After a brief break, the spring superlatives series marches on with Michigan State, which opens spring practice next week. Obviously, a lot hinges on whether seven suspended players are reinstated, but I would expect most of them to be back before the season. Although four of the suspended players are wide receivers, most or all should return for 2010, making the position less of a concern.
Here's a look at the strongest position and weakest position for the Spartans, who return a lot at the skill spots but look thin on both lines.
Strongest position: Linebacker
Key returnees: Greg Jones (154 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery); Eric Gordon (92 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick); Chris Norman (11 tackles, 1 tackle for loss).
Key losses: Brandon Denson (68 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception); Adam Decker (14 tackles, 1 fumble recovery).
The skinny: Jones' return for 2010 provides a major jolt to a defense that must improve upon last year's performance. The Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year owns 359 career tackles, and he's constantly in the opposing backfield. Jones wants to become a bigger factor in pass coverage, which would help a suspect Spartans secondary. Gordon is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and should be ready for a big senior season. The Spartans must fill one starting spot, and Norman will compete with Steve Gardiner and several others for playing time there.
Weakest position: Offensive line
Key returnees: Guard Joel Foreman, guard Jared McGaha, right tackle D.J. Young, tackle/guard J'Michael Deane (suspended)
Key losses: Center Joel Nitchman, left tackle Rocco Cironi, guard Brendon Moss
The skinny: Some might point to the secondary, which significantly underachieved last fall, or spots like defensive end or kicker as greater concerns, but Michigan State must replace three fifth-year senior starters up front. I wasn't blown away by the Spartans' offensive line last year, but Nitchman stood out and Cironi's value showed after he went down with a fourth-quarter injury in the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. You never want to replace both your left tackle and your center in the same year, so Michigan State has a big challenge ahead this spring. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2009, needs to lead the group this fall.