Big Ten: Donavon Clark

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."
Michigan State goes into Saturday's game against Michigan with the same ferocious defense as a year ago and some improved quarterback play. But the biggest difference for the Spartans this time around might be the offensive line.

Head coach Mark Dantonio wasn't making excuses but recounted some of the youth on that line in last season's 12-10 loss to the Wolverines.

"Donavon Clark got the start -- he was a redshirt freshman," Dantonio said. "Blake Treadwell was playing for the first time really fulltime, and Jack Allen was in his second game. So we're a different offensive line than we were last year."

[+] EnlargeNick Hill
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsThe Michigan State offensive line has cleared big holes all season and helped the Spartans average 196.5 yards rushing per game.
That's true in more ways than one. This particular Spartans line is as deep and experienced as Dantonio has had during his tenure in East Lansing, and it is playing like potentially his best.

While many expected the Michigan State running game to fall off after Le'Veon Bell jumped to the NFL, the opposite has happened. The Spartans are averaging 196.5 rushing yards per game, compared to 149.4 last season. They have also given up just six sacks in eight games, tying them with Iowa for the fewest allowed in the Big Ten. And that has happened with a first-year starting quarterback in Connor Cook.

Treadwell, the senior starting guard, had a simple explanation for the improvement in the line's play.

"We've been gelling a lot more compared to last year," he told, "as well as nobody's had any catastrophic injuries."

Ah, yes, injuries. It's hard to write about the Michigan State offensive line without mentioning them, as that has been a constant problem the past several years. The injury bug has not disappeared this year, as veteran Skyler Burkland had to retire because of persistent health problems, and tackle Fou Fonoti missed time earlier in the year.

But the injuries that ravaged the unit last season presented a hidden benefit in that more players got game experience. This year, Dantonio has seven offensive linemen who have started games, and Michigan State rotates eight guys through the line during games. It includes veterans like fifth-year seniors Treadwell, Fonoti and Dan France as well as talented younger players like redshirt freshman left tackle Jack Conklin and sophomore center Allen.

"If anything, having that rotation helps us from taking a lot of body blows that we've had in the past few years," Treadwell said. "Guys are a lot fresher for games, and everyone else is just that much more into it knowing they're going to play as well."

Offensive line coach Mark Staten mixes and matches, and Treadwell said competition for playing time is so intense that "it keeps everybody on their toes." He saw the beginnings of a potentially special offensive line this summer and said the Youngstown State game is when he felt like the group really started to come together. Running back Jeremy Langford has enjoyed the holes the line has provided for him, as he has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games.

Offensive line has been a sore spot for years in East Lansing. Dantonio hasn't had a single player drafted from the position, and it has lagged behind other well-recruited areas on the team. But this year looks different.

"I think it's our deepest," he said. "I don't want to disrespect anybody else who's played here, but this is as much experience as we've had."

Dantonio said whether it's the best line depends on how the unit finishes the season. A strong performance against Michigan would go a long way toward boosting that claim.