NCF Nation: Chris McDonald

It's too simplistic to attribute Michigan State's offensive woes in 2012 to the season-ending injury Fou Fonoti suffered before a Week 3 matchup with Notre Dame.

The Spartans' struggles went deeper than that.

Fonoti's return to the field this fall isn't a panacea for a unit that finished 95th nationally in yards and 108th in scoring last fall. But it's a big, big help. Although most of the criticism for MSU's offense went to the coordinator, the quarterback and the receivers, the Spartans really missed Fonoti's presence up front.

"When he got hurt, that was devastating to him and devastating to our team, not only from a physical position on the field but from an emotional leadership standpoint," quarterback Andrew Maxwell told ESPN.com. "All he kept saying throughout the winter was, 'Can't wait for spring ball to get here, can't wait for spring ball to get here.' Now that it's here, you really do see that pep in his step, you see the fire that he has."

[+] EnlargeFou Fonoti
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesFou Fonoti has been looking forward to returning the field after an injury derailed his 2012 season.
Fonoti is relishing every minute of spring practice after a long rehab from foot surgery. He has been a busy man, working as the Spartans' starting left tackle and also taking snaps at center, as Jack Allen, the projected starter there, missed the spring following shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-4, 298-pound Fonoti, a junior-college transfer who started 11 games at right tackle for MSU in 2011, announced in November that he would take a medical redshirt for the 2012 season and return to the Spartans rather than make himself eligible for the NFL draft.

"I'm a little mad at myself," Fonoti told ESPN.com. "What took me so long to make that decision in saying yes? The second opportunity, I'm truly blessed with it."

Fonoti admits he wrestled with the decision to stay or go. Although he felt mentally ready to return after the surgery, the rehab for a man his size -- " That’s a lot of weight on one foot," he said -- made it difficult and risky to return before the end of the season.

"I was like, 'Man, it's another year away from home, another year of struggling, being homesick,'" said Fonoti, a native of Cerritos, Calif. "I really considered aspects like that, but I just thought about it, I prayed about it and talked about it with my family and my girlfriend. It was only right for me to come back.

"Now I'm excited for this season and I'm excited for what's yet to come."

His immediate future is protecting Maxwell's blind side, an adjustment after starting 13 consecutive games at right tackle in 2011-12. Fonoti admits he's "rusty in a lot of aspects" and has focused mainly on his footwork this spring. He didn't feel 100 percent physically until the end of Michigan State's winter workouts.

"I've got to be able to balance my weight equally," he said. "From the right, I was so used to having my left foot as my post. Now I have it as my kick. Right now, I'm just trying to push off my right foot, playing with lower pads and pretty much weight distribution, be more of a knee-bender on the left side."

After starting Michigan State's first two games of last fall at right tackle, Fonoti was all set to make the move to the left side the blockbuster home matchup against Notre Dame. He worked at left tackle in vigorous practices Tuesday and Wednesday.

Then, in the team's final pregame workout, Fonoti suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.

"It made me that much madder because Thursday's practice is pretty much a clean-up type practice," Fonoti said. "You're not in full pads, and the next thing you know, I'm on crutches."

Fonoti underwent surgery the following day and had to watch as Michigan State fell to Notre Dame 20-3, failing to score a touchdown at home for the first time since 1991. The Spartans rushed for only 50 yards and surrendered four sacks.

The offense sputtered most of the way from then on. Although work horse running back Le'Veon Bell barreled his way for 1,793 yards, Michigan State struggled to convert red-zone chances into touchdowns and dominate the line of scrimmage.

Fonoti embraced the move to left tackle and sees the value in working at center this spring. Although he might never snap the ball in a college game, his versatility could pay off in the NFL, as his size is more suited to center than tackle.

He sees "amazing" chemistry forming in the offensive line, which boasts seven players with starting experience and loses only one starter (guard Chris McDonald) from 2012.

"It’s been great to have him back as a player," Maxwell said, "but also as an emotional leader for this team."

Spartans hoping for late-season run

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
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For much of the season, crunch time has ended up breaking Michigan State's back.

The Spartans lost to Ohio State when they couldn't get a defensive stop at the end of the game. They allowed a touchdown to Iowa in the final minute before losing in double overtime. A couple of first downs on their final drive at Michigan would have won the game; instead, the Wolverines kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. In all, Michigan State's three Big Ten losses came by a total of six points.

That's why last week's 16-13 overtime win at Wisconsin felt so encouraging. The Spartans flipped the script by driving for a late game-tying touchdown before making the necessary plays in the extra period.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Spartans celebrate after finishing off the Badgers in overtime last week.
"We know we're a good football team; we just haven't been able to finish a lot of games," offensive lineman Chris McDonald told ESPN.com "So that win at Wisconsin gave us a confidence that we can win and that we should be able to finish. It has made a lot of difference for us this week."

Head coach Mark Dantonio said he hoped the Wisconsin win could become a defining moment for this team.

"It sent a great message to our football team that if you just keep playing, good things can happen," Dantonio said. "It sent a message to our coaches and everybody involved in the program that our chemistry is good, our mindset is good."

Dantonio's rallying cry for the rest of the season is simple: Finish. Finish drives, finish games and finish the season strong, beginning with this week's game at home against Legends Division front-runner Nebraska.

Last week at this time, there were legitimate concerns about whether the Spartans (5-4) could even make it to a bowl game this year. The Wisconsin win showed that this team isn't done fighting.

"If things go our way and we win out, hopefully we can still make it to the Big Ten championship game," wide receiver Bennie Fowler told ESPN.com. "We've still got to take it one game at a time. But November is a very important month. We take pride around here in winning in November."

Michigan State would need to not only win its final three games -- it closes with Northwestern at home and Minnesota on the road after a bye week -- but also receive a lot of help to win the Legends title. It currently trails both Nebraska and Michigan by two games in the standings and would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Wolverines.

But beating Nebraska this week would at the very least open up the possibility of a strong finish after this season's disappointing start. And most of that will depend on the offense.

The Spartans' defense has been there all season. But the offense has produced only one touchdown in each of its three Big Ten losses. Saturday's game was hardly a breakout, as Michigan State didn't reach the end zone until 68 seconds were left in regulation. But the way quarterback Andrew Maxwell led a 12-play, 75-yard drive on the road to tie the game offered some inspiration.

"I think that's every quarterback's dream," Dantonio said. "It should provide some momentum for him and boost his confidence. I think he's very, very capable of doing those things consistently."

It was also a great sign that Maxwell's game-winning pass in overtime went to Fowler, a guy who struggled early in the year and lost his starting job before bouncing back.

"I'm proud of the way I responded," Fowler said.

Maybe Fowler can serve as a symbol for this entire team. Things haven't gone the way Michigan State hoped this year. But the Spartans hope to respond as we enter the crunch time of the season.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Last spring, all eyes were on the quarterback position at Michigan State, with an occasional glance toward the running backs.

Both backfield positions are pretty much settled this year, as Kirk Cousins is the clear No. 1 quarterback and sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will share carries at running back. The Spartans are also well stocked at both wide receiver and tight end, losing only one major contributor in Blair White and gaining a potential star wideout in converted quarterback Keith Nichol.

[+] EnlargeDantonio
Brett Davis/US PresswireMark Dantonio knows he has some holes to fill on his offensive line.
So where's the drama for Michigan State's offense in spring ball? Look no further than the offensive line.

The Spartans lose three linemen with significant starting experience -- center Joel Nitchman, tackle Rocco Cironi and guard Brendon Moss -- from a front five that allowed the fewest sacks (14) in the Big Ten last fall. Head coach Mark Dantonio will lean on left guard Joel Foreman and left tackle D.J. Young, and center John Stipek started three games while Nitchman was out with an injury.

But other than those three, the Spartans have plenty of question marks up front, which means plenty of competition this spring.

"You'd like to have your two-deep solidified coming out of [spring practice]," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We have enough people. Guys have made strides. But the key is, have they been playing? Have they been coached? Have they actively been doing this?"

The right side of the Spartans' line is wide open, as a large group of players competes at both spots, including Jared McGhaha, Chris McDonald, J'Michael Deane, John Deyo and Antonio Jeremiah, a converted defensive lineman. Several redshirt freshmen also are in the mix, including tackles Henry Conway and David Barrent.

"There's some youth in there that we're trying to polish up," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said.

Dantonio said McGaha is "making a move" at tackle this spring, while McDonald is working as the team's starting right guard right now. Redshirt freshman Nate Klatt is pushing Stipek for the starting center spot.

Both Dantonio and Treadwell singled out Klatt for his play this spring.

Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing last fall, while the run game slipped to 73rd nationally. Don't expect those trends to continue, as the Spartans want to re-establish the run behind Caper, Baker and, hopefully, a solid line.

"We didn't run it as well as we needed to run it, that's the bottom line," Dantonio said. "We've got numbers [at offensive line] and they've all improved, and you see the result of that."

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