Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

B1G shoes to fill: Michigan State

March, 31, 2015
Mar 31

Mark Dantonio thinks this year’s senior class at Michigan State might be one of the best he has had. That doesn’t mean the Spartans will start the 2015 season without important holes to fill.

All week, we’ll be looking at outgoing Big Ten players who are leaving big shoes to fill for whoever steps in behind them. The exiting seniors in East Lansing won more games than any class in Michigan State history, leaving plenty to live up to. Two of the hardest players to replace had great finishes to their careers in positions that often are counted on to be playmakers for the Spartans.

B1G SHOES TO FILL: Jeremy Langford, RB

Why: Langford might be the most underrated running back coming out of the conference this season. He came up just shy of 3,000 rushing yards and averaged 20 touchdowns per year during his last two seasons as the featured player in Michigan State’s running game. Quarterback Connor Cook and the passing attack took a major step forward in the past couple years, but they remain a run-first offense that will need to find someone to step up and replace Langford’s production.

Replacement candidates: Madre London (6-1, 220, redshirt freshman), Gerald Holmes (6-0, 218, sophomore), Delton Williams(6-1, 228, junior), L.J. Scott (6-2, 228, freshman)

The skinny: Williams, the only back with significant experience, would be the frontrunner here if he wasn’t missing spring practice due to a recent arrest. It’s unclear if Williams will rejoin his teammates. In the meantime, Holmes and London get a head start this spring. They might need it to fend off Scott when he arrives this summer. The Ohio native was Michigan State’s top recruit this year. The Spartans won’t necessarily need to find their guy by the first week of the season, but history shows that Dantonio and his staff typically like to find one strong runner and stick with him.


Why: Waynes will be the top cornerback taken in this year’s NFL Draft for a reason. The 6-1, 182-pound physical corner thrived on an island last fall in the Spartans defense. Michigan State’s run defense – the top-ranked unit in the country in 2014 – counts on its defensive backs to handle receivers in single coverage. Waynes, who had 46 tackles and three interceptions in his final season, was a reliable option on the outside.

Replacement candidates: Darian Hicks (5-10, 178, junior), Demetrious Cox (6-1, 200, junior), Vayante Copeland (6-0, 200, redshirt freshman)

The skinny: Hicks returns with the experience of starting last year, but he struggled to cover the deep ball at times opposite Waynes. Cox has the size to be a strong player on the edge and also played last year. He worked mostly with the safeties but will shift outside this spring. Copeland is a former state champion sprinter from Ohio who sat out his freshman year like most rookies at Michigan State. He is among several young players who can push for playing time during the month of April. If someone is going to continue the Spartans rich recent history at cornerback, it probably will be one of these three.

Timing is everything in life and college sports.

For the Big Ten, perhaps the time, finally, is now.

This week, as Wisconsin and Michigan State head to Indianapolis for the Final Four, a game made in Big Ten basketball heaven beckons. How about a rematch Monday of the classic Big Ten tournament final in which the Badgers stormed back from a 16-point deficit to secure a No. 1 seed?

It would remove all suspense from the league’s bid to cut down the nets for the first time since Tom Izzo won it with the Spartans in 2000.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNOhio State's championship has bolstered the image of the Big Ten at a good time.

Sounds improbable against the likes of Kentucky and Duke. Almost as improbable, in fact, as the thought last fall of a Big Ten victory in the first championship game of the College Football Playoff.

“They are big stages,” Delany said Tuesday of the league’s postseason surge over the past three months. “I’m proud of our coaches and players, and our fan bases are excited about it.”

Regardless of the results over the next week in Indy, these are high times for the Big Ten.

Urban Meyer and Ohio State delivered the most resounding statement in January with wins over Alabama and Oregon to claim the inaugural playoff crown and the Big Ten’s first title since the Buckeyes beat Miami 12 years earlier.

The league’s New Year’s Day success against the SEC raised eyebrows. Michigan State nabbed a second straight top-five finish, earned with a thrilling win over playoff contender Baylor.

The hire of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan continues to make waves.

And the Big Ten’s deep pool of quarterbacks in 2015, headlined by Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and the three-headed monster at Ohio State, demands credibility.

So is 2015 the year of the Big Ten?

The next week will tell us. Newcomer Maryland, too, has a stake in the game, facing powerhouse UConn Sunday in the women’s Final Four.

Delany said league success breeds more success. He’s quick to note that the Big Ten has represented itself well in the NCAA tournament while held without a basketball championship as schools from the Big 12, American, SEC (with three), Big East (four) and ACC (five) took the big prize.

Since the Spartans’ 2000 title, five Big Ten teams have finished runner-up. Five others lost in the semifinals.

Delany declined Tuesday to offer an update on the progress of negotiations over the league’s next contract with its media partners. The current deal expires after the 2016-17 athletic season.

Oh, how he would enjoy, though, taking a seat at the table with football and basketball championships in his back pocket. Still, the commissioner downplayed the importance of a single title, or even two.

“If you’re having success, it’s good emotionally,” Delany said. “It gives you confidence, but the reality is, if you look at us over a 10-year, 15-year period, we’ve got great teams, great fan bases, great competition.

“There’s no way that a championship can do anything but a positive for you. But basically, it’s more in the immediate sense.”

Wooden Award finalist Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin teammate Sam Dekker pounded the Big Ten drum last weekend in Los Angeles after their win over Arizona in the West Region final secured a second straight trip to the Final Four.

The Badgers lost year in the semifinals to Kentucky. Conference pride is on the line Saturday.

“We like to win games,” Delany said. “That’s why you have them. When one does well, it reflects on the other. I feel that. I see it. I see it in how our people treat each other.”

Yes, the timing appears right for a big year in the Big Ten.

Our ultimate Big Ten road trip is nearing conclusion, and these late-season games loom even larger.

In case you missed our previous installments, we're picking what game we would attend in each week of the 2015 season, assuming (for fantasy purposes) that money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Here comes Week 12 and one titanic tilt:

Saturday, Nov. 21

Indiana at Maryland
Illinois at Minnesota
Michigan State at Ohio State
Michigan at Penn State
Northwestern at Wisconsin
Purdue at Iowa
Rutgers at Army

Bye: Nebraska

Unanimous pick: Michigan State at Ohio State

Brian Bennett: If I could only go to one conference game this season, it would have to be this one. Spartans-Buckeyes has become the Big Ten's main event over the past couple of years, and that should be the case again in 2015 as both teams figure to open the year in the top 5. If Ohio State is going to falter anywhere during its national title defense, this is the most likely spot, though having the game in the Horseshoe is a huge advantage. In the season's penultimate week, the Big Ten East Division likely will be on the line here, and I already can't wait.

Dan Murphy: The last two times these teams have met head-to-head essentially decided the Big Ten championship -- 2013 was in the actual title game, and in 2014 Michigan State presented the most significant threat to stop the Buckeyes. There’s a good chance history will repeat itself again in 2015. There won’t be a more anticipated game on either team’s schedule this season. The Urban versus Harbaugh death matches will need a few years to reach their peak. Until then, the Spartans and Buckeyes are the most interesting interstate matchup between these two neighboring states.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota
Week 8: Bennett and Moyer at Penn State vs. Maryland, Sherman at Ohio State-Rutgers, Ward at Northwestern-Nebraska
Week 9: Bennett, Moyer and Sherman at Michigan-Minnesota, Murphy at Rutgers-Wisconsin
Week 10: Moyer, Murphy and Sherman at Nebraska-Michigan State, Ward at Minnesota-Ohio State
Week 11: Unanimous: Minnesota at Iowa

Top Big Ten spring developments

March, 30, 2015
Mar 30

The last Big Ten team to open spring practice, Rutgers, gets started Monday. And Michigan, the first to finish, wraps Saturday at the Big House. The practices of February and March have shed light on the offseason direction of programs across the league.

As April approaches, here’s a look at five notable spring developments in the Big Ten:

Jake Rudock nears departure from Iowa: Rudock, the Hawkeyes’ two-year starting quarterback who was demoted behind C.J. Beathard in January, is free to leave Iowa City, with “no strings attached,” according to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Scheduled to graduate in May, Rudock visited Michigan this spring and could be eligible, under NCAA rules, to play in 2015, though the Big Ten may pose an obstacle with its intraconference transfer rule. The QB has yet to announce his intention. If he lands in Michigan, he would join an inexperienced group headed by junior Shane Morris; Wilton Speight and Alex Malzone own no college experience.

Harbaugh-mania accelerates: This phenomenon, of course, began long before spring practice. But the excitement that follows Jim Harbaugh at every turn has advanced to a new level since practice opened. While the Michigan workouts have produced few details, the coach continues to generate headlines away from the field -- for his roadside help for two women involved in a rollover car accident to his stint as first-base coach of the Oakland A’s. For his latest trick, Harbaugh finished fourth in U-M’s Central Student Government presidential election -- a post for which he did not run, of course. Needless to say, Harbaugh brings more to the Big Ten than just his coaching acumen.

Pro-style offense takes hold at Nebraska: New coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have introduced a series of foreign concepts during the first half of spring drills. At a school that built its reputation on power offensive football, the new coaching regime will bring much of the scheme that produced strong QB play at Oregon State. Langsdorf, who rejoins Riley after one year with the New York Giants, got a taste this month of the challenge ahead. Nebraska quarterbacks, led by Tommy Armstrong Jr., have been trained to gain yards with their feet as often as their arms. The transition figures to endure a few rocky moments.

Key Spartans missing: Michigan State opened practice last week without running back Delton Williams and receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. Both are facing legal issues after incidents that occurred in the past month. Coach Mark Dantonio offered little on their status. Neither player is listed on the MSU spring roster. Their standing in the program before next season looms large for Michigan State. Williams was the Spartans’ third-leading rusher as a sophomore in 2014, behind the departed Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill. Kings, as a junior, worked as the top MSU punt returner and accumulated 404 receiving yards as Connor Cook’s third-leading target.

Buckeyes maintain their edge: Complacency ranks as the No. 1 enemy of a defending champion. Through four practices, Ohio State appears on track to stay hungry in the chase to repeat. Plenty of competition for positions exists in Columbus, a factor that figures to drive the Buckeyes through the offseason. Early reports indicate that Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look set to wage a solid battle for the open cornerback position. Two vacant spots on the defensive line also have generated attention. And what’s that, you ask, about the most high-profile battle of all? Nothing much has happened at quarterback, what with Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett held out of most drills while Cardale Jones runs the show. It’ll get intense in August. And Urban Meyer already is feeling the heat.

With spring practices under way, it was a big visit weekend in the Big Ten. A number of programs within the conference had some big visitors on hand, so here is a look at some of the top prospects who were on campus and what a few had to say about the visits.


The Nittany Lions had a ton of big visitors on campus and that included quite a few 2017 prospects.

Lineman Robert Hainsey was one of those recruits on hand, and Hainsey tweeted a picture of the visit.

Cam Spence was another 2017 target in Happy Valley and he too took to Twitter to show off his experience.

The Nittany Lions also had some 2016 prospects, including Damar Hamlin, Michal Menet and Khaleke Hudson to name a few.


The Cornhuskers also had some big visitors on campus in Lincoln. Offensive lineman Nathan Smith was one of the bigger targets on hand and Smith tweeted his thoughts on his time on campus.


The Buckeyes picked up a huge commitment in 2016 running back Demario McCall, but the coaches had quite a few other big visitors on hand outside of McCall.

ESPN Jr. 300 tight end Luke Farrell was one of those visitors and Farrell currently holds Ohio State very high on his list.

"It went well," he said. "I liked getting to see practice and I liked how they run the position meetings."

Farrell is still planning some other visits, but wants to decide before his season starts.

One of the more important prospects visiting was Texas quarterback Tristen Wallace, who tweeted out quite a few pictures of the visit and time spent with current Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller.


The Spartans were yet another Big Ten program with a lot of traffic on campus, including Georgia prospects Isaiah Pryor, Russell Halimon, Korey Banks and Jamyest Williams.

Their time spent with the coaching staff was memorable, especially for Williams, who is a defensive back.

"I was just thinking while Coach [Mark] Dantonio was talking, that he can turn two stars into first-round draft picks, imagine when he gets a four-star athlete and what he could do for me," he said.

Michigan State also had ESPN Jr. 300 receiver Justin Layne in for a visit, and Layne tweeted about his time with the coaches.

Layne got a chance to hang out with ESPN Jr. 300 quarterback Messiah DeWeaver, who took a return trip to see Michigan State. DeWeaver will be deciding at the end of April, so this could be an important visit for Michigan State in that race.

"I was there for a couple days," he said. "I saw the ins and outs of practice and had a great time with the coaches and players."

South Carolina was also well represented in East Lansing with Nick McCloud, Josh Wilkes, Greg Ruff, Quay Brown, Jamari Curren and a few others taking the trip.


The Wolverines and Buckeyes had the chance to host one of the biggest visitors of the weekend in ESPN Jr. 300 defensive lineman Rashan Gary as well as a few other New Jersey prospects.

ESPN Jr. 300 receiver Ahmir Mitchell was among that group and tweeted out some pictures from their time at Michigan, including one picture at breakfast with Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan coaches offered 2017 defensive lineman Corey Bolds on the visit, who happens to be teammates with Gary.

Athlete Korey Banks received an offer on his visit to Michigan this weekend, and the Georgia prospect came away very impressed with what the Wolverines have to offer.

"It's a Michigan offer. It's always exciting to get a Michigan offer, especially from coach Jim Harbaugh," Banks said. "Of course I'm going to keep them in the running, they pack 118,000 fans in the Big House. What kid wouldn't love that offer, that's a big achievement for me."

As the NCAA tournament whittles its field down even further on Friday, so too does our Big Ten bracket challenge. This is your opportunity to sound off on the best game settings around the league.


Which game day setting is better?



Discuss (Total votes: 7,071)

The results are in from the first round, and we're into the quarterfinal round. Today's matchup features Penn State, which received one of two first-round byes, and Michigan State, which easily outpaced Maryland in its first-round matchup. The polls close Tuesday at 4 p.m.

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 7 Michigan State

Tournament résumés:

Penn State: Beaver Stadium truly turns into its own city during game days. RVs and other tailgaters take up what seem like miles of terrain as Nittany Lions fans flock from all over to see their favorite team. More than 100,000 fans regularly pack the place and make things very uncomfortable for opposing teams. Night games and white-outs are especially impressive scenes. Penn State has one of the largest and most engaged student sections you'll find anywhere, and chants of "We Are!" will ring in your ears coming into and out of the stadium. A picturesque setting and a charming college town also enhance the environment. The only real drawback is getting into and out of State College in a timely fashion. Then again, why are you in such a hurry to leave?

Michigan State: Fans at Spartan Stadium have had plenty to cheer about in the past five years, but head coach Mark Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis haven’t tried to hide their continuous struggle to make sure all 75,000 seats are filled, especially in the student section. Tailgating stretches across a large part of the surrounding area, leaving plenty of places to park and set up a grill for the afternoon. Fans welcome players at the stadium tunnel hours before kickoff. Once inside, the “Go Green! Go White!” chorus echoes around the stands throughout the game. The movie “300” also gave the fans a new chant to bellow on command. The eight-story press box helps hold the sound inside the stadium.

Vote now to choose who advances.

Time to break out the heavy coats, scarves and gloves. Our ultimate Big Ten road trip has reached November.

ICYMI, we've been putting together our choices for the games we would attend each week during the 2015 season, if money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Moving on to Week 10:

Saturday, Nov. 7

Iowa at Indiana
Wisconsin at Maryland
Rutgers at Michigan
Michigan State at Nebraska
Penn State at Northwestern
Minnesota at Ohio State
Illinois at Purdue

Josh Moyer's pick: Michigan State at Nebraska

I haven't yet scheduled a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, this season -- and now seems like the perfect time. Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong both threw for 2,500-plus yards last season and make up half of the B1G's four returning passers to do so. Both teams will be showcasing new running backs to fill the big shoes of Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford. And Wisconsin's new offensive coordinator, Danny Langsdorf, will have to game-plan around Michigan State's new co-defensive coordinators, Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. Maybe I'll even get in a day early and say hello to Sherman.

Dan Murphy's pick: Michigan State at Nebraska

This game will be Mike Riley’s toughest test in his first year with the Cornhuskers, a measuring stick to see how far Nebraska is from breaking its string of seven consecutive four-loss seasons. For Michigan State, the Buckeyes still loom a couple of games ahead on the calendar, but a trip to Lincoln is a significant hurdle to be cleared. A win on the road against Nebraska would set up two weeks worth of hype surrounding a trip to Columbus with division title hopes -- and probably a whole lot more -- on the line. The product on the field and the implications for the game’s winner makes this weekend’s travel an easy choice.

Austin Ward's pick: Minnesota at Ohio State

The cross-division matchup last year turned out to be far more competitive than might have been predicted before the season, thanks in large part to the impressive job Jerry Kill has done building a contender at Minnesota. The Gophers gave the Buckeyes one of their toughest tests on the way to the national title, and just about the only thing Urban Meyer didn’t win last season was Big Ten Coach of the Year -- which is sitting in Kill’s office instead. Watching these two go to battle again on the field should provide some entertainment once more.

Mitch Sherman's pick: Michigan State at Nebraska

Considering Nebraska’s recent struggles in big games and Michigan State’s run of success on the national level, this series has been surprisingly tight since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Even last year, Nebraska rallied late from a big deficit in East Lansing. So expect a close game and a live atmosphere in Lincoln. For the Huskers to succeed in the first year with new coaches, the defense must likely lead the way. Can the Blackshirts solve Cook? Can the new-look Nebraska offense find a formula for success against the tried-and-true Spartans defense? It’ll be an interesting matchup, as always.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota
Week 8: Bennett and Moyer at Penn State vs. Maryland, Sherman at Ohio State-Rutgers, Ward at Northwestern-Nebraska
Week 9: Bennett, Moyer and Sherman at Michigan-Minnesota, Murphy at Rutgers-Wisconsin

We've reached the height of March Madness as another week nears an end, which begs this question: How to best incorporate basketball into the weekly #B1GFridayFive? A wise editor suggested that we scour the Big Ten football rosters for players we'd like to see lace up the sneakers.

This is, by no means, an all-inclusive list. We want your input. Who plays football in the Big Ten but would make a formidable power forward or point guard? Let us know, and use the hashtag #B1GFridayFive. Here are our selections, listed alphabetically:

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Shilique CalhounTim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports 

Really, this choice is all about our desire to see what happens to a poor defender intent to draw a charge on the 6-foot-5, 256-pound Calhoun as he barrels downcourt toward the goal. The two-time All-Big Ten lineman, one of the nation’s most ferocious pass rushers, earned his reputation as a powerful dunker on the hardwood in the New Jersey high school ranks. He received offers in basketball from the likes of Wagner, Monmouth and Lehigh and averaged 17.5 points and 10 rebounds as a senior in 2010-11 at Middletown South. At the Buc Holiday Classic in January 2011, Calhoun was named MVP for his three-game performance, capped by a 38-point outburst in the championship.

Michigan QB Zach Gentry

Zach GentryMax Olson/ESPN

This list needs a quarterback, and we couldn’t find a better option than Michigan's recently signed freshman, who will join the Wolverines this summer. Gentry, arguably the best New Mexico prep quarterback ever, was nearly as good in basketball. He earned all-state honors as a junior at Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School, averaging 19.6 points and 10 rebounds. Even at 6-7, Gentry is an athlete. He rushed for 220 yards in a game last season. Gentry did not play basketball as a senior because of his football plans. He turned down Alabama, among others, to pick Texas last year. But when Jim Harbaugh came calling, Gentry reconsidered, committing to Michigan at, yes, a January basketball game in Ann Arbor.

Purdue DE Gelen Robinson

Gelen RobinsonAP Photo/Michael Conroy 

Maybe this is a stretch. Robinson, admittedly, is not a good basketball player. But come on, his dad, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson won the Naismith and Wooden awards at Purdue in 1994, averaging more than 30 points per game as a junior. Glenn was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and scored more than 20 points per game over 11 seasons. Gelen’s older brother, Glenn Robinson III, plays for the Philadelphia 76ers after a career at Michigan. And Gelen, expected to contend for a starting spot on the defensive line in 2015 after collecting 20 tackles as a true freshman, wears his dad’s No. 13 at Purdue. Gelen also competes in wrestling and throws the shot put at Purdue. He can take on another sport, right?

Ohio State DT Adolphus Washington

Adolphus WashingtonEvan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports 

Washington is a legitimate basketball talent. He was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Ohio as a senior at Cincinnati’s Taft High School after averaging 23.1 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. He led the school to the state’s final four and earned a scholarship offer for basketball from Xavier. Washington got serious about football early in his high school career after Cincinnati was the first to offer. Last year, Washington came into his own on the Ohio State line, notching 4.5 sacks. At 6-4, he would surrender several inches in the post, but we’d like to see the 295-pounder battle in the Big Ten paint.

Minnesota TE Nate Wozniak

Nate WozniakAP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack 

How did this happen -- a 6-foot-10 kid from Indiana with soft hands and good feet who gave up basketball? There's no doubt that Wozniak gets mistaken regularly around the Twin Cities for a member of Richard Pitino’s basketball team. He quit the sport, according to reports at the time of his 2013 football commitment to the Golden Gophers, before his senior year of high school to focus on his work as a tight end. Yes, he is the tallest player in the Big Ten, playing behind star Maxx Williams in 2014 as a redshirt freshman. At 267 pounds, Wozniak could eat space and block shots in basketball, if nothing else. Alas, it’s not going to happen.

The question has loomed at Michigan State for more than a year now. How does a program fueled by proving doubters wrong continue to improve when they’ve left little room for doubt? Now that expectations have finally caught up to the overachieving Spartans, how do they meet them?

For defensive end Shilique Calhoun, it’s an easy answer. He and the rest of his senior class were part of the group that earned this new reputation at Michigan State, and they intend to take care of it as long as they can. Calhoun, who put a future NFL career on hold this year to take a shot at a national championship, explained the logic in his own unique way.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIShilique Calhoun returns after posting eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last season.

“It’s like when you finally get to buy your first pair of shoes,” Calhoun said Tuesday after the team’s first day of spring practice. “Your mom has been paying for shoes for so long, and it’s been easy. You like the shoes, and they’re nice shoes, but you’ll probably get them dirty in a week. But when you finally put your money toward it and you pay for them yourself you’re like, ‘Man I’ve got to make these last.’”

This year’s senior class is the last group of Spartans that was around when the team started scrounging up spare change to buy its own shoes. Michigan State finished 7-6 – two games below .500 in Big Ten play – during Calhoun’s first season on the field in 2012. They’re the last that can remember what it’s like to end a season before Jan. 1.

Complacency doesn’t usually set in until those who paved the road to success are gone. That’s why developing senior leaders and making sure they pass on the chip-on-the-shoulder work ethic is a crucial focus for Michigan State this season.

“I think the seniors will play a huge role,” Calhoun said. “Not that they didn’t play a huge role last year and the year before that, but I feel like this will be our biggest senior leadership class that will contribute to the team and contribute to our success.”

Calhoun’s decision to return to school gave the Spartan a good head start on developing that leadership on defense. Quarterback Connor Cook, who made the same choice as Calhoun, and a handful of veterans linemen give the offense a good base as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said he’s optimistic about the group but still needs to push them to lead this spring.

“We have a senior class that probably has as much experience as we've had since we've been here,” Dantonio said. “Just because you're becoming a senior doesn't mean you're necessarily going to lead. You have to be forced into those positions, and that sort of just turns. These guys are sophomores when we won the Rose Bowl. And now they have to assume a leadership position. I think it's a natural progression, but they have to work on it.”

Calhoun’s work on the field this spring will focus on trying to become a more consistent playmaker. He became a household name in the Big Ten early in that Rose Bowl season in 2013. He started the year with three defensive touchdowns in the first two games, making him the team’s temporary leader in points scored. The next season brought a slower start as Calhoun struggled to be a consistent disruptor in the early part of last fall. He said he plans to spend the next month working on ways to create plays on a regular basis.

“[I could] probably be faster off the line and be more efficient with my moves,” he said. “I don’t need to add any more, just efficiency is probably going to be another big component.”

Calhoun said he wants to be a player the rest of the defense can look to when they have questions or need to stay together. The rest of the defensive line will be populated by new starters and players settling into unfamiliar positions -- former defensive tackle Lawrence Thomas started spring opposite Calhoun as the other first-string defensive end.

The group is still expected to be a strong point for a unit that has to rebuild in certain places after finishing last season with the No. 1 rushing defense in the country. Meeting expectations and upholding a reputation, of course, is something Calhoun and company are used to doing.

“That’s how we want it to be,” he said. “We always want to be the strength of our defense. It’s what we pride ourselves on. It starts up front”

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25

Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

Dozens of current Michigan State players gathered at the team’s indoor practice facility last week to watch their former teammates on pro day, eager for their chance to get back on the field as well.

The extended winter conditioning sessions, which stretched well into March for the Spartans, are finally over and it’s time to bring out the footballs again. Head coach Mark Dantonio has always used perceived slights to motivate his team through the offseason. After back-to-back major bowl wins -- the 2014 Rose Bowl and the 2015 Cotton Bowl -- Dantonio and his staff now have to fight complacency as much as the outside world.

The Spartans remain the Big Ten’s best chance at dethroning national champion Ohio State. They get to work on forging their new identity for the 2015 season this week. For more on the current state of one of the country’s most consistent programs, check out our Michigan State review here.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsWith returning starter Connor Cook taking snaps, the Spartans figure to have an explosive offense again next season.

Spring schedule: Michigan State gets its typical late start to the spring season Tuesday. The team will scatter 15 practices over the next month before playing its spring game April 25.

What's new? Michigan State has to replace several key players this season, but Dantonio thinks this group might have more talent than any other team he’s had in East Lansing. Success in recent years has expanded the Spartans’ recruiting pool. Their rise started by stopping the run with solid team defense, but now Michigan State is morphing into an offensive juggernaut as well. The return of senior quarterback Connor Cook (24 TD passes, eight interceptions in 2014) should keep the offense among the highest scoring unit’s in the country and perhaps shift the trademark of a team that has been known for its grinding, defense-first approach.

"I think our senior class next year has a chance to be as good as it’s been," Dantonio said at last week’s pro day. "I’ m really excited about our freshman class that we brought in that were freshmen this year. You have to remain vigilant, because there are a lot of things that can derail you. I think the future looks OK, but we’ve just got to maintain our work ethic."

Biggest question: Can the defense remain dominant despite turnover on the field and the sidelines? Former coordinator Pat Narduzzi accepted an overdue invitation to run his own program at Pittsburgh this winter. He has been at Michigan State since Dantonio's arrival. His replacements, Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, have their work cut out for them this spring. They have to find players to fill holes left by the Big Ten defensive back of the year (Kurtis Drummond), a likely first-round draft choice at cornerback (Trae Waynes), the program’s all-time leader in starts (Marcus Rush), and middle linebacker Taiwan Jones.

Three things we want to see:

1. Young running backs battling for reps: Jeremy Langford, the latest in a string of workhorse backs at Michigan State, is off to the NFL. There is no clear heir to his starting spot. Junior Delton Williams was a front-runner, but was arrested this month and likely won’t take part in spring drills. That leaves sophomore Madre London and redshirt sophomore Gerald Holmes time to get a head start on highly touted freshman L.J. Scott, who arrives on campus this summer.

2. Options for Cook in the passing game: Two of Michigan State’s top four receivers in 2014 are out of eligibility. Another from that group, Macgarrett Kings Jr., is in jeopardy of missing time after his second alcohol-related arrest in less than a year. Cook will need to find some new favorite targets this spring if he hopes to improve on an impressive junior year. Upperclassmen R.J. Shelton and Aaron Burbridge could emerge from the pack, and tight end Josiah Price showed promised last fall. Cook said he would also like to lean more on his running backs in the passing game. It will be all hands on deck to replace Big Ten receiver of the year Tony Lippett, who caught more than twice as many balls as anyone else on the roster last season.

3. Separation in the cornerback competition: Cornerback is the most pressure-packed position in the Spartans' defensive scheme. They have a history of putting their best, young athletes at cornerback. Langford and Lippett both made stops there before finding permanent homes on offense. There are plenty of options to take the open slot left by Waynes, and some front-runners should emerge this spring. Darian Hicks and Demetrious Cox have experience on their side, but will have to deal with a lot of competition.

By this point in our Big Ten ultimate road trip, we'd probably be tired of airplanes, hotel rooms and rental cars. But the football would push us through.

Of course, this in all likelihood won't be our actual 2015 itinerary. Still, we're picking the game each week on the fall schedule that we'd most like to attend, if things like money and time were no issue.

Here's Week 7:

Saturday, Oct. 17

Rutgers at Indiana
Michigan State at Michigan
Nebraska at Minnesota
Iowa at Northwestern
Penn State at Ohio State
Purdue at Wisconsin

Byes: Illinois, Maryland

Dan Murphy's pick: Michigan State at Michigan

No need to leave Ann Arbor this weekend, as the intensity of the Big Ten's best in-state rivalry will be cranked up thanks to the arrival of new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh -- who probably won't be issuing any apologies in the days following this game. "Little brother" has been pounding the Wolverines in recent years. Harbaugh, who is no stranger to beating up his big brother, gets his first crack at the Spartans at home. Michigan hasn't ruled out the possibility of scheduling this game as a rare prime-time kickoff, which would turn this enticing matchup into a can't-miss event.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State at Ohio State

The Nittany Lions nearly ended the Buckeyes' national title run last season, and you can bet they have been champing at the bit for a rematch. Putting aside the controversy last season, a lot could still be at stake in 2015. PSU has an easy schedule until it heads to the Shoe, and both teams have the potential to be undefeated heading into this. Regardless, one does not simply turn down a chance to visit a venue like Ohio Stadium. This was an easy decision.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska at Minnesota

I'm going north to the Twin Cities as Minnesota attempts to make it three straight wins against Nebraska after going five decades without a victory in this series. The Gophers haven't been home in three weeks; the weather is turning. And Nebraska is, at best, coming down from an emotional high of the biggest home game of the season in Week 6 against the Badgers. This game presents the first chance also for the largely Oregon State-imported staff at Nebraska to match wits against a winning group of established coaches in the Big Ten. You can argue all day about the merits of the two leagues. Bottom line is, they are different beasts, especially as the season reaches its second half. Here arrives a chance for the revamped Huskers to show that they understand the new challenges.

Austin Ward's pick: Penn State at Ohio State

The strength of the East Division will be on full display with two matchups featuring the four marquee programs, but James Franklin’s first visit to the Horseshoe with Penn State should provide the most entertainment. The Nittany Lions nearly rode their stout defense and some raucous support from their fans to an upset at home last year before quarterback J.T. Barrett helped the Buckeyes escape in overtime, giving the national champs one of their stiffest tests of the season. Though Ohio State might be even deeper and more talented than a year ago, it will no doubt be getting Penn State’s best shot.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin

Big Ten morning links

March, 23, 2015
Mar 23

Cardale Jones got fans talking Friday when he posted this photo on Instagram.

The picture? A photoshopped rendition of a black-and-red Ohio State uniform, something not yet in the Buckeyes' repertoire. "How Sick Would This Be," Jones wrote.

How Sick Would This Be

A photo posted by Cardale Jones (@cardale12_) on

A special uniform like that would be long (and somewhat) overdue for the Buckeyes. Rumors of a black alternate uniform circulated last season before Urban Meyer halted the fun by saying there were no such plans. Still, Meyer said he would be fine with it "somewhere down the road."

It's definitely pretty slick. But, for whatever reason, it just seems like black is a great choice for a uniform. (Just ask Iowa fans.) Twitter was aflutter just three months ago for a similar wardrobe change at Penn State. Defensive back Jordan Lucas and running back Akeel Lynch excited the fan base with this Photoshop, and James Franklin was eventually asked about the possibility. The answer? Possibly, but time moves slow on uniform changes.

Maybe we'll see something similar in The Horseshoe soon enough. Or maybe schools should open up some sort of concept contest to fans because there's been some cool-looking mock-ups floating around. (Hint, hint, Maryland.)

Now, on to the links ...

Big Ten morning links

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20

Throughout this week, all sorts of columnists and experts have chimed in with their opinions on Chris Borland's decision to retire. It's either the start of a trend, or the start of nothing. A significant and symbolic move, or a trivial decision in the grand scheme.

I'm not going to share my opinion -- every stance has already been expressed -- but I will pass on one that I feel deserves to be read.

Take a look at this essay by ex-Penn State offensive guard John Urschel: "Why I Play Football." Maybe no one in the NFL has more on the line than him. He's been published in major journals, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and is intent on earning a chess title. Basically, by all accounts, he boasts a brain that seems more befitting a brain surgeon than a brawny ballplayer.

He doesn't need football. He says as much. He could make a living in mathematics instead of hitting grown men for a living. So, why does someone with so much on the line keep playing? Why does he keep risking his future on the present? His words:

"What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do. ... I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else."

You can call him idealistic, but don't call him dishonest. Maybe no player's take is more relevant.

Urschel's words might not hold true for all players. Heck, maybe that truth is different for each player. But it's a take worth reading.

He ends with: "Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."

Now, on to the links ...

When Mark Dantonio stuck Tony Lippett, the Big Ten’s receiver of the year, in his defense’s starting lineup last November, he did it for a couple reasons. Lippett’s size and tracking ability helped seal a gap at Michigan State’s vulnerable cornerback position, but Dantonio wasn’t blind to the fact that he was also giving his all-conference receiver a boost in the eyes of NFL scouts.

[+] EnlargeTony Lippett
AP Photo/Al GoldisTony Lippett and some other Spartans' NFL prospects showed off their versatility at Michigan State's pro day.

 Lippett worked at both receiver and cornerback again Wednesday at Michigan State’s pro day. He was one of a handful of Spartans who performed drills at more than one position for the dozens of scouts, coaches and general managers in East Lansing. The well-attended event gave them a chance to show off the breed of versatile players that have made the Spartans a consistent national power.

“It just goes to show what kind of athletes Coach D brings into this program,” said Marcus Rush, who worked out at linebacker Wednesday after starting all 53 of his college games on the defensive line. “You’ve got guys like Lippett and [LB-turned-DB] Mylan Hicks and myself going from end to linebacker. It’s just a matter of what kind of players he’s bringing in. We’re athletes willing to play at any position.”

Dantonio said the explanation for all the multi-functional players on his roster is simple.

“We’re always looking for good football players,” he said.

Lippett certainly fits that description. His conference-leading 1,198 receiving yards last season showed his ability on offense. There’s very little tape of how much he can help on defense, but a 6-foot-3 corner with decent speed and good hands is an attractive possibility. He said he’s leaning “60-40” toward playing wide receiver if he has his choice, but wanted to show scouts that he was willing and able to do both.

Footwork on defense was Lippett’s main focus in the month he spent training between the NFL combine and this week’s workout. Dantonio said he had several NFL teams asking him about Lippett’s potential at corner. The ability for a player to develop on both sides of the ball is a plus for pro teams that have to find creative ways to fill out their 53-man rosters.

“I know a lot more at wide receiver than I do at corner,” he said. “This is the time for me to embrace corner as well. I can learn a lot on that side too and probably be one of the dominant ones on each side of the ball. That’s my goal. I try to embrace it all.”

 Lippett’s teammates, such as Rush and running back Jeremy Langford, also had a chance to show their versatility to scouts Wednesday. Langford spent time at cornerback and wide receiver before settling as the team’s top running back in each of the past two seasons. He tried to showcase his ability as a pass-catcher by running routes at pro day.

“The NFL is a passing league now,” Langford said. “They want to see running backs [who] can be a three-down back and catch the ball out of the backfield. That was something I really wanted to show.”

Rush, who didn’t get an invite to the Indianapolis combine, spent his winter in California working out with former Spartan middle linebacker Max Bullough. Rush said he wanted to show scouts that he could flip his hips like a linebacker and drop into pass coverage -- something he rarely, if ever, had a chance to do in college.

The 247-pounder sees himself as an option at linebacker or as a rush end in certain packages at the next level. He said the string of NFL teams switching to a 3-4 this season will give him a good chance to find a place to fit in as a ‘tweener.

Michigan State had only one player selected in the 2014 draft after finishing 13-1 the previous fall. The program’s consistency, though, has made East Lansing a popular stop on the pro-day circuit in March. Dantonio is hoping this year’s crop of prospects will boost those numbers by giving NFL teams too many options to ignore.