Big Ten: Eric Gordon

This week, I asked you to select the Big Ten's strongest position and weakest position entering the 2012 season. The results are definitive and, quite frankly, not very surprising.

Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)

Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)

Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups Insider.

I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.

Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:

Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.

Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.

Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.

Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.

Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.

Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).
Mark Dantonio acknowledges Michigan State has some momentum right now. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. They come off of a Legends division title and could enter the season as the Big Ten favorite. But they also lose a lot of star power from the 2011 team, namely quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and three-time captain, and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans have won 11 games in each of the last two seasons, but what about 2012?
Can Michigan State be a better team in 2012, or will the Spartans backslide in their effort to reload?

"There were questions as we left 2010," Dantonio said. "Can we replace Greg Jones and Eric Gordon? Could we replace our punter, Aaron Bates, or [wide receiver] Mark Dell? We were able to do that and progress, so there are great possibilities. Our football team is poised for that, but at the same time we need to guard against being complacent and understand we’re going to be judged game-to-game.

"It's important we bring our energy with us in everything we do, but there's no question we have confidence. There's no question we have continuity. We've built a great foundation to springboard us forward."

The next phase begins Tuesday, as Michigan State kicks off spring practice in East Lansing.

Dantonio discussed the spring and the future with ESPN.com earlier this week.

Some notes:

  • Dantonio is "very optimistic" the NCAA will approve wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett to play this coming season. Arnett transferred from Tennessee to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father in Flint, Mich. He appeared in 12 games for the Vols in 2011 and had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns. "It was a hardship because his father is ill," Dantonio said. "DeAnthony had success at Tennessee. He was happy at Tennessee. He felt like he needed to come home to be near his family. Every Friday afternoon he goes home. He's a great young man, and he cares deeply about his family and wants to be close to them and wants them to have the opportunity to see him play as well." The NCAA recently granted a waiver for Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer, to play immediately at Notre Dame. Carlisle transferred to be closer to his father, who took a position in Purdue's athletic department. Arnett is eligible to practice this spring for the Spartans.
  • If Arnett receives his waiver, he'll provide a big boost to a position that Dantonio calls the "most critical" to replenish. Michigan State loses its top three receivers -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- from 2011. The Spartans need to get Bennie Fowler and Juwan Ceasar healthy and have some immediate contributions from their incoming freshmen.
  • Michigan State has good depth at defensive end, so Denzel Drone will move to tight end, at least for the start of spring ball. Drone has made six starts at defensive end in his first two seasons and has recorded 28 tackles, five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He played a bit of tight end as a high school senior. "We can at least look at that position move in the first two weeks," Dantonio said. "He's played enough defensive end that he can go back over there and be a co-starter for us, but I think we need to put our best football players on the field, and if he can be one of those top 11 players, 12 players, 13, 14 players on offense, then we'll leave him there. If not, he'll be one of those top 14 players on defense." In another move, defensive back Dana Dixon will practice at wide receiver this spring but could return to the secondary "in a heartbeat," Dantonio said.
  • Defensive tackle will be a fascinating position to watch this spring as Michigan State looks to replace Worthy. Tyler Hoover, a starting defensive end in 2010 who missed all of last season with injury, will move inside this spring. Hoover is up to 297 pounds, Dantonio said. The Spartans also will audition a host of redshirt freshman defensive tackles and sophomore James Kittredge, a transfer from Vanderbilt.
  • Michigan State redshirted 19 players last season, a few more than normal, and the spring will provide a proving ground for several of them. Dantonio listed defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Lawrence Thomas, safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Trae Waynes as freshmen who could have played in the latter part of last season.
  • The Spartans are one of only four Big Ten teams to return their entire coaching staff from the previous season. It wasn't easy, as other teams made runs at both Michigan State coordinators, Pat Narduzzi and Dan Roushar, but both men stayed, in part because the school made a stronger financial commitment. "It was natural to me to be very concerned we would lose a coach or two," Dantonio said. "But it gives you a feeling that you’re doing things right here and there's a good working environment. Obviously, all of our guys, we’re going to do everything we can do to hold onto them, and some of that is financially-based."
  • Dantonio on quarterback Andrew Maxwell: "Very patient young man, as evidenced by him sitting here and waiting for his opportunity. Very poised, extremely strong arm, very athletic, he was a 6-7 high jumper in high school. He's got size. He’s got great intelligence. He's got a great demeanor among his teammates. The one thing he's missing right now is that experience of going out and doing it on game day on a consistent basis. Kirk always stayed the course and was never knocked out of a football game, so Andrew never had to take the reins of our football team in a critical situation. That's coming for him."
  • In terms of leadership, Dantonio said Maxwell's teammates already have accepted him in his new role. Dantonio also listed linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, offensive lineman Chris McDonald and running back Larry Caper as potential team leaders in 2012.
While watching the five-pack of bowl games involving Big Ten teams Monday, I looked for the units that had the speed, athleticism, explosiveness and playmaking ability to be branded as nationally elite.

Sorry, Big Ten fans, but this is a speed game now. It's plainly obvious. And overall, the league seems to be lacking in that category.

Anyway, the one unit that stood out above the rest -- yes, even above Wisconsin's offense -- was the Michigan State defense.

That crew can step on the field with any team in America and hold its own.

The Spartans' defense has elite athletes, like sophomore end William Gholston, who put himself on the national radar with a huge performance featuring five tackles for loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Gholston overpowered Georgia's offensive line in the Outback Bowl, much like he did with Ohio State's offensive line and other groups. Defensive tackles Jerel Worthy and Anthony Rashad White both had excellent games, and Darqueze Dennard showed why he's one of the league's emerging cornerbacks with two interceptions, including a pick-six.

Michigan State's defense has stockpiled playmakers and depth at all three levels. It's a credit to the team's recruiting efforts, as the unit didn't miss standout linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon much if at all this season. Even if Worthy departs for the NFL, which I expect him to, the Spartans have shown they can reload because of their recruiting.

The number of young Spartans defenders who have seen the field and contributed in the past two seasons also signals a shift. Michigan State started only one senior on defense Monday -- safety Trenton Robinson -- and had six sophomores or freshmen in the starting lineup.

I don't know how long the Spartans can hang onto defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but he's got it going right now and will be rewarded with a raise later this winter.

We've seen other great defenses in the Big Ten, both this season and in other years. Ohio State soon should be able to elevate its defense to traditional levels. Nebraska had elite defenses in 2009 and 2010 before falling off this season. Iowa's defense was brilliant in 2009, but since has taken significant steps backward. Penn State's defense held its own in Big Ten play but showed its weaknesses against Houston's wide-open spread in the TicketCity Bowl. Michigan's defense is on the way up under Greg Mattison. Illinois' defense performed at an elite level for much of the season, but now moves on without coordinator Vic Koenning.

But if Big Ten squads are looking for examples to compete nationally in bowls on the defensive side -- looking at you, Wisconsin -- Michigan State should be it.

Season report card: Michigan State

December, 14, 2011
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It's final exam season on campuses around the Big Ten, and we here at the Big Ten blog have some grades to hand out, too. Brian and I will be grading each Big Ten team -- offense, defense and special teams -- before the bowl season kicks off.

First up, the Michigan State Spartans.

OFFENSE: B

Michigan State had to reinvent itself on offense in 2011 as a revamped offensive line made it tough to consistently rush the football. Thanks to senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and his array of weapons, the Spartans still ranked among the league's top five in both scoring (30.8 ppg) and total yards (390.4 ypg). Michigan State was a pass-first unit for much of the season and had success, and the run game emerged late behind Le'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and a line that gained confidence and built chemistry. While it's amazing that the Spartans won a division title with the league's worst rushing offense, they really seemed to put the pieces together after a poor performance against Nebraska on Oct. 30. Coordinator Dan Roushar had a great scheme in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.

DEFENSE: A-

It became clear early on that Michigan State had great potential on defense, and the unit was among the nation's elite for much of the season. Despite losing two four-year starters at linebacker (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon), the Spartans actually improved in the front seven. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy anchored the crew, and dynamic young players like William Ghoslton, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Marcus Rush contributed. Johnny Adams was arguably the Big Ten's top cornerback and safeties Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis combined for eight interceptions. Michigan State displayed excellent depth for much of the season. If not for a few struggles against Wisconsin, the unit would have received an A.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C+

The Spartans weren't bad in the kicking game and had some strong points, particularly on returns with dynamic senior Keshawn Martin. Kicker Dan Conroy was solid and punter Mike Sadler performed decently in his first season. But Michigan State ranked in the middle of the pack in both net punting and kickoff coverage, and special teams played a role in two of the team's three losses. MSU allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown against Notre Dame, and Lewis was flagged for running into the punter in the Big Ten championship, effectively ending the game.

OVERALL: A-/B+

Michigan State had another strong season and took a step closer to becoming a Big Ten power. If not for a few plays against Wisconsin, the Spartans would be heading to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years. It was a very good season that nearly became great.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Wisconsin has Big Ten's best team and the league's best player: Not a huge revelation, but we needed to see Wisconsin and Russell Wilson against some decent competition. Nebraska came calling Saturday night, and Wilson and his Badgers teammates rudely welcomed the Huskers to their new league. Wisconsin piled up 48 points and 486 yards on Nebraska, leaving coach Bo Pelini to say he was "embarrassed" by his team's defensive effort. The Big Ten isn't a great conference this season, but it has a great team in Wisconsin, which has few potential stumbling blocks left on its regular-season schedule. Wilson, meanwhile, put himself right in the Heisman Trophy discussion with a near spotless performance, dazzling the crowd with both his arm and his legs.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Jenkins
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanA.J. Jenkins had 12 catches for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns in Illinois' close win over Northwestern.
2. Illinois is hard to kill: The Fighting Illini remain a flawed team prone to some mind-numbing mistakes, but they're also a team that has learned how to win. For the third consecutive week they made enough plays at critical points to prevail with a victory. After the defense fueled wins against Arizona State and Western Michigan, the offense stepped up in the second half against Northwestern. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins turned in a record-setting performance and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase grew up a bit as Illinois twice rallied from deficits to win 38-35. The Illini must start limiting turnovers and penalties, which will eventually prove costly, but they have shown plenty of fight so far this season. With an extremely favorable schedule, Illinois should continue to rack up wins.

3. Ohio State's offensive problems run deep: Some Buckeyes fans were hopeful that freshman quarterback Braxton Miller would solve the team's inability to move the ball against good defenses. Miller looked like a true freshman against Michigan State, which got in his face and put him in a phone booth to limit his running abilities. Joe Bauserman actually outplayed Miller while coming on in relief in the fourth quarter, possibly creating some controversy there. Buckeyes fans now must hope the return of running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and Mike Adams will turn things around. They should help, but the truth is Ohio State is limited at quarterback and will be hard pressed to change that this month against Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin. Unless the defense and special teams come through in a big way, this team is going to continue to struggle.

4. The Michigan schools can play a little D: It's not a major shock to see Michigan State stifling opposing offenses, although the Spartans did lose two standout linebackers (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon) from the 2010 team. Still, coordinator Pat Narduzzi has his group playing at a very high level, as Michigan State fell 10 seconds short of becoming the first team since 1982 to shut out Ohio State in Columbus. The bigger surprise is Michigan, which couldn't get much worse on defense but clearly has made strides under coach Brady Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan on Saturday recorded its first shutout since 2007, its first shutout against a Big Ten opponent since 2001. Aside from the wild Notre Dame game, Michigan has allowed just 20 points this season.

5. Penn State's offense remains messy: This was the perfect day for Penn State's offense to break out, build confidence and maybe, just maybe, get clarity at the quarterback spot. The Lions faced an Indiana team coming off of a horrendous defensive performance at North Texas and ranked 95th nationally against the run. But rather than take a step forward, Penn State backslid for much of the game. The Lions failed to score a touchdown on five red zone opportunities, twice committing turnovers in the red zone. Quarterback Matthew McGloin outplayed Rob Bolden, but not by much, and the offensive line was inconsistent. Penn State needs to figure things out before facing Iowa next week in a game that could chart the course for the rest of the season.
The wait is finally over for Big Ten players not selected in April's NFL draft.

Free agent deals are finally taking place during a whirlwind week in the post-lockout NFL.

We'll have additional updates as the day goes on, but here's a look at where Big Ten players are landing.

ILLINOIS
  • CB Travon Bellamy, St. Louis Rams
  • WR Jarred Fayson: New Orleans Saints
  • G Randall Hunt: St. Louis Rams
  • DE Clay Nurse: New England Patriots
INDIANA
  • QB Ben Chappell: Washington Redskins
  • WR Terrance Turner: Philadelphia Eagles
IOWA
  • P Ryan Donahue: Detroit Lions
  • LB Jeremiah Hunter: New Orleans Saints
  • TE Allen Reisner: Minnesota Vikings
  • LB Jeff Tarpinian: New England Patriots
MICHIGAN
  • T Perry Dorrestein: New York Jets
  • CB James Rogers: Denver Broncos
  • TE Martell Webb: Philadelphia Eagles
MICHIGAN STATE
  • WR Mark Dell: Denver Broncos
  • LB Eric Gordon: Jacksonville Jaguars
  • T D.J. Young: Arizona Cardinals
MINNESOTA
  • T Dom Alford: Cleveland Browns
  • FB Jon Hoese: Green Bay Packers
  • QB Adam Weber: Denver Broncos
NEBRASKA
  • K Adi Kunalic: Carolina Panthers
  • TE Mike McNeill: Indianapolis Colts
  • DE Pierre Allen: Seattle Seahawks
  • G Ricky Henry: Chicago Bears
  • T D.J. Jones: Miami Dolphins
  • S Rickey Thenarse: Seattle Seahawks
NORTHWESTERN
  • DT Corbin Bryant: Chicago Bears
  • LB Quentin Davie: Detroit Lions
OHIO STATE
  • G Bryant Browning: St. Louis Rams
  • G Justin Boren: Baltimore Ravens
  • RB Brandon Saine: Green Bay Packers
  • WR Dane Sanzenbacher: Chicago Bears
  • DT Dexter Larimore: New Orleans Saints
  • CB Devon Torrence: Minnesota Vikings
PENN STATE
  • WR Brett Brackett: Miami Dolphins
  • LB Chris Colasanti: Indianapolis Colts
  • LB Bani Gbadyu: Oakland Raiders
  • DT Ollie Ogbu: Indianapolis Colts
PURDUE
  • TE Kyle Adams: Chicago Bears
  • WR Keith Smith: Detroit Lions
WISCONSIN
  • CB Niles Brinkley: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • RB John Clay: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • QB Scott Tolzien: San Diego Chargers
When a team loses two of the most productive linebackers in its history, it hopes the other defensive units can pick up the slack.

Michigan State could have such a luxury in 2011.

To be clear, the Spartans aren't scrambling at linebacker. They like their young players such as Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock and Denicos Allen. But it's unrealistic to think they won't miss Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, four-year starters who combined for 796 tackles in their careers.

Now here's the good news: when asked to identify the position groups that made the most strides this spring, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio started off with the secondary. Then he brought up the defensive line.

Cornerback Johnny Adams was among the team's top spring standouts, a fact not lost on his teammates, who selected him with the first pick in the spring draft. Dantonio also singled out sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis for his performance this spring. Lewis is in the mix to replace Marcus Hyde at strong safety.

"He played a lot on special teams [in 2010], but he can be a phenomenal player for us," Dantonio said. "Our secondary has a chance to be very, very good. If you really watched our spring game, I thought we've got more depth than we've had across the board. Our guys have a very good handle on what they're doing because they know it so well."

The defensive front might be an even bigger key to the Spartans' season. Jones not only made a ton of tackles at middle linebacker, but he was Michigan State's top blitzer the past few seasons.

The Spartans want more pass-rushing production from a line that had only three players record more than three sacks in 2010 (Jerel Worthy, Tyler Hoover and Johnathan Strayhorn). Michigan State loses three of its top four leaders in tackles for loss (Jones, Gordon and Colin Neely). Worthy is the only returning player with more than 3.5 tackles for loss in 2010.

While Worthy is already generating attention as a potential top 10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the coaches liked what they saw from other linemen like William Gholston, Anthony Rashad White, Hoover and Marcus Rush.

"We've got depth," Dantonio said. "We've probably got six, seven, eight guys who are going to be playing."
The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Michigan State Spartans.

Biggest reason for hope: Depth at the skill positions

Michigan State's recruiting and development have really paid off at spots like running back, wide receiver, defensive back and linebacker. The Spartans bring back veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins, all three of their primary running backs, B.J. Cunningham and several other contributors at receiver and multiple tight ends who can make plays. On the defensive side, the secondary once again should be solid with players like safety Trenton Robinson and cornerback Johnny Adams, who came on strong this spring. Although Greg Jones and Eric Gordon will be missed at linebacker, the Spartans should have enough there with Chris Norman, Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock, Denicos Allen and others.

Biggest reason for concern: The offensive line

Line play is the area separating Michigan State from elevating its program from good to great. The coming season should provide a good gauge on whether the Spartans can take the next step as they must improve on both sides of the ball. The defensive line could be an area of strength, but there are significant questions up front after Michigan State lost both starting tackles and center John Stipek. Converted defensive linemen like Dan France and Blake Treadwell will be integral this fall, especially France, who should enter the season as the team's starting left tackle. The coaches think the line will be more athletic, but can a new-look group come together and play consistently?

More Hope and Concern

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
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Michigan State

2010 overall record: 11-2

2010 conference record: 7-1 (T-1st)

Returning starters

Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, G Joel Foreman, DT Jerel Worthy, CB Johnny Adams, S Trenton Robinson, LB Chris Norman

Key losses

WR Mark Dell, TE Charlie Gantt, LT D.J. Young, C John Stipek, LB Greg Jones, LB Eric Gordon, CB Chris L. Rucker, P Aaron Bates

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Edwin Baker* (1,201 yards)

Passing: Kirk Cousins* (2,825 yards)

Receiving: Mark Dell (788 yards)

Tackles: Greg Jones (106)

Sacks: Jerel Worthy* (4)

Interceptions: Trenton Robinson* (4)

Spring answers

1. D-line solidifies: Although Michigan State loses a lot at linebacker, the coaches haven't altered their expectations for the defense, in large part because their confidence in the front four. The defensive line should be a strength as several players made strides this spring. Gifted sophomore William Gholston could be on the verge of a breakout season as he settles in at end, where the Spartans also will use Tyler Hoover and Denzel Drone on the edges. Tackle Anthony Rashad White had a good spring and forms a nice interior tandem with All-Big Ten candidate Jerel Worthy.

2. Two-way Tony: Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett was the star of spring ball in East Lansing. He practiced at both cornerback and receiver and made plays in both spots. He capped a strong session with a 57-yard reception and a pass breakup in the spring game. Michigan State's coordinators are fighting over Lippett, and he could see time on both sides of the ball this season.

3. Adams emerges: When Michigan State's seniors held their spring game draft last week, Johnny Adams was the first name called. Adams, a junior cornerback, turned in a very strong spring and drew a lot of praise from the staff. Michigan State needs a No. 1 corner as Chris L. Rucker departs for the NFL, and Adams looks ready to answer the bell. "As a safety, you can just be like, 'Leave that to Johnny,'" safety Trenton Robinson told The Grand Rapids Press. "You just look over and you know Johnny’s got it on lockdown."

Fall questions

1. Offensive line: The Spartans' success could hinge on a revamped line that must replace three starters from the 2010 team. While the coaches see more athleticism up front, which stems in part from several players making the switch from defense, there's no substitute for experience and continuity. The line must continue to jell this summer, as players like Dan France, Travis Jackson and Blake Treadwell move into big roles.

2. Linebacker rotation: Greg Jones and Eric Gordon made a ton of plays for Michigan State, and their production will be tough to replace. Returning starter Chris Norman is back, but Michigan State likely will have sophomores Max Bullough, Tyquan Hammock and Denicos Allen assume bigger roles. Jones and Gordon always were around the football, and the Spartans need the same qualities in their next generation of linebackers.

3. Punter: Go ahead and laugh if you'd like, but no punter in America played a bigger role in his team's success than Aaron Bates did last fall. Bates not only averaged 45 yards per punt but completed passes on trick plays that led to wins against both Notre Dame and Northwestern. Redshirt freshman Mike Sadler is set to succeed Bates at punter, although he'll have to hold off senior Kyle Selden.

Big Ten draft bargains

April, 28, 2011
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During my Big Ten chat Wednesday, Dan from B1G Country asked about any NFL draft bargains from the conference this year.

With the draft set to begin Thursday night, I thought this would be a good time to look at some Big Ten players who might benefit teams in the middle or later rounds, or even as free-agent pickups.

Here's one potential bargain from each Big Ten squad (heights and weights according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.).

ILLINOIS
Randall Hunt, G, 6-6, 318
The skinny: Hunt anchored a formidable Illinois offensive line that helped Mikel Leshoure and others run wild in 2010. He shut down Baylor's Phil Taylor in the Texas Bowl and brings a sturdy frame to the interior line. Hunt wouldn't be a bad choice in the later rounds.

INDIANA
James Brewer, T, 6-6, 323
The skinny: I'm hesitant to call Brewer a bargain because he could be off the board early in the draft. Indiana had another tackle, Rodger Saffold, taken with the first pick of the second round in 2010. Brewer has the size to be good at the next level, and if he's still available on the third day, he'd be a nice pick.

IOWA
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, WR, 5-11, 202
The skinny: The character questions are there, but DJK was an extremely productive player at Iowa and could be a nice late-round addition for a team. He's a strong route runner with good speed and good hands, and he can stretch defenses. If a team is willing to take a bit of a risk, it could be rewarded.

MICHIGAN
Stephen Schilling, G, 6-4, 308
The skinny: Schilling played a ton of football at Michigan and helped the Wolverines to a record-setting offensive performance in 2010. His measurables might not blow teams away, but he's a smart, solid lineman who could be a nice addition in the middle to later rounds.

MICHIGAN STATE
Eric Gordon, LB/S, 5-11, 224
The skinny: Overshadowed by fellow linebacker Greg Jones for much of his career, Gordon quietly produced at an extremely high rate for Michigan State. You could argue he was the Spartans' best linebacker during the second half of the 2010 season. Gordon turned in an impressive performance on pro day and would be a nice pickup late in the draft or as a free agent.

MINNESOTA
Adam Weber, QB, 6-3, 221
The skinny: Some Gophers fans might scoff at this, but I always felt Weber got a raw deal during his college career. He played for three different offensive coordinators, never complained about it and still set a bunch of team records. While his junior season was a disappointment, Weber did some good things last fall and drew respect around the Big Ten. Not a bad pick in the later rounds.

NEBRASKA
Eric Hagg, S, 6-1, 209
The skinny: Hagg is a playmaker, as he showed with a team-high five interceptions plus a school-record 95-yard punt return for a touchdown against Texas. He also brings versatility to the table, having played a safety-linebacker hybrid role last fall for the Blackshirts. Hagg has played on an elite college defense and would be a good get in the middle to late rounds.

NORTHWESTERN
Quentin Davie, LB, 6-4, 238
The skinny: Davie entered the 2010 season as a solid NFL prospect and started off strong but disappeared at times down the stretch. He made big plays throughout his career and boasts good size as an outside linebacker. Davie could help a team as a late-round or free-agent addition if he gets back to his 2009 form.

OHIO STATE
Dane Sanzenbacher, WR, 5-11, 182
The skinny: If I were an NFL general manager, I wouldn't hesitate to draft Sanzenbacher. He lacks ideal measurables but makes up for it with football intelligence and a fearless approach to the game. Sanzenbacher has great hands and became Ohio State's top threat in the red zone this season. He stood out at the Senior Bowl and would be an excellent pick in the middle rounds.

PENN STATE
Evan Royster, RB, 5-11, 212
The skinny: Royster is a patient runner with good vision who could thrive in the right situation at the pro level. His slow start to the 2010 season is a concern, but he picked things up down the stretch and boasts a productive college résumé. If a team needs a running back in the late rounds, Royster would be a nice choice.

PURDUE
Keith Smith, WR, 6-2, 224
The skinny: There's risk here as Smith comes off of tears in two knee ligaments, but a team could get a major steal if the Boilers receiver can stay healthy. He has the size to excel at the pro level and might have been the Big Ten's top receiver had he stayed on the field last season. Smith is a class act who has a chance to be a solid NFL receiver.

WISCONSIN
Scott Tolzien, QB, 6-2, 209
The skinny: He might never be a full-time starter in the NFL, but teams certainly can benefit from having Tolzien on the roster. He's an extremely smart player who makes up for mediocre measurables with superb intangibles. Tolzien is accurate and efficient, and he'll prepare harder than anyone. If a team needs a quarterback in the later rounds, Tolzien would be a great pick.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Mark Dantonio studies the red-letter games that have ended badly during his Michigan State tenure -- Ohio State and Penn State in 2008, Iowa and Alabama in 2010 -- two reasons stand out for the Spartans' shortcomings.

The first is the most common culprit: turnovers. Any team trying to move up in class -- or "measure up," as Dantonio often says -- can't give the ball away as often as Michigan State did in those games and expect to win.

Every team focuses on limiting turnovers, but the second reason is more Spartans-specific. It also underscores how Michigan State can take the next step after four consecutive bowl appearances under Dantonio.

"We didn't win up front," Dantonio said. "Winning at the point of attack, being able to run the ball effectively against a great football team and stop the run against a great football team, that enters into it."

In recent years Michigan State has proven it can both recruit and develop top-end offensive skill players (Javon Ringer, Devin Thomas, Edwin Baker and Kirk Cousins, to name a few). The Spartans have had outstanding linebackers (Greg Jones, Eric Gordon) and talented defensive backs (Otis Wiley, Chris L. Rucker).

But to truly join the Big Ten's elite, the Spartans must close the gap up front on both sides of the ball. They need offensive linemen and pass rushers that strike fear in opponents.

It's no secret how teams like Wisconsin and Iowa, which typically face bigger recruiting obstacles than Michigan State, have upgraded their programs. The Badgers and Hawkeyes both excel in line play, which has helped them make up for potential deficiencies elsewhere.

The Spartans now must do the same.

"You look at the three teams that won the Big Ten a year ago," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said, "and you would certainly say Ohio State had a tremendous offensive line. You would echo those comments with Wisconsin. I would leave for others to judge what Michigan State's offensive line was or is.

"You go back to years past. Ohio State's established themselves at the top of this league. Penn State has played very well up front. That's the fundamental of football: you win up front."

Michigan State's offensive line had its moments in 2010, especially early on as the team eclipsed 200 rushing yards in five of the first six games. But the rushing production tailed off down the stretch and the Spartans finished with minus-48 yards on the ground against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

Three starters depart, and the competition along the offensive line has ramped up in spring practice. Michigan State's pre-spring depth chart listed four potential starters at center, two potential starters at right guard and a redshirt freshman (Skyler Schofner) as the starting right tackle.

"There's more numbers," Dantonio said, "and I just see more overall athleticism."

The increased athleticism comes in part from moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell from defense to offense. Treadwell started five games at nose tackle last season, while the 6-6, 304-pound France was a reserve defensive tackle before moving to left tackle.

Young linemen like Schofner and Travis Jackson also excite the coaches.

"We have an opportunity to develop some quality play up there," said Roushar, who coached the line the past four seasons before being promoted to coordinator. "But there may be some growing pains."

The bar has been raised for Michigan State's defensive line this fall. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is the bell cow after recording eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. There's depth inside with senior Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White, who has turned things up in spring ball.

The problem is Worthy's sacks total led the team in 2010, and Jones was the Spartans' sacks leader in 2009. Michigan State needs some true pass rushers to emerge, and the spotlight will be on ends William Gholston, Tyler Hoover, Denzel Drone and Marcus Rush this fall. Gholston, a heralded recruit who spent time at both linebacker and end last year, has found a home with his hand on the ground.

"It starts up front," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, "and the further coach Dantonio gets in his tenure here, the better we're going to be up front. We might stay the same in the secondary, we might stay the same at receiver.

"But we're going to get better every year on the lines."
Michigan StateHunter Martin/Getty ImagesAfter notching an 11-win season in 2010, the Spartans face the challenge of following up, something the team has had trouble with in the past.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- They'll never forget "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap" around here.

They'll never forget the team-record 8-0 start or the team-record 11 wins. They'll never forget the way Michigan State endured after coach Mark Dantonio's heart attack, or the way a program known for crumbling in the face of adversity repeatedly overcame it.

Sure, Michigan State's storybook season had a very crummy ending. The Capital One Bowl loss showed that the Spartans haven't arrived. Not even close.

But the Big Ten championship banner unveiled a week ago at the Skandalaris Football Center is never coming down.

Michigan State made history in 2010. The Spartans now face a bigger challenge: repeating history.

"I was told in the winter by our strength coach [Ken Mannie] that this program hasn't [had] back-to-back eight-win seasons in a long time," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "To have sustained, continued success is something this program has been lacking. There have been good years and there's been great tradition, but to do it year in and year out really hasn't been there for a long time.

"We need to change that."

To specify the stat Mannie told Cousins, the Spartans haven't recorded consecutive seasons of eight wins or more since 1989 and 1990. The latter year saw Michigan State's most recent Big Ten championship until last season.

After the 1990 title, the program had moments when it seemed poised to turn the corner. The Spartans went 10-2 in 1999 but lost coach Nick Saban to LSU before the Citrus Bowl and went 5-6 the next season. There were the quick-starting, fast-fading seasons under John L. Smith that drove Spartans fans nuts.

In Dantonio's second year, Michigan State won nine games and had a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title on the final regular-season Saturday. The Spartans followed with a disappointing season both on and off the field in 2009.

They once again have reached the doorstep of the Big Ten penthouse.

Dantonio has taken the team to bowls in each of his first four seasons as coach. He and his staff have upgraded Michigan State's recruiting efforts, especially in the region. The Spartans have beaten every Big Ten squad except Ohio State (and Nebraska) at least once in the past three seasons. They've recorded three consecutive wins against archrival Michigan for the first time since 1965-67.

And while several key players depart, Michigan State returns a nice nucleus led by Cousins.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Jerry Lai/US PresswireMark Dantonio believes the 2011 Spartans will be a better team than last year's Big Ten championship-winning team.
"There's a lot to play for," Dantonio said. "We certainly have come a long way in four years from where the perception of this program was. OK, with that being said, it's a process. We're not there yet."

The bowl game reinforced Dantonio's last point. Although Michigan State ended the regular season with a strong case to earn a BCS berth, the Spartans were anything but elite against Alabama.

The Tide surged to a 28-0 halftime lead and scored the first 49 points, pulling its starters midway through the third quarter. Alabama held significant edges in yards (546-171) and first downs (25-12) in a thoroughly dominating win.

If the Spartans aren't motivated by their quest for sustained success, the bowl game should do the trick.

"Our group felt embarrassed," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "Their pride certainly was hurt. We all were [hurt]. The guys moved beyond that and they're working very hard."

Dantonio admits there was a "sense of denial" after the bowl loss.

"Players didn't want to believe, and coaches, we didn't want to believe that we were that far away," Dantonio said. "And I don't think we were. It was a combination of us not playing well and Alabama being very good on that particular day.

"But the wins and the losses, the good things that happened, how you play in certain games, that exists. That's real."

Although Michigan State must replace standout linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, two starters in the secondary and three starters along the offensive line, Dantonio believes he has a better team than the 2010 version.

Cousins will be entering his third season as a starter. The Spartans are restocked at running back, receiver and tight end. The coaches see improved depth at defensive line and boast promising young defenders like linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, end William Gholston and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

Dantonio also is a realist. Michigan State didn't blow out many teams in 2010. If Notre Dame and Northwestern didn't bite on "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap," respectively, the Spartans wouldn't have had such a special season.

The schedule becomes much tougher this fall. Michigan State visits Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern in Big Ten play, in addition to a Week 3 trip to South Bend.

"A storybook season [in 2010]," Roushar said. "Does everything go right this year to give you that? We go to Nebraska, we go to Columbus. It's a different challenge now."

And a challenge players are willing to accept.

"Most teams' downfall is they have a good year, they feel complacent and they feel comfortable," junior running back Edwin Baker said. "Coach D is always preaching about not getting complacent, not getting comfortable."

Dantonio often has talked about measuring up. To call itself elite, Michigan State must measure up to top elite programs like Ohio State and Alabama.

The Spartans also must measure up season to season. They have the chance in 2011.

"It would tell you about where we are," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "We're not a flash in the pan. We're right there as an elite football team in the Big Ten Conference. It's not going to be up and down, it's not going to be like a yo-yo.

"It's going to be every day, every week, every year."

Notes from Michigan State

April, 14, 2011
4/14/11
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Mark Dantonio stepped into the lobby outside Michigan State's football offices and looked at the 2010 Big Ten championship banner unveiled Thursday at the Skandalaris Football Center.

"Now we've got to get another," Dantonio said with a smile.

Michigan State isn't satisfied with its first Big Ten title in 20 years. The Spartans know that to be truly considered an elite team in this league, they need an impressive follow-up act, especially after the poor performance against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

Dantonio thinks he has a better team than the 2010 version, but he's also mindful of a challenging schedule and an improving conference.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMark Dantonio and Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten championship last seeason. "Now we've got to get another," Dantonio said with a smile.
"We've got to still measure up," Dantonio said. "This is a process. There is no beginning time, there is no end time. It just goes. We need to move the process forward."

It has been a very productive day here in Sparta, as I've visited with Dantonio, coordinators Dan Roushar (offense) and Pat Narduzzi (defense) and several players.

Here are some notes:

  • Linebacker was Michigan State's strength on defense throughout the Greg Jones/Eric Gordon Era, but the spotlight might be shifting to the defensive line this season. Narduzzi really likes the depth at both line spots. Jerel Worthy is a proven commodity, and the coaches really like what they've seen from junior Anthony Rashad White. The Spartans feel they're three-deep at end with Tyler Hoover, William Gholston and Denzel Drone, and Marcus Rush also is working on the edge. After blitzing Jones a ton the past few years, the Spartans need a true pass-rusher or two to emerge from this group.
  • The offensive line has more question marks. Michigan State is young up front but both Dantonio and Roushar noted the line will be more athletic in 2011. Part of that is moving defensive linemen like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over to the offensive side. Redshirt freshman tackle Skyler Schofner, at 6-7 and 305 pounds, has been impressive along with classmate Travis Jackson. Dantonio described many of his linemen as "very fluid." Michigan State really has only two senior linemen in guard Joel Foreman and tackle Jared McGaha, so this group has a long time to unite and come together. I'll have more on both lines next week, but these two units are vital to the Spartans becoming a consistent top-tier Big Ten program.
  • Dantonio called the running back situation "very competitive," but Edwin Baker hasn't taken a step back this spring after starting throughout 2011. Roushar noted that Baker has been spending a lot of time with former Spartans star back Javon Ringer, a frequent visitor throughout spring ball whom I caught up with today. "It's a whole other level of maturity," Roushar said of Baker. Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper continue to work, and don't count out redshirt freshman Nick Hill, who adds a different dimension to the group. There's a lot to like about the depth Michigan State has at running back, receiver and tight end.
  • Although the defenses loses multiyear starters like Jones, Gordon and cornerback Chris L. Rucker, Narduzzi hasn't had to slow down the learning curve this spring. Just the opposite. "We're amazed at how well they've picked it up," he said. "We're a much smarter defense right now than we were a year ago. Those young kids have been paying attention. They may not have had those reps, but they understand what we're doing." As for the linebackers, junior Chris Norman has been limited this spring following elbow surgery. Sophomore Denicos Allen and junior Steve Gardiner have impressed the coaches, and sophomores Max Bullough and TyQuan Hammock are competing at middle linebacker. "Bullough might be a little bit ahead right now," Narduzzi said.
  • Roushar's transition to coordinator seems to be going smoothly. Cousins noted that in reviewing the film from 2010, Michigan State had several successful plays that it didn't run very often. "We're working on trying to get those plays involved more in our offense," Cousins said. "If we're so successful at them, why are we not doing them two or three times a game rather than once every two games?"

It's time to hit the road now, but I'll have more on the Spartans in the coming days and weeks before they wrap up spring practice April 30.

Checking in on the Spartans ...

April, 14, 2011
4/14/11
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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.

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Happy St. Patrick's Day (and start of NCAA tournament day)! It's great to be back at work.

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