Big Ten: Ezra Robinson

The last three Big Ten spring games were held over the weekend, and it's our job to recap them all.

[+] EnlargeJosiah Price
AP Photo/Al GoldisWith a big spring game, Michigan State might have found a new offensive weapon in Josiah Price.
Defending league champion Michigan State played before 35,000 fans at Spartan Stadium, falling short of Mark Dantonio's request for a crowd of 50,000 but having a fun day nonetheless. The White team defeated the Green squad 20-13, and you can find coverage of the event here, here, here and here.

Star of the game: Sophomore tight end Josiah Price had five catches for 81 yards, including the game-winning 2-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left to go. "Josiah Price has taken big steps forward this spring," Dantonio said. "He's blocking much better. He's a big-time catch guy. The more you throw the ball to him, the more excited you get, the more confidence he gets."

How it went down: Balance was a key word for the spring game, as -- unlike the past two years -- the offense was good enough to go toe to toe with the Spartans' defense.

Starting quarterback Connor Cook threw for 159 yards and two touchdowns but was also picked off twice. Backup Tyler O'Connor was intercepted three times. Safeties Kurtis Drummond and Demetrious Cox and cornerbacks Darian Hicks, Ezra Robinson and Jermaine Edmondson all came up with interceptions. That gives the Spartans confidence that their "No-Fly Zone" will remain in effect even without Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis.

The spring game also saw the unveiling of redshirt freshman Damion Terry, who scored on a 23-yard toss sweep on the White's first offensive play of the game. Terry later got banged up on a hit from Demetrius Cooper.

"We see certain people using two quarterbacks in systems," Dantonio said. "We experimented a little bit with those things and put a package together, so there are different things that we do."

Dantonio also found room for some fun during the scrimmage. The Green team pulled off a double pass where R.J. Shelton threw back to O'Connor, then threw 29 yards to Tony Lippett.

And the team's mascot, Sparty, got his traditional carry. After being leveled by the defense the past two seasons, Sparty scored this time around. See? More balance. Just don't expect more from Sparty in the fall.

"Sparty will probably redshirt," Dantonio said.

Michigan State spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
4/28/14
8:30
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan State.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • Cook in command: Last year's spring was dominated by talk of a quarterback competition, one that was never finally settled until late September. Things are much different this year, as Connor Cook entered the offseason as the unquestioned starter for the first time. By all accounts, Cook came into the spring riding a wave of confidence, as he should have after MVP performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl. Michigan State has enviable stability in its backfield with both Cook and 1,400-yard tailback Jeremy Langford returning.
  • Tight-ening up: Tight ends didn't play a huge factor in the offense last year, as the Spartans were really young at the position after Dion Sims left a year early for the NFL. But that could turn back into a strength this year. Josiah Price, who had the big touchdown catch in the Big Ten title game, is a year older and wiser. Jamal Lyles made a major impression this spring and could be a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. Redshirt freshman Dylan Chmura might be ready to contribute. Look for the tight ends to take on a larger load in the passing game this fall.
  • Tackling the issue: When people talk about the Spartans' losses on defense, they usually mention Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. Makes sense, as all four of those were All-Big Ten performers. But Michigan State also has to replace its starting defensive tackles from a year ago, fifth-year seniors Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. That would be a major area of concern for a lot of teams, but both guys were under-the-radar players last year and the Spartans feel very comfortable with Joel Heath, Damon Knox, Brandon Clemons and former Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge stepping in at those spots. Heath has the physical skills to be a star and highly touted recruit Malik McDowell arrives this summer to add some more depth.
Three questions for the fall
  • Offensive line makeup: The Spartans' offensive line is by no means in dire straits. Yet three starters (Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France) are gone from a position that was the team's secret strength. The coaching staff likes what it has in sophomore Jack Conklin, junior Jack Allen and senior Travis Jackson, and expects more from junior Donavon Clark and sophomore Kodi Kieler. But Michigan State is still searching for the right mix up front and hopes to build the kind of depth and versatility it had there last season.
  • Replacing Dennard: Few players are harder to replace than Dennard, the All-American and Thorpe Award-winning cornerback who looks like a surefire NFL first-round pick. Sophomore Darian Hicks is the leading candidate to do so after emerging on top of a heated spring competition involving Arjen Colquhoun, Ezra Robinson and Jermaine Edmondson. Hicks played in very limited duty as a freshman in 2013 and has to continue to hold off the others this summer. And then he'll have mighty big shoes to fill in the fall.
  • Linebacker lineup: The Spartans will have a much different look at linebacker after the departures of three-year starters Bullough and Allen and Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth. Taiwan Jones appears to be the heir apparent to Bullough at middle linebacker, but Jon Reschke is pushing for playing time. Darien Harris logged time at that position in the Rose Bowl and is in good shape to start at an outside spot along with Ed Davis, who was injured this spring. Riley Bullough, Max's younger brother, will also be in the mix. There's talent and speed here, but the standard they have to match is awfully high.
One way-too-early prediction

With so many new faces and different roles on defense, Michigan State will finish outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense for the first time in four years. But just barely, as Pat Narduzzi's crew comes together in time to be a dominant unit in Big Ten play.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Ian Thomas, Corey Cooper, Antoine Lewis, Mark Murphy, Jeremiah Johnson, Dezmen Southward, B.J. Lowery, Kurtis Drummond, Ibraheim Campbell, Peniel Jean, Doran Grant, Raymon Taylor, Tejay Johnson, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Michael Hunter, Derrick Wells, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Adrian Amos, Charles Jackson, Frankie Williams, Nate Hammon, Cedric Thompson, Tanner Miller, Dwight White, Harvey Jackson, Armani Reeves, Malik Golden, John Lowdermilk, Andrew Green, Darius Hillary, Traveon Henry, Daniel Jones, Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmonson, Ezra Robinson, Trevor Williams, Daniel Davie, Taylor Richards, Jarrod Wilson, RJ Williamson, Trae Waynes, Landon Feichter, Lorenzo Waters, Cam Burrows, Gareon Conley, Dymonte Thomas, Jesse Della Valle, Darius Mosely, Darian Hicks, Josh Mitchell, Eaton Spence, Antonio Allen, Zane Petty, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Sojourn Shelton, Nadir Barnwell, Matt Harris, Michael Caputo, Jonathan Rose, V'Angelo Bentley, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, Tyvis Powell, Arjen Colquhoun, Eric Murray, Sean Draper, Anthony Gair, Tim Bennett, Jabrill Peppers, Ryan Keiser, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Austin Hudson, Jaylen Dunlap, Charlton Warren, Serge Trezy, B1G spring positions 14, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, A.J. Hendy, Zach Dancel, Dexter McDougle, Will Likely, Alvin Hill, Antonio Johnson, Grayson Levine, Ron Tanner, Leroy Clark, Johnathan Aiken, Delon Stephenson, Gareef Glashen, Anthony Cioffi

After recording 11 victories in each of the past two seasons, Michigan State hoped to carry over the momentum to the recruiting trail. The Spartans on Wednesday signed a class headlined by standout skill players and added another Thursday morning in four-star receiver Monty Madaris. Along with the addition of wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett, Michigan State has put itself in position to replace standouts like receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, and safety Trenton Robinson. The Spartans also faced increased competition in the region from Michigan and Ohio State, and talk of a Michigan State-Ohio State recruiting firestorm is building.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State's Mark Dantonio says his latest recruiting class is loaded with skill-position talent.
ESPN.com caught up with Spartans coach Mark Dantonio on Thursday. Here are his thoughts about the class.

What were your top priorities in this class?

Mark Dantonio: We felt like we needed to go out and get a great class of skill players. Last year, we were pretty deep on our team, so we only (signed) two wide receivers and two defensive backs last year. We felt like we really needed to concentrate in those two areas, and I think we came away with a great class. We've got five wide receivers signed and four defensive backs, and a very skilled tailback [Nick Tompkins] who really can play any of those positions. He'll play tailback here off the start. We've got guys like Demetrious Cox who can play anywhere: tailback, slot receiver, safety, probably even corner. We've got guys like Jermaine Edmonson, who is coming in as a defensive back but can play wide receiver. Aaron Burbridge is another guy who can cross the realm and play corner, play wide receiver, tailback. He'll play wide receiver for us. Madaris, MacGarrett Kings, DeAnthony Arnett has to be included in this class, and he's a phenomenal player, one of the top wide receivers in the country last year.

It's a tremendous group, wide receiver especially. When you lose a B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, that's a lot of offense. Those guys will have an opportunity to play immediately. And on the defensive side, Ezra Robinson and Cox, Edmonson and Mark Meyers are guys that can tackle, play the ball in the deep part of the field, change direction very well, they run very well, they're very explosive players. All 10 of those guys are kick returner, punt returner guys.

I also think that because we lose [Kirk] Cousins, we needed to bring a quality quarterback into the program. We don't overload our football team with quarterbacks. We don't have six or seven guys on scholarship. We'll have three quarterbacks on scholarship next year, and Tyler O'Connor was an Elite 11 quarterback, a guy that has great mechanics, has the ability to run with it, he's big, he's very intelligent, he's got a great release and great arm strength. He's going to be a tremendous asset to this program as time goes on. And then we took three offensive linemen who are going to be able to play, and one defensive lineman in David Fennell. Two outstanding linebackers in [Jamal] Lyles and [Riley] Bullough, who are very, very good athletes and played a variety of positions. Fennell's a defensive tackle flying under the radar from Oregon, who just moved to the U.S. from Canada. He shows great punch. His dad is in the Hall of Fame in the CFL. The guy has great explosiveness, extremely strong, very quick, plays with a high motor. I think he'll be an outstanding player.

With the wide receivers you're losing, how many of the guys you're bringing in will stay at receiver and have a chance to play immediately?

MD: All of these guys are going to have a chance to play. We basically have five wide receivers on scholarship, so our numbers are low in that area, not just because we lose the three [starters], but we lose two backups as well. Edwin Baker going [to the NFL] hurts at the tailback position, so there's opportunity to play and play early. They're quality players. They're guys who we've either had in camp or watched play in person. They're big-time players, and they'll all have an opportunity to play. And there are some guys who might cross over and be pretty versatile as well. And on the defensive side, you can pretty much say the same thing. Jeremy Langford is going to go back to tailback, so it's going to open a possibility at corner. Tony Lippett's a guy we played at corner last year. He'll go back to wide receiver. So it was important to get a defensive back class as well.

I'll make this statement. I've been coaching for a long time, and I don't know I've been anyplace where we've recruited 10 quality athletes like this at the skill positions. I think they're excellent football players, and they all fit our identity, they fit our mold in terms of our chemistry. Great people with good values, all with the vision of being outstanding. I think Cox is a tremendous player.

Do you guys now have pipelines at defensive backs and wide receiver?

MD: I think we are. If you're good enough, you're going to play here. We only played one freshman [defensive back] last year, but the year before, our entire second unit was made up of freshmen. We've had to move people around a little bit, so there's opportunities for these guys, and they see themselves playing early in their careers. They also see the success that we're having. The other thing everyone has to realize is last year, we took seven defensive linemen. We redshirted every single incoming freshman last year except for one. So we're going to have about 40 freshmen in August camp. This is a very bright future at Michigan State. We've got some excellent young players, predominantly defensive players ... who would have played in the bowl game. We probably would have played six of them in the bowl game if they were eligible to play.

You mentioned the lineman from Oregon. How do you feel about the defensive tackles with Jerel [Worthy] moving on? Is it something you looked for in this class, or might look for in the junior college ranks?

MD: We looked more in terms of defensive end at the junior college route a little bit. We felt like we wanted to stay the course with our guys. We came down to the end on a couple guys that, if they come our way, maybe solidify that a little bit. But you've got to go back to last year. We recruited six defensive linemen and had a seventh transfer in from Vanderbilt, as an offensive [lineman] for them. He was a four-star player, James Kittredge. So we've got seven defensive linemen, and five of them are defensive tackles. So our numbers are good. We've got guys like Damon Knox and Joel Heath and Brandon Clemons and Matt Ramondo and Kittredge, those guys are all pushing about 280. We'll be fine there. Obviously, we're going to miss Jerel. You can't replace a guy who was first-team all-conference, a first-team All-American and maybe a first-round draft pick. But we've got guys coming, and I'm sure coach [Pat] Narduzzi will get those guys ready to play.

Mark, you've recruited the Midwest for a long time. Was there any different dynamic this year competing for recruits with some of the staff changes at Ohio State, and with Michigan's staff having a full year to recruit?

MD: I really don't think so. It's always difficult to recruit in the Midwest when you're surrounded. Michigan State has its own identity, but Michigan certainly and Notre Dame and Ohio State and Wisconsin and Iowa. We're right in the middle of all those guys. And usually when we want 'em, they want 'em. You can throw Penn State into that mix, and you have some teams coming up from the Southeastern Conference, so it's extremely competitive in terms of the guys you're going to get. But we're competing on a scale with those guys. We're very competitive with them, and this is a great opportunity for young people to look at, so we're going to get our guys.

Recruiting has accelerated. There's no question about that. With that said, you've got to get guys on your campus earlier, and usually those guys have to be within four or five hours of your campus. After that, they have to fly, or they're taking cross-country trips. It's so important you get players on your campus to see the place with a parent or a loved one, because when you come down the stretch, for a guy to make a visit like they used to, come in January on a visit by himself, if they have not been here before, the opportunity for you to get them to come to Michigan State or anyplace else goes down drastically.

Are you guys changing the types of players you're going after at all?

MD: Not really. We've always tried to look to see who's going to fit our program. Just because you can play corner at one institution doesn't mean you can play corner here based on how we play the corners. We're looking for a different type of player at times than maybe somebody else would. Doesn't mean it's right or it's wrong. We try and look for who's going to complement our football team. There's a foundation that's being laid here, there's good things happening. We're not to the end yet, and we want to continue to push forward, but the guys we've recruited have helped us win, there's no question about that. They've won. So we're taking the right guys. We have very little attrition on our football team, so consequently we have a smaller class. I don't think we've ever taken 25 guys. I think the biggest class has been maybe 21, 22. We make assessments based on guys who can play for us, in our schemes and fit our chemistry, our profile. I think we've done a great job with that. We've got some guys here who have been two-star players who are going to play in the NFL, there's no question.

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