- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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2011 record: 11-3
2011 conference record: 7-1 (Legends Division champions)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2
QB Kirk Cousins, DT Jerel Worthy, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, S Trenton Robinson, RB Edwin Baker, TE Brian Linthicum
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Le'Veon Bell* (948 yards)
Passing: Kirk Cousins (3,316 yards)
Receiving: B.J. Cunningham (1,306 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (89)
Sacks: Denicos Allen* (11)
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis* and Trenton Robinson (4)
1. Defensive depth: Michigan State returns eight starters off one of the best defenses in the country, and the coaching staff might have been most excited this spring about guys who didn't play much last year. Linebackers Darien Harris and Taiwan Jones, defensive ends Joel Heath and Shilique Calhoun and defensive back Trae Waynes all had impressive practices and showed that they're ready to contribute and push the starters. The Spartans won't have much drop off if their first-stringers need a break or get injured. That gives this defense a chance to be scary good in 2012.
2. The Bell tolls: Le'Veon Bell asserted himself at the end of last year as the team's top tailback, overtaking Edwin Baker. And after appearing to get called out by coach Mark Dantonio for being complacent early in the spring, he turned in some dominant efforts. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he's a rumbling freight train with surprising nimbleness in the open field. Do not be surprised to see him emerge as a superstar back this season if he remains focused.
3. O-line on the way up: Michigan State mixed and matched on the offensive line early last season because of injuries and inexperience. By the end of the season, the group was playing well. This spring, the line features six players who have started and much more maturity. That's one reason why Bell excelled this spring, as the Spartans' power running game looked much better. This figures to be the best and deepest O-line in Dantonio's tenure, and the offense could lean more on the ground attack while the passing game finds its wings.
1. Catching on: The top receivers coming out of spring were redshirt freshman Andre Sims Jr., little-used sophomore Keith Mumphery and Jeremy Langford, who made the switch from running back in the middle of spring practice. In other words, there's a dire lack of experience at the position that Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol patrolled so well. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett was cleared by the NCAA for immediate eligibility on Thursday, and that should help. The Spartans are also going to need Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler -- their two veterans even though both lack much receiver experience themselves -- to get healthy and for some true freshmen to make an impact. If there's a glaring concern for this year's team, it's definitely at this spot.
2. Maxwell's house: Michigan State feels confident that Andrew Maxwell, a fourth-year junior who sat behind Cousins the past three seasons, can make a smooth transition into the starting quarterback job. But Maxwell doesn't have much game time under his belt, and we won't know whether he can bounce back from adversity until it happens on the field this fall. It didn't help that he missed the last couple weeks of spring practice with a knee injury. The Spartans need him to stay healthy, or else they will have to turn to redshirt freshman Connor Cook. And a new quarterback could struggle with such a green receiving group.
3. Worthy replacements: Jerel Worthy skipped his senior season and wound up as a second-round NFL draft pick after an All-America campaign. The Spartans have a host of players looking to replace him at defensive tackle, with Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge stepping up late in spring practice to assume the No. 1 reps. Depth won't be an issue, but it remains to be seen whether any of his successors have the kind of game-changing ability that Worthy brought when he was fully engaged. Nothing boosts a defense quite like a disruptive force in the middle of the line. We know the Spartans' defense will be good. Can it be great without a player like Worthy up front?
2011 record: 11-3 2011 conference record: 7-1 (Legends Division champions) Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2Top returnersDE William Gholston, DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis, RB Le'Veon Bell, LT Dan France, C Travis JacksonKey losses QB Kirk Cousins, DT Jerel Worthy, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.