Big Ten: Brad Salem

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ron and Erin Waynes named their first son Trae because he became the third member of their family. Now, Trae Waynes is looking to add his name to another lineage: the one involving Michigan State standout defensive backs.

With Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard and All-Big Ten safety Isaiah Lewis off to the NFL, Waynes will become a focal point in the Spartans' secondary. The junior will be taking over Dennard's role as the team's boundary cornerback and hoping to keep the "No-Fly Zone" in place.

"I feel like I have to fill his spot," Waynes told ESPN.com. "I basically just have to continue to do what I was doing and hopefully not take any steps back. There is a tradition of great cornerbacks here, and I'm trying to continue that."

[+] EnlargeWaynes
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Trae Waynes has all the skills to be the next great Michigan State DB.
Waynes has only one year of starting under his belt but has shown the potential to be a top-flight corner, including his acrobatic interception early in the second half of the Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has talked in the past about The Bus, which is what he calls the group of star defensive backs he has coached over the years. Dennard and Lewis earned coveted spots on that bus last season, and Waynes could be next in line.

"Yeah, I think maybe he is," Dantonio said. "He had a good year last year for us, and he's got two years left, hopefully. I think he has the ability to be a shutdown guy and a top player for us."

The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder has the size and the will to get physical with receivers and the speed to track them down. He has been clocked at around 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Credit that swiftness to genetics, as both his parents ran track in college, and his younger brother currently does so at Eastern Michigan. But Ron Waynes said he discouraged Trae from participating heavily in track in high school because "I never wanted people to think he was just a track guy playing football."

Waynes grew up in Kenosha, Wis., and won a lottery to attend Harborside Academy, a charter school. Since it didn't offer sports, he played football at Bradford High School, taking a bus to workouts and practices before he got his driver's license.

"I think that shows you the commitment level he had," said Jed Kennedy, his coach at Bradford. "I can probably count on one hand the number of workouts he missed in four years."

He was not a hotshot recruit for most of his prep career, in part because he played safety until his senior year -- "I should have moved him to corner earlier," Kennedy said. "That's on me." -- and because he missed parts of his last two seasons with a shoulder and then a leg injury. But Waynes went to a lot of camps between his junior and senior seasons and gained notice for his athleticism.

Michigan State got in with him early thanks to a relationship built by recruiting coordinator Brad Salem, and Waynes hit it off quickly with secondary coach Harlon Barnett.

"Having Coach Barnett and Coach Dantonio coaching me was a big part of [the decision]," he said. "I mean, if you're a defensive back, why wouldn't you want to come here?"

Going to Michigan State meant Waynes would not play in college with his high school teammate and best friend, current Wisconsin star running back Melvin Gordon. Gordon originally committed to Iowa before switching to the Badgers, and despite Bret Bielema's efforts, Wisconsin couldn't keep Waynes in his home state.

"It was just bad timing," Gordon told ESPN.com. "Michigan State was also his first offer, so you always got love for the people that show you first love. I think if I would have committed to Wisconsin and said, ‘Come on, Trae, let’s do this. Let’s pair up,’ he would have been here. But when he got on Michigan State’s campus, that’s when they got him. ... [But] everything is working out for both of us."

"You can say they're like brothers," Ron Waynes said. "But I think they both made phenomenal choices. Look at where Melvin is for a running back, and to be a defensive back, Trae's at a great school."

Waynes and Gordon still talk or text daily, trying to avoid football subjects but usually failing. Waynes said Gordon gave him grief during the NCAA basketball tournament when the Badgers made the Final Four and the Spartans fell just short. But when in doubt, Waynes said, "I always just throw the Rose Bowl win at him."

Talking trash isn't really Waynes' style. He's soft-spoken and describes himself as shy. But he's trying to force himself to become more of a vocal presence on this year's team and says he gained a lot of confidence after last season's performance. His coaches haven't had to worry much about him since he got his first major exposure in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over TCU.

"The most impressive thing is how consistent that guy's been since the TCU game two years ago," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "He hasn't looked back and had a bad day since. He's got ball skills, and he's tough. What else do you want in a corner?"

Narduzzi said Waynes -- whose first two career interceptions came in the regular season finale against Minnesota -- could make a lot more plays this season as he moves over to Dennard's spot. That gives him the chance to join the elite company of former Michigan State and Dantonio-coached star defensive backs. No one needs to remind him of that lineage.

"It's just a known fact," Waynes said. "The previous guys set the bar really high, so I've got a lot to live up to."
LOS ANGELES -- Documents have yet to be drafted and pens haven't quiet made their way to paper, but Michigan State fans can feel good about the future of their football coaching staff.

Athletic director Mark Hollis on Monday reiterated that discussions about raises for coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants remain in a very good place. Hollis and Dantonio have had several discussions, and agreements could be finalized shortly after the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. Dantonio, arguably the nation's top coaching bargain with a salary of $1.96 million this year, will receive a $2 million longevity bonus in January as well as a bump in salary going forward. Dantonio, one of only a few major-conference coaches who doesn't have an agent, has given every indication he will return to MSU for an eighth season (and many more).

"We've verbalized where we want to be with the entire staff, with the coordinators, with the assistant coaches and with Mark," Hollis said. "Those numbers ensure continuity if the choice of the coaches are to remain at Michigan State. We've stepped forward. I get concerned sometimes about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry, but at the same time, as a coach, you need to ensure that continuity is in place."

Hollis added that the worst thing that can happen to a program is losing a coach after becoming wrapped up in "short-term thinking." He's completely in line with Dantonio regarding staff continuity.

Dantonio has had only four assistants depart since arriving at Michigan State in 2007 -- two for college head-coaching positions (Dan Enos and Don Treadwell) and one for an NFL coordinator job (Dan Roushar). Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was a prime candidate for the head-coaching vacancy at Connecticut but intends on staying at MSU. Other assistants like secondary coach Harlon Barnett, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem and linebackers/special teams coach Mike Tressel could be targeted for other jobs.

Michigan State has examined the coaching salary market, both within the Big Ten and nationally, to determine potential raises.

"We're getting down more into the smaller details," Hollis said. "When you get down to it, it's, 'What am I being paid and how safe do I feel being the coach here?' Those are the two pieces we're trying to put together.

"We're very comfortable where the basic components of compensation for our staff are, in order to ensure continuity."

Spartans QB Cook masters mental game

December, 29, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- As a father, Chris Cook always provided his son, Connor, with positive reinforcement, because that's what parents do.

As a former college football player, the elder Cook also knew how such statements can translate to on-field performance. So he and his wife, Donna, a former basketball player at Cincinnati, told Connor that he would be special, that he would become Michigan State's starting quarterback, that he would lead the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl. They repeated the messages, even during MSU's drawn-out and wayward quarterback competition, which Connor calls "the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSince being named the permanent starter to start conference play, quarterback Connor Cook and Michigan State are 9-0.
Last week, while home in Ohio, Connor, a Big Ten title-winning, Rose Bowl-bound quarterback, acknowledged what most parents love to hear: You were right.

"He says, 'At that time, I thought you guys were just talking, trying to pump me up.' Now to see this, I don't know, it's been a magical year," said Chris Cook, who played tight end at Indiana. "All these things have come true."

There's certainly magic around Cook, who will lead Michigan State's offense on Wednesday against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. You could see it in Big Ten play, when he passed for 2,012 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine double-digit wins. You could see it when he bounced back from bad passes with precise ones, when he made tough throws on the move, when he spread the ball around.

You could see it on the biggest stage, when Cook put up career numbers in the Big Ten championship, reminding receiver Bennie Fowler of former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Cook always had enough skill and confidence. But like any young quarterback, he had to master his own mind.

"We're an athletic family, so we're big into the mental game," Chris Cook said. "At this level, what separates good players from great players? A lot of it's between your ears. Hell, the challenges Connor went through, if he doesn't keep a positive attitude, your mind can get the best of you."

Connor Cook's head was swimming during a competition that began in preseason camp and spilled into September. Andrew Maxwell, last season's starter, took most of the snaps with the first-team offense and started the opener. Cook started the following week against South Florida but was replaced by Tyler O'Connor, who was replaced by Maxwell.

Michigan State's quarterback situation had gone from shaky to messy.

"It takes a couple series to establish a rhythm," Cook said. "So when we're splitting it up, I get one series and Maxwell has one, Tyler. You don't know when you're going to get pulled. ... That's kind of stressful."

Cook started Sept. 21 at Notre Dame, struggling early before settling down. After a three-and-out, Cook gave way to Maxwell for the final drive with 2:11 left and MSU down 17-13. The drive went nowhere (backward, actually) and the Spartans suffered their first loss.

Afterward, a despondent Cook said he wished the coaches had shown more faith in him for the final possession. Even now, he calls it "heartbreaking."

"I'd want to be that guy to lead Michigan State down in a hostile environment in a historic stadium to beat the Irish," he said. "To not get that opportunity, it hurt."

During the open week that followed, Cook's coaches decided he deserved the opportunity. Coach Mark Dantonio met with Cook to clear the air and reinforce his support.

"We said as an offensive staff that Connor is our guy," coordinator Dave Warner said. "We've got to go with him the entire way. That was a point where our offense began to grow."

For Cook, it's when "the stress went out the window."

The following week, he passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa. He completed 71 percent of his attempts against Indiana and 93.8 percent -- a team record -- against Illinois.

The magic surfaced when a Cook pass tipped by two Illinois defenders landed in Fowler's arms for a touchdown, or hit a Northwestern defender in the back and went to Fowler for another score. Other likely interceptions fell harmlessly to the ground.

In 925 plays, Cook has had just five interceptions and two fumbles.

"That was his growth," quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. "He moved in the pocket, threw the ball away when he needed to."

Michigan State identified, offered and landed Cook early, as he committed in April of his junior year. His recruitment wasn't as quiet as it has been portrayed -- Chris Cook said Wisconsin, Iowa and other major-conference programs showed interest -- but he didn't generate the hype of other standout Ohio prep quarterbacks like Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones.

"You could always see the potential in him," said John Carroll University coach Tom Arth, who has worked with Cook the past four summers. "He's a tremendous athlete and a very natural player. He's a special individual who has a great work ethic.

"He can be great. We've seen a little bit of that this year."

Connor was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, recording his first career 300-yard passing performance and firing three touchdowns. With MSU down 24-20 early in the fourth quarter, Cook led an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive, completing four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.

MSU won 34-24 and Cook earned game MVP honors.

"He was pointing out things that he was seeing, making adjustments on the fly," Fowler said. "That's just like how Kirk [Cousins] was."

As time expired in Indy, Cook ran to the stands and embraced his parents and sister, Jackie, a former basketball player at Old Dominion. The family celebrations have become a tradition after Spartans wins.

"Those are special moments," Chris Cook said.

There could be another Wednesday at the Rose Bowl.

"Before I was the quarterback I would talk to my parents and they would tell me, 'You're going to be the guy, you're going to lead your team to the Rose Bowl,'" Connor said. "To finally be here now ... it's truly a blessing."

Success hasn't changed MSU recruit plan 

December, 26, 2013
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With Michigan State's success on the field, the coaching staff is starting to see a rise in interest from high-profile recruits. Going 12-1, winning the Big Ten championship and earning a Rose Bowl berth will do that for a program, but will it be enough to beat out other top programs for big-name recruits?

The Spartans beat both Michigan and Ohio State this season despite only landing one of the top 25 Midwest prospects in each of the past three recruiting classes.

Michigan and Ohio State landed 13 of the top 25 Midwest recruits combined in the 2013 class and 14 in 2012. So if the Spartans are winning with lower-ranked recruits, what would it do for the program if they were able to land more highly ranked targets?

Three lessons from the Big Ten championship game.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook, Mark Dantonio
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans proved beyond a doubt that Michigan State was the best team in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan State is the Big Ten's best finisher: Many counted out the Spartans after Ohio State erased a 17-0 lead to take a 24-17 advantage midway through the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Buckeyes had finished off opponents throughout the season with their two-headed running attack and powerful line. But Michigan State also had been terrific late in games, outscoring opponents 185-56 in the second half and 91-27 in the fourth quarter. The Spartans made the necessary corrections, scoring 17 unanswered points to outlast Ohio State and secure a league championship. They limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter and mounted touchdown drives of 90 and 61 yards. And like they did in every regular-season Big Ten game, they won by double digits, leaving no doubt about the the league's best and most resilient team in 2013.

2. Ohio State's flaws finally caught up to it: Sure, it may sound weird to talk about the weaknesses of a team that won 24 straight times. But the Buckeyes never were a perfect team despite their amazing streak of perfection. For a heavyweight power, they were surprisingly light on star power at linebacker outside of Ryan Shazier. Safety Christian Bryant's midseason injury created major vulnerabilities in the secondary. The offense lacked consistent receiving threats other than Philly Brown. "We know what our weaknesses are," center Corey Linsely said. "They're obvious." The Michigan game and, to a lesser extent, the win at Illinois exposed some of those troubles. And when Ohio State finally played a powerhouse on its own level in Michigan State, its Achilles' heels caused it to stumble. The Buckeyes came out flat on the big stage in falling behind 17-0, and they only really played well for about a 20-minute stretch before letting the Spartans score the final 17 points. Ohio State deserves all respect for its winning streak, and this team is fully capable of winning a BCS game. But its flaws proved fatal in the quest for a national championship.

3. Connor Cook is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten and perhaps the country: If anyone pegged Cook to be the MVP of the Big Ten title game before the season -- his immediate family members excluded -- hop on the first flight to Vegas. Cook exceeded all expectations in guiding the Spartans to a perfect mark in Big Ten play, and he shined in the brightest lights Saturday night, passing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns on 24 of 40 attempts. Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told ESPN.com that Cook's growth could be seen each week and that Cook's confidence in himself never wavered, even after low moments like a Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame. Michigan State hasn't simply found a serviceable game manager to complement its defense. It has found a championship quarterback who oozes moxie and doesn't back down from challenges. Cook began championship week by introducing himself on a conference call with reporters. Everyone knows who he is now.

MSU needs to stop beating itself

September, 21, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The end result, which is all that matters, looked dishearteningly similar for Michigan State.

Stop me if you'd heard it before: an impressive (yet takeaway-less) defensive performance wasted, a smattering of special-teams shortcomings, an offense unable to finish drives, catch enough passes or make enough clutch plays ... and a few points shy of a momentum-building win. Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season, failing to make up the inches coach Mark Dantonio often talks about, the ones separating wins and losses.

It would be easy to file Saturday's 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame with last year's near misses. The Spartans couldn't quite overcome the Irish, some trigger-happy officials (more on them later) and, ultimately, themselves.

The outcome looked familiar, but it didn't feel that way.

"It does not feel the same," Dantonio said. "I don't know how it feels. You lose a close game, it's tough. Last year against Notre Dame, I felt like we were completely outplayed [in a 20-3 loss]. ... I felt like this time, we were [in the game] right down to the end."

The Spartans were more than in the game. They outperformed Notre Dame in several areas, finishing with more first downs (19-14) and more yards (254-224). A one-dimensional Notre Dame offense entered the red zone just once in the second half.

But the Fighting Irish held the edge in the only category that matters.

"Obviously Notre Dame won the game," Dantonio said, "so you have to say they outplayed us."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's DBs played tough in coverage, but that toughness too often resulted in pass interference penalties.
Michigan State's toughest opponent Saturday, other than the Big Ten officiating crew, was itself. The Spartans had four possessions reach the red zone but emerged with only 13 points. Kevin Muma hooked a 30-yard field-goal attempt on MSU's first series. After reaching the Irish 14-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State went backwards, losing five yards on a rush and another five on a false start penalty.

MSU's most painful SIW -- that's self-inflicted wound, for the coaching cliche-challenged -- came late in the third quarter, at a time when the offense seemed to have a rhythm, especially on the ground. Facing first-and-10 from its own 47-yard line with the game tied at 10-10, Michigan State went razzle dazzle, putting the ball in the hands of true freshman receiver R.J. Shelton, who threw deep downfield into double coverage. Irish safety Matthias Farley made the easy interception.

The Spartans lost possession -- and momentum.

No, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't hack into Michigan State's playbook. The call actually came from Dantonio, who has a defensive background but has summoned some memorable trick plays in the past, including the "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in 2010.

"We had a little bit of rhythm, but I also thought we needed a big play," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "We needed to be able to go down the field, which we had not been able to do. They were overplaying RJ because he's run some jet sweeps in the first three games. I thought it was the right time."

Michigan State fans will question the decision, but they have far more questions for the officials, who called 10 penalties on the Spartans, including four pass interference penalties and defensive holding.

Three of the fouls extended drives that led to Notre Dame touchdowns. One nullified a Darqueze Dennard interception. None of the P.I. penalties was an obvious mauling. Spartans defenders weren't out of position.

Dantonio didn't directly criticize the officials but defended the defensive backs' technique -- "We played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball," he said -- and their right to go after the ball.

Asked if he had ever seen so many P.I. calls, Dantonio said. "No, never. I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there."

Notre Dame repeatedly challenged Michigan State with back-shoulder throws. Irish coach Brian Kelly felt if they weren't completed, a flag likely would fly.

"We'll continue to do what we do," Dennard said, "basically press, man up, and we do what we do."

Spartans defensive tackle Tyler Hoover admitted the penalties were tough to handle, but maintained that, "You've got to make plays. It's not the refs. It's going to be us, all the time."

Other than forcing turnovers, Michigan State's nationally ranked defense did enough. Three times, it forced Notre Dame punts in the fourth quarter, giving the offense a chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

The offense had a total of one first down and 20 net yards on those possessions. But the earlier drives, the ones that went deep into Notre Dame territory, stung more.

"We've got to score touchdowns," quarterback Connor Cook said. "It's the name of the game."

Cook was pulled for the game's final possession in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell, who threw three incomplete passes before trying to scramble on fourth-and-20. Although Cook had taken a hit to his shoulder, the injury didn't play a role in the decision.

"I was a little disappointed," Cook said. "They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that."

Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told Cook afterward that Cook remains the No. 1 signal caller. Dantonio was noncommittal.

"That's something we'll have to answer at a later date," he told ESPN.com. "The only thing I can tell you is you better do something with the football. At some point in time, 13's not enough."

Michigan State has two weeks to sort out its quarterback situation, two weeks to build on a surprisingly solid rushing performance, two weeks to clean up the kicking game and find ways to complement suffocating defense with takeaways after recording eight in the first three games. The Spartans can be a dangerous team in a wide-open Big Ten, especially without Ohio State or Wisconsin on their schedule.

Dantonio and his players were proud of Saturday's performance, despite the result. And it could be a springboard.

"All our goals are still in front of us," Dennard said. "We still can go to Indy for the Big Ten championship game."

Michigan State will have to get past Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and the rest of a formidable Legends division to reach Naptown.

Its biggest obstacle is still itself.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 13, 2013
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Wishing you a good weekend of football. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the mail ...

Wisc QB from Wisconsin writes: Why is it that even though Wisconsin is returning more starters and has played more games than ASU, everybody is acting like ASU is a proven commodity while Wisconsin is still an unknown. Why is nobody mentioning that this is the first real test for both of these teams? And I'm pretty surprised that I haven't seen a single pick in favor of the Badgers.

Adam Rittenberg: These are fair points, QB, and it's a little odd to see a ranked team getting so little love against an unranked foe. You're right that neither team has been tested, so we really don't know that much right now. The concern is that Arizona State's strength (a dynamic passing game) is matching up with Wisconsin's potential weakness (secondary/pass defense). A quarterback like Taylor Kelly could pick apart a Badgers back four featuring three new starters if he doesn't face pressure. That's why I'm so interested to see what Dave Aranda and Gary Andersen dial up for this one. You also can't overlook the fact that Big Ten teams really struggle in Pac-12 venues (just six wins in the past 26 appearances) and have never beaten Arizona State in Tempe. Sure, this year is different and the teams are different, but on paper, this looks like a tough matchup for Andersen's Badgers.


Todd from Atlantic Highlands, N.J., writes: I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the unfortunate death of the UCLA football player and the impact it might have on the Nebraska-UCLA game. If managed correctly, I think it could provide the edge to UCLA. If not managed well, it could cause UCLA to be blown out. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, we mentioned the tragedy on a few videos, but not enough in the blog. That's a fair point, and it could be a significant factor Saturday. It's a terrible thing for a team to deal with, especially in the middle of a season. Teams can use a tragedy as a rallying point but they also can get overwhelmed by it, especially when things start to go badly on the field. It's why I'm so interested in how UCLA starts the game Saturday. The Bruins are playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time, which is already an adjustment, and continue to deal with Nick Pasquale's tragic passing. I think there's an opportunity for Nebraska to strike quickly and shock UCLA a bit. Then again, Bruins coach Jim Mora is an excellent motivator, and he should have his team as ready as he possibly can for kickoff.


Joel from Minneapolis writes: Adam, you've made it clear how annoyed you (and Brian) are about Minnesota playing the likes of FCS and bottom-dweller FBS teams, and I am in the same boat. I would love to see more noteworthy opponents than Western Illinois on the Gophers' schedule as well. My question is what is your take on Kill's rationale for scheduling these types of teams (building confidence)? I would like to think that maybe Kill is on to something, that once Minnesota can turn that corner of putting away these types of teams the way perhaps Wisconsin has done up until now, maybe it would be a worthwhile investment.

Adam Rittenberg: It's important to string together some bowl appearances, Joel, and Kill's scheduling approach gives Minnesota a better chance to do so. Kill comes from the Bill Snyder school of scheduling, and Snyder helped build Kansas State's profile by living in cupcake city outside of league play. So there's some precedent. The problem is Minnesota fans saw a similar scheduling approach under Glen Mason, which led to a bunch of mid-tier bowl appearances but not enough success in the Big Ten. Kill needs to have his team ready for the Big Ten, and I don't know if these schedules will do the job. Minnesota's recent schedule addition of TCU for 2014 and 2015 is a good one, and I hope we see more of those games (and, somewhat sadly, fewer games on Aggie Vision).


Marc from New York writes: With Notre Dame gone, who do you think Michigan will play in their night games now, specifically in the next two seasons? I'm not quite sure if the future OOC schedules warrant a Under the Lights III/IV, unless Dave Brandon is willing to play at night later in the season against B1G teams.

Adam Rittenberg: Marc, I hear you, but why does every Michigan night game have to be a huge deal? It speaks to a larger issue I have with the Big Ten and its reluctance to shake up the scheduling approach. Night games are cool almost regardless of the opponent. Michigan should play a Big Ten game at night. I wish it would be Michigan State, but Brandon has his reservations about playing a rival under the lights. It happens all the time in the SEC and Big 12 -- just sayin'. I think Oregon State or BYU could work well in 2015, and I'd expect some exciting additions to the nonleague schedule with Notre Dame moving up. But my larger point is Michigan shouldn't have strict standards for night games. Play Penn State at night, or Wisconsin, or Northwestern, or Nebraska. Night games should be a bigger part of the Big Ten's identity. They are everywhere else.


Buckeye from Columbus writes: Adam, would it be better, in regard to the league's national perception, that Notre Dame blows out Purdue this weekend? I know losing nonconference games aren't good, but wouldn't the league be better off that Michigan beat a good ND than Michigan beat a mediocre ND who barely won/lost to a, so far, terrible Purdue? I know this isn't fair to Purdue fans, but public opinion rarely is.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if a Purdue blowout helps the Big Ten, but a Notre Dame win, maybe by 10-14 points, probably does, as Michigan would benefit from the Irish having a strong overall season. The Big Ten wants the profiles of its top teams -- Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska -- too look as good as possible come early December. Notre Dame is Michigan's only impact nonleague game, so when we're judging the Wolverines, we want to attach value to their win against the Irish. So yes, beating Purdue is important, but if Notre Dame wins against better teams such as Oklahoma, Arizona State, BYU and, most important, Stanford, that will mean more for Michigan and the Big Ten.


KMan from BMore writes: After the emergence of freshman phenom Christian Hackenberg, do you feel there is a possibility that Tyler Ferguson might transfer? I know the free-transfer period has ended, but (barring injury) I am having a hard time believing he will see meaningful snaps over the last three years of his eligibility. Best-case scenario (from an outside observer) would be Hackenberg starts through his junior year (2015), heads to the NFL, and Michael O'Connor steps in with three years of eligibility remaining, which would take PSU to the end of the sanctions with two top-flight pro-style quarterbacks at the helm. Do you concur?

Adam Rittenberg: KMan, I'm not in Ferguson's head, and he probably wants to see how things play out in the next few weeks, as Hackenberg could struggle when Big Ten play rolls around. But there's a decent chance the scenario you presents ends up being true. If that's the case, you couldn't blame Ferguson for wanting to play elsewhere and get a real chance. He took a leap of faith in picking Penn State without ever setting foot on campus. Maybe that loyalty keeps him in State College, but he's a California kid who left the team this summer to be with his ailing mother and has some strong ties to his local area. Penn State certainly needs Ferguson to stay this season as the quarterback depth is so poor, but it seems pretty clear that Hackenberg is the future for the Lions offense.


Bill from Genoa, Ohio, writes: Adam, I continue to see MSU fans' concerns about their offense and not scoring points. I want to remind them that their school hired Jim Bollman as their offensive coordinator this past offseason. Being an Ohio State fan, and having watched and complained about his and Jim Tressel's play calling for years, I want to tell MSU fans what you are seeing is what you are going to get. Even with a dynamic QB who can make plays 1,000 different ways, Bollman's approach is more conservative than most members of the GOP. He is not innovative and will run the ball to death, even when the run isn't working. I have sympathy for the MSU fans out there, because I think they are better than how their offense has been playing, and I really thought they'd play in the B1G championship this year. So MSU fans, as long as Bollman is in charge of your offense, no matter how good that offense is or could be, get used to averaging points in the mid to high-twenties and don't expect any creative plays to happen, because there is no imagination in the offense right now.

Adam Rittenberg: Bill, I understand your criticism for Bollman, and I admit his hiring didn't inspire much confidence among those who know his background with Tressel at Ohio State. But he's not the primary offensive play-caller. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner is, and Warner has been on the Spartans' staff for a while. And while Michigan State's play-calling leans conservative, the problems with the offense go deeper. Quarterbacks haven't improved, receivers continue to drop passes and the offensive line can't take the next step to become an elite Big Ten unit. I'll admit that the decision to flip Warner's and Brad Salem's responsibilities -- Warner now coaches running backs and Salem coaches quarterbacks -- left me scratching my head as almost every offensive coordinator also coaches the QBs. Bollman might be part of the problem in East Lansing, but he's not the biggest issue the Spartans have right now.


Eric from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: I am wondering why the blog is now being written by a lot of other writers besides Bennett and you?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Eric. We've expanded our blog staff to include Chantel Jennings, Mitch Sherman, Austin Ward and Josh Moyer. While they'll write a decent amount about specific teams for the Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State team pages, they'll also contribute in the Big Ten space. The idea is to provide a better overall product with more viewpoints and in-depth coverage. The additions also free Brian and I up to work on longer blog features and other projects, both in the Big Ten space and elsewhere. We didn't have this luxury in the previous model because of all the posting demands. The changes should improve the blog and the overall college football coverage we provide. We're excited about it.
We've been taking a look at the truly open quarterback competitions around the Big Ten, where they stand and what direction they might be heading as fall camp creeps upon us. We wrap up the series today with an examination of Michigan State's situation under center.

The candidates: Andrew Maxwell, 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, senior; Connor Cook, 6-4, 215, sophomore; Tyler O'Connor, 6-3, 212, redshirt freshman; Damion Terry, 6-4, 220, incoming freshman.

Statistics: Maxwell started all 13 games for the Spartans last year, completing 52.5 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards and 13 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. Cook appeared in only three contests but led the game-winning drive at the end of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU. He was 4-of-11 for 47 yards and a touchdown in that game, his most significant action of the season.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAndrew Maxwell threw for 2,606 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Where things stand: Head coach Mark Dantonio has said many times this offseason that Maxwell remains his No. 1 quarterback for now. But Cook is pushing him hard and had the better spring game of the two. Meanwhile, Terry will offer an intriguing blend of skills that the coaches are anxious to see next month in practice. The Spartans have talked about playing multiple quarterbacks and having specific packages for their more mobile guys (Terry and Cook).

Summer buzz: In the closing minutes of the Spartans' final game of the 2012 season, with Maxwell on the sideline and Cook sparking the offense, it appeared as if a changing of the guard were taking place.

Not so fast. Maxwell, who drew his share of detractors with his uneven play last season, still has a big edge in experience and looks like the guy who will take the first snap of the 2013 season.

"He did a nice job this spring of being more decisive and more accurate," quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told ESPN.com, "and really just growing as a quarterback."

If you polled most Michigan State fans, however, they'd probably rather see Cook under center. The sophomore continues to breathe down Maxwell's neck and has shown more ability to make plays on the move.

"He is a guy who can extend things," Salem said. "You saw it in the bowl game. You see it around the country -- those are qualities people are looking for in the recruiting process. When things break down, can you make something happen? He has those abilities.

"For him, it's just about commanding the offense, being a leader, his decision making. He needs to continue working on his footwork, his mechanics and his fundamentals, and he's been working diligently on it this offseason and this summer."

O'Connor is clearly No. 3 in the race and "showed a little bit at times that he's a freshman" during the spring, Salem said. But he's got a strong arm and will give Michigan State much more depth than it had at the quarterback spot a year ago at this time.

The wild card is Terry, a much different kind of quarterback than Dantonio has had during his time in East Lansing with his combination of running and passing skills. If he has a role in 2013, it will likely come in special situational use. But you never know.

"Whether you’re a senior or a redshirt freshman, you’re going to have equal opportunity, and if you’re the best player, you will play," Dantonio told reporters late last month. "I think that’s a lot to ask for a young player; I’ve never had a freshman quarterback and this will be my 10th year coaching. [But] Terry is extremely talented."

Dantonio has said he will play more than one quarterback at least early in the season if for no other reason than to get someone ready for 2014, after Maxwell graduates. He thinks Maxwell was hurt by not playing more in 2011, the same way Kirk Cousins suffered from a lack of experience in 2009.

Maxwell almost certainly will get the first crack at the starting job. But Salem said all of the quarterbacks have similar work ethics and have shown good leadership this summer. The Spartans feel like they're in much better shape than they were heading into last season.

"At least we've got two guys who have been there and played in games," Salem said. "That comfort level and experience is really immeasurable."

More summer QB checkup:
A Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU took the sting off of a mostly disappointing season for Michigan State. Picked by many (ahem) to win the Big Ten, the Spartans went 7-6, dropping five games by a total of 13 points, including all four Big Ten home contests. Mark Dantonio's squad resumes its primary mission -- to claim a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance -- when it returns to the practice field Tuesday. Dantonio shuffled his offensive staff after coordinator Dan Roushar left for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, and Michigan State will have competition at quarterback, running back and other positions. The defense once again looks very good but needs to fill some gaps.

ESPN.com caught up with Dantonio this week to talk spring ball.

What are some of your primary objectives for the spring?

Mark Dantonio: The first thing we have to do is address where we're at and look forward. We have a new staff member on each side of the ball, and there's no question that we can improve on both sides of the ball. With that being said, there's a lot of experience coming back. There are areas every football team needs to address. Some of that is concept-based. We're going to try new things and move from there. Our objectives will be to get out of there without getting people hurt and move forward as a program, allow our young players, the guys who redshirted, to make a move on the depth chart and then solidify our No. 1s.

What will be different offensively with Dave [Warner] the lead play-caller and Jim [Bollman] coming in from the outside?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio's squad will look to improve on their disappointing 2012 season.
MD: Everybody is unique with their thought process, so you can promote from within or bring from the outside, and there's going to be some difference. With the addition of Jim Bollman, you bring in a guy who has experience at Michigan State (he was a Spartans assistant from 1995-97), not just experience offensively. Dave already knows what we do. But that's going to bring new ideas into what we're doing. Brad Salem, he'll be working with the quarterbacks, so it's a little bit of change. Mark Staten will still be with the offensive line and Terry Samuel will be with the wide receivers. There is change. We have a base of where we're at, and we'll move from there. It's not like we're reinventing the wheel. We have a base, and we need to grow from that base to improve.

What areas need to be improved on that side of the ball?

MD: When you look at where we were at last year, we need to improve in the red zone, obviously. We have to catch the ball, protect the quarterback more consistently. But we've got to score touchdowns in the red zone. We had too many field-goal attempts. We had 32. So it's not that we're not getting down there. We're getting down there and stalling out. We're going to work toward that. And then we've got to do some things conceptually that takes you forward.

We need change. There's no question we need some change in some areas, but there's also a lot of good things we've done. We've won a lot of football games here. When you look at last season, we were so close in so many different areas from having another 10-, 11-win season.

(Read full post)

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

March, 7, 2013
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Must-see e-mail Thursday:

Luke B. from Jesup, Iowa, writes: I found it ironic that Wisconsin's Gary Andersen made a fairly big deal about the timing of Jay Boulware's departure (albeit in a professional manner) just days before hiring Jeff Genyk from Nevada, a job Genyk took only 2 months ago. It's a great opportunity for Genyk, I don't fault him or Anderson. I guess my point is, there's obviously not a lot of loyalty in coaching these days. When opportunity (and money) knocks, you answer, and all of these coaches should be a lot less surprised when someone walks on them.

Brian Bennett: A fair point. Consider: Just in the last few days, we've seen Jim Bollman go from Purdue to Michigan State after only being with the Boilers for a few weeks, and Jim Bridge leave Illinois for Bollman's old post at Purdue right as the Illini were starting spring practice. It seems the coaching carousel never stops these days. I have a hard time blaming assistant coaches for jumping at better opportunities, especially when they have such little job security. But it's also hard to stomach coaches preaching loyalty and commitment to players and then abandoning those players during key times of the year, like before their bowl games or on the eve of spring practice. I don't know how you fix that in a free market economy. I just hope that players go into their careers with open eyes and realize this is a business. And it would be nice if those players had the same freedom of movement as their coaches did.




Matt from Midway, N.C., writes: Brian, maybe I am way off base, but do you think there is any correlation between the success of Indiana basketball and the positive recent football recruiting by Indiana? It seems like the basketball team has given off positive vibes to play football at Indiana.

Brian Bennett: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson definitely uses the success of the basketball team to his advantage and likes to schedule recruiting weekends to coincide with home games in Assembly Hall. The electric atmosphere has to have some effect on those prospects, especially the in-state ones. I don't think basketball success is the biggest factor in any football player's decision by any means, or else Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina would be much better at football. But it can't hurt.




Mike S. from Covington, Ky., writes: As an MSU grad, and long-time follower of the program, count me as one not excited by the shuffling of personnel, and hiring of Jim Bollman. It is highly doubtful, in my mind, that he is still connected enough in Ohio to recruit against Urban Meyer. The harsh recruiting facts are that State was outrecruited by Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame, and to me the fault for that lies with Mark Dantonio...his personality pales compared to Meyer, Hoke and Kelly. And he said he was satisfied with his 38th ranked class?! State needs some kids from Florida who have speed. Can we really expect new recruiting coordinator Brad Salem with a South Dakota background to make that happen??

Brian Bennett: If your measuring stick is outrecruiting Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame, well, good luck with that. The Spartans can win their share of high-profile recruiting battles, but you just named three of the most powerful programs in the country. What Dantonio and his staff have excelled at of late is finding players who fit their system and really develop over their careers. The biggest concern is the resurgence of Michigan, because there's no doubt Michigan State made some hay on the recruiting trail while the Wolverines were stumbling around with Rich Rodriguez. Bollman was always known as a very good recruiter of offensive line talent, and I think he was brought in more to be a veteran voice on the staff than one of Dantonio's ace recruiters. Salem deserves a shot to show what he can do. But if you're judging him by whether he can beat out Meyer in Ohio or pull in higher-rated classes than Notre Dame, I'm not sure you'll ever be happy with a Michigan State recruiting coordinator.




Andy from Anaheim, Calif., writes: Brian! Long time reader, first time mailer. With the NFL Draft coming up it got me thinking ... well, thinking a year into the future. What should we make of Taylor Martinez's draft prospects? He obviously has the athleticism to play at the next level, but where do you see him going at this point? Even with the emergence of dual-threat QBs at the next level (Wilson, Griffin, Kaepernick, etc), I think it's safe to say he's got too far to go as a passer to make it at quarterback. So would he be a wideout, like D-Rob? Or a DB, like one of his NU predecessors (Scott Frost)?

Brian Bennett: Good first mailbag question, Andy. I think we could see the leadup to next year's draft go a lot like Denard Robinson's path for Martinez (hopefully minus the injury, and most likely minus the late-career collegiate position change). Like you, I can't see Martinez being an NFL quarterback. Martinez will need to be as willing to change positions as Robinson was, and not as stubborn as Eric Crouch was. Martinez is slightly bigger than Robinson; he's listed at 6-1 and 210 pounds, while Robinson measured 5-10 and 199 pounds at the NFL combine. There's no question that Martinez has the speed to play at the next level somewhere, whether that's at receiver or defensive back. If I were him, I'd be following Robinson's trajectory very closely.




The Like Ninja from Unknown writes: The Monday Mailbag questions regarding PSU's sanctions got me thinking. Theoretically, if PSU only had 65 players on scholarship in 2013, would the NCAA nullify the 2017 scholarship reduction by claiming "time already served" (aka, what Miami is hoping to do by voluntarily skipping their bowl games the last 2 years)? Or would 2013 just be an unofficial 5th year of reductions?

Brian Bennett: There is no such provision in Penn State's consent decree with the NCAA. The only scholarship relief mentioned in the document is the following:
"In the event the number of total grants-in-aid drops below 65, the University may award grants-in-aid to non-scholarship student athletes who have been members of the football program ..."

In other words, Bill O'Brien could put some walk-ons (or "run-ons," as he calls them) on scholarship if the Nittany Lions fall below 65 scholarship players between 2014 and 2017. But that would mean some recruited scholarship players did not work out, and Penn State cannot afford many of those going forward.




Alex from Las Vegas writes: So you write that the BIG has to have a sense of urgency given their lack of success as a conference yet the one thing that they could do to instantly improve the league, adding quality schools, was completely botched this year. Does the BIG even care about competitiveness or are they only concerned with a big TV footprint and nothing else?

Brian Bennett: Saying that adding Rutgers and Maryland will water down the Big Ten product is a valid criticism. You could also make the case that adding teams from those areas will open up some new recruiting ground which could prove important in attracting talent to the league. Either way, expansion really isn't the issue. When you have programs of the stature of Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska (and Penn State when it's back to normal) and others with major potential in Wisconsin and Michigan State, that should equal better performance than what we saw in 2012, or in recent years on the national stage. Besides, what other teams were realistically available for the Big Ten to add that would have strengthened the on-the-field product? I say not many.




Steve from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Why is the Big Ten not pursuing Boston College? You get the Boston market, plus a great hockey team. Is it because BC is not a AAU member, we already have the Boston market, not enough people, recruiting?

Brian Bennett: Would sportswriters also get the Boston Market? Because I could really go for some rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes. Mmmm... But jokes about food aside, Boston College only nominally delivers that area because the Eagles are all but ignored in their own city. Yes, you could make the same argument about Rutgers and New York City and, to a lesser extent, Maryland football and Washington D.C. But there are also many more recruits in the mid-Atlantic region than there are in New England. And we've written over and over, AAU membership is a very big deal to the Big Ten presidents, which is why Rutgers and Maryland were more attractive to BC. If Jim Delany ever decides to basically annex the ACC and go to 20 members, then Boston College becomes a much more realistic potential candidate. But for now, I don't think the league would do much more than drive through the Boston Market (sorry, couldn't resist one more).
Michigan State officially announced the hiring of Jim Bollman on Monday as co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. But he will not serve as the Spartans' main playcaller.

That responsibility will belong to Dave Warner, who had been the team's quarterbacks coach the past six seasons. A team spokesman confirmed that Warner will take the lead on game days.

That's part of some major shuffling of the offensive staff by Mark Dantonio. In addition to serving as co-offensive coordinator, Warner will now also handle the running backs. Brad Salem, who had overseen the Michigan State running backs the past three years, now will take over the quarterbacks. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will now have the additional title of assistant head coach.

Here's what Dantonio had to say about Warner:
"Dave has been an important figure in our offense for the past six years – both the successes as well as the setbacks. There’s power in all of that information, so it’s a great advantage for him to assume the role of co-offensive coordinator as we move forward. I’ve been impressed with his organizational and time management skills. In addition, Dave has displayed the ability to make quick decisions."

Warner has been a coordinator before, at UConn from 1999-2000. Now he'll be paired with a longtime veteran in Bollman. When news of Bollman's hiring leaked last week, it didn't exactly fire up Michigan State's fan base, since he was often criticized for being too conservative as Ohio State's OC. But it's also true that Dantonio wasn't going to completely overhaul his offensive system and that he trusts Bollman.
"This is the fourth time in my career that I’ve had an opportunity to work with Jim Bollman, so there’s definitely a comfort level there," Dantonio said in the school's official release. “He has a tremendous amount of football knowledge, especially on the offensive side of the ball. In addition to serving as co-offensive coordinator, Jim will coach the tight ends, and he spent three years coaching that position in the NFL. He also has long-standing recruiting ties in Ohio. We’re excited about having Jim and his family back in the MSU community.

"Jim has been an offensive coordinator for 11 of the last 12 years. During his tenure in Columbus, Ohio State won six Big Ten championships, a national championship and played in two other BCS National Championship Games. He has performed under pressure at the highest level and on the biggest stage. With pressure comes experience, and Jim has been rock solid in those situations. He’s respected for his development as well as treatment of his players. He’s simply a ball coach.”

The Michigan State offense merely needs to be competent if the team's defense continues to play at a high level under Narduzzi, who has more than earned his assistant head coach title.
"No one has officially held that position before on my staff, but in Pat Narduzzi’s case, it’s certainly warranted," Dantonio said. "Pat is a great leader on the defensive side of the football, who has forged strong relationships with his players, and he’s also an outstanding recruiter. Over the last six years, he has helped build one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, and over the last two years, Michigan State has become one of the nation’s elite units, ranking among the NCAA’s Top 10 in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense.

"I also appreciate his loyalty because Pat has been approached by several programs over the last few years and he’s elected to remain a Spartan. I know he doesn’t take this position lightly. When I’m not in the office, Pat takes control of the day-to-day operation. He’s held those duties for the last two years, but without the formal title."

Warner and Salem also have a lot of work to do with their new position responsibilities. Salem needs to get Andrew Maxwell on track and work with young contenders for the quarterback job in Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry. Warner will have to groom the replacement for Le'Veon Bell and may have to turn to some true freshmen to help get the job done there.

Last year's offense excelled only at producing squeamishness. Time will tell if these changes help rectify matters.
"We might simplify some things, yet become more diversified as an offense," said Dantonio. "Throughout the spring, things will be added and subtracted from the offense. Changes aren’t being made for the sake of change; changes are being made with a purpose. With that mindset, we can create different opportunities for our playmakers."

Big Ten lunch links

February, 19, 2013
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Kudos to Penn State students for another terrific THON event. They raised more than $12.3 million to help fight pediatric cancer.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
12:00
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You are obligated to love these links and send them flowers.
Coaching changes defined the Big Ten's offseason, but one of the most significant moves in the league was made to keep a key assistant in place.

Michigan State retained defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi after he turned down a lucrative opportunity to go to Texas A&M in the same role. Narduzzi, who earned $233,000 last year, would receive a substantial raise to stay in East Lansing.

That raise is now known, as the Detroit Free Press first reported. Narduzzi will be paid $500,000, more than doubling his previous salary. All of Mark Dantonio's assistants received salary increases following a season where the Spartans won the Legends Division title and the Outback Bowl, and recorded 11 victories for the second consecutive season.

As expected, Narduzzi received the biggest increase ($267,000), although his salary ranks behind several Big Ten assistants, including Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($750,000) and Michigan coordinators Greg Mattison ($750,000) and Al Borges ($650,000). Given Narduzzi's success the past few seasons, his compensation seems reasonable, given the market.
"I think coach Narduzzi's going to be a head coach," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said Thursday. "I think coach Narduzzi believes in this program. What we did is we sat down and said, 'Here's a compensation that gets you in the frame, but also an opportunity for you to achieve what you really want to achieve, which is a head-coaching position.' He and some of the other [assistant] positions were very far off from the norm, and now I believe they're in the norm."

Some of the other reported raises include a $75,000 bump for offensive coordinator Dan Roushar from $230,000 to $305,000; $33,000 raises for secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers/secondary coach Mike Tressel, from $170,000 to $203,000; and $30,000 raises for offensive line coach Mark Staten and running backs coach Brad Salem from $170,000 to $200,000.

Dantonio often credits Michigan State's success to staff continuity. The only assistants who have left the program in his tenure -- Don Treadwell and Dan Enos -- did so for FBS head-coaching positions elsewhere.

Narduzzi's time will come soon, but Michigan State took an important step by keeping its top assistant in East Lansing for another year.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Several days after Michigan State's disheartening loss in the Capital One Bowl, running back Edwin Baker turned his focus toward the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan State's Edwin Baker finished with 1,201 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Baker always has motivated himself with tangible goals, and the coming season would be no different.

In high school, Baker set the bar at 1,000 rushing yards per season. He racked up 1,295 yards as a prep junior and finished with 863 yards as a senior despite missing four games with a hyper-extended knee. Before last season, he once again targeted 1,000 rushing yards and finished with 1,201 to go along with 13 touchdowns.

But Baker really raised the stakes for himself in 2011. His magic numbers are 2,000 rush yards and 21 touchdowns.

"It's definitely a big difference," Baker said. "But if I want to be an elite player, I have to make elite goals."

Baker's goals aren't totally random. He knows that Michigan State has had only one 2,000-yard rusher in a season, as Lorenzo White racked up 2,066 yards in 1985.

The 21 touchdowns would tie Baker for second on Michigan State's single-season list with former bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick. Former Spartans All-American Javon Ringer holds the record with 22 scores in 2008.

Baker understands the lofty goals mean nothing unless he backs them up this fall. And it'll take a lot of work to come close to his magic numbers.

The 5-foot-9, 208-pound Baker always has stood out in the weight room, earning the nickname "Rock" for his physique. His body hasn't changed, but Baker spent much of the offseason working on his mind.

"I've been watching a lot more film, trying to get my football IQ up," Baker said. "I'm trying to read defenses with [quarterback] Kirk Cousins, and I'm picking up more and more every day at practice. Just trying to become a complete football player."

Despite Baker's production as the team's featured back in 2010, Michigan State's spring depth chart showed three co-starters in the backfield: Baker, sophomore Le'Veon Bell and junior Larry Caper, Baker's roommate. Bell was extremely impressive in the first half of the 2010 season, while Caper looked like the team's running back of the future in 2009.

Coach Mark Dantonio calls the running back situation "very competitive," but Baker has only helped himself this spring.

"He gained a lot of confidence a year ago in his play," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said of Baker. "He has a whole other level of maturity. He's going into his third season here, and it's showing in the way he's playing."

Several ex-Spartans now in the NFL have spent time around the Skandalaris Football Center this spring, including Ringer. Baker has latched onto the former Michigan State star, who had 390 carries and 1,637 rush yards in 2008.

"I always want to know, what can I do to get better?" Baker said. "He says, 'Go out there and be you. Play hard and run hard and don't try to make things that aren't there.' Like [running backs coach Brad] Salem always says, 'You've got to get four [yards] to get 44.' The big plays are going to happen."

Baker will need plenty to reach his goals this fall.

"I reached my goal last year," he said. "Now I'm going to reach for a much bigger goal."

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