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Thursday, April 14, 2011
Checking in on the Spartans ...

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- My Big Ten spring tour has reached Sparta, one of my favorite stops. I'll be spending the day visiting with head coach Mark Dantonio and the defending Big Ten co-champs.

Michigan State is coming off of a storybook season with a disappointing ending. The last we saw the Spartans, they were getting outclassed by Alabama in a noncompetitive Capital One Bowl. Big-stage games tend to have a lingering effect, but the bowl loss shouldn't overshadow what Michigan State accomplished last fall. The Spartans claimed a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 20 seasons and recorded a team-record 11 victories. They repeatedly came up big in clutch situations and delivered two of the more memorable plays of the college football season -- "Little Giants" against Notre Dame, and "Mousetrap" against Northwestern.

The next step is obvious for a program that has made bowls in each of Dantonio's first four seasons as coach. Michigan State must measure up to the Big Ten's best teams and put together consistent top-3 finishes. The Spartans have a chance to build on their success from 2010 this fall, as they are regarded as a potential favorite in the Legends Division.

We know a lot about quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Edwin Baker and Michigan State's other returning offensive skill players. I'm interested to find out how both lines are looking this spring, as I think line play is the biggest key to Michigan State taking the next step. I also want to know how the Spartans are replacing standout linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention the nation's most famous punter, Aaron Bates. New offensive coordinator Dan Roushar is a familiar face to the players, but he has started to put his own touches on the scheme this spring. Michigan State has upgraded its recruiting in recent years, and several of those players, including defensive end William Gholston, are ready for bigger roles this fall.

The Spartans still have a lot of spring ball ahead of them -- they don't wrap up until April 30 -- but it'll be good to check in on their progress.

More to come from Michigan State, so stay tuned.