings Friday night? Nobody knows and Dantonio isn’t giving any indication.
Kings was one of the Spartans go-to receivers down the stretch last season but was suspended for all of spring ball for a violation of team rules. He’s no longer suspended, but is only listed at the starting punt returner as of now.