Michigan State spring game: What we learned

Michigan State's defense impresses

Joe Schad shares his impressions of Michigan State after its spring game and coach Mark Dantonio's comments about the Spartans' defense.

Michigan State did its best to entertain the 48,000 fans who came to Spartan Stadium for Saturday afternoon’s spring game despite an overall lack of scoring.

The game’s lone touchdown came from center Jack Allen, who scored on a three-yard run in the first quarter to give the White team a 9-3 victory over the Green. He was one of several members of the 300-pounds-and-over club who got a chance to carry the ball or make a play in Saturday’s scrimmage.

The afternoon started with fans from the student section running onto the field through a tunnel of players and continued playing out as a roughly two-hour long infomercial for the Spartans’ program – from the creative play calling to the shoulder patches on the team’s jerseys advertising their recent Cotton Bowl and Rose Bowl victories. When asked about Allen’s touchdown and other trick plays that involved his linemen, Dantonio summed up the day, and the spring, with a sign-off worthy of any late-night television pitchman.

“If you’re athletic,” he said. “If you’re big, you’re fast and powerful, this is the place for you.”

The product he was hawking hasn’t gone through many dramatic changes since last fall – same steady quarterback, same intimidating defensive front – but there was still plenty to learn about what to expect from the 2015 and maybe "new and improved" Spartans.

1. Running backs kept it churning. The closest thing Michigan State had to a position battle this spring was at the running back spot. Neither sophomore Gerald Holmes nor redshirt freshman Madre London separated himself as the top dog, but it’s clear that the Spartans will expect whoever is carrying the ball to do so with a physical mindset. Dantonio and assistant coach Mark Snyder both praised their backs for tough running Saturday.

“I thought they ran hard today, kept the legs churning,” said Snyder, who served as the Green team’s head coach. “We talk to our guys about ‘driving for five’ and at times they were winning those battles. The pile was going this way. It was mush. I thought both those kids ran the ball tough today.”

Holmes grinded out 48 yards on 11 carries. London carried nine times for 70 yards, 50 of which came on the game’s longest play early in the third quarter. He wriggled through a whole at the line of scrimmage and busted loose before being dragged down from behind by a defensive back. He described his day as “cookies, cookies, then cream” – as in struggling to crunch through tough yards on each carry until finally breaking a long one.

Incoming freshman L.J. Scott will get a chance to challenge both of them for carries in August, but Holmes and London have both put themselves in good position to battle for the starting job early next season.

2. Defensive front seven holds its own. The defensive line always holds an advantage in spring games because their offensive counterparts rely more on cohesion and chemistry, but Michigan State’s experienced front seven showcased its depth and versatility in the spring game. The two defensive lines combined for five sacks while regularly poking holes in an offensive line split between two rosters.

Defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell both shined while playing in different spots for the White team. Former Big Ten defensive player of the year Shilique Calhoun provided 2½ of those five sacks and probably could have had more in a full-contact game. Calhoun praised Thomas’ performance all spring and said the fifth-year senior was probably holding back a little bit Saturday to keep from showing how much he’s improved. The depth makes this arguably the best group Dantonio has had on the defensive line in his eight years at Michigan State.

“I want to say this is the strongest one,” Calhoun said before hedging a bit more. “I’m not going to say this is the best, but versatility-wise this is the strongest defensive line that we’ve had."

3. Arnett emerging at receiver. Senior receiver DeAnthony Arnett emerged as a potential weapon in the passing game after patiently waiting his turn during the past four years. Arnett said he had more of an opportunity to build a rapport with quarterback Connor Cook the past few months than he’s ever had before. It showed with his team-high five catches Saturday on top of the seven he had in a scrimmage the team held last week.

The departure of veteran receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery leaves the Spartans with some holes to fill in the passing game. Arnett is now safely among the candidates to help replace that production along with MacGarrett Kings Jr., Monty Madaris and others.

4. Next wave in no-fly zone. The secondary is also replacing two key veterans in cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond. The next wave of secondary players had a solid showing in Saturday’s scrimmage, holding the Spartans quarterbacks to a combined 18-of-40 passing for 160 yards and no touchdowns.

Sophomore Montae Nicholson played defense and offense for the white team and should be a potential playmaker at safety next fall. Darian Hicks, who struggled at times as a starter in 2014, made a nice play to break up a deep pass late in the game. Other relative newcomers such as Demetrious Cox and sophomore Vayante Copeland made plays during the scrimmage as well.

“I saw Demetrious Cox make a nice tackle on big [Lawrence Thomas],” secondary coach Harlon Barnett said. “Some guys did a nice job out there today. You’ve got to watch the film before you can really say who did what and how they did it, but I think overall they did a pretty decent job.”

5. Kicking issues. Kicking consistency still appears to be an issue in East Lansing. Michigan State ranked 97th nationally last year in field goal percentage. On Saturday, Kevin Cronin made two of his four attempts. The two successful kicks came from 30 and 32 yards. He missed twice from beyond the 40 and also came up short on a fifth kick that was wiped from the stat sheet because of an offside penalty.

Cronin will likely be the backup this fall to Michael Geiger, who missed all of spring practice after hip surgery. Geiger made 14 of 22 kicks last year. Michigan State is also replacing former standout punter Mike Sadler this year. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger had a few flubs (including one blocked punt that was almost returned for a touchdown), but also netted 45 yards or more on three of his kicks, with impressive hang time.