QUICK LOOK BACK: The 2008 season was running back Javon Ringer, just enough defense and “this close” to some really big things. Ringer finished with 1,590 yards and 21 TDs. The defense was “just enough” against the Iowas of the conference, but it was “not nearly enough” against the Penn States and Ohio States. In losses to the latter two, the Spartans allowed 94 points.
But, it was a bounce in coach Mark Dantonio’s second season. The Sparty finished 9-4 and made it to the Capital One Bowl, losing to Georgia, 24-12. Dantonio has taken MSU to bowls in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-97. They crumbled when it really mattered, a 49-18 loss at Penn State in the season finale, but Sparty ended a six-game slide to Michigan, so there. That’s something in East Lansing.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: The Spartans made a living off Ringer last season. Ringer is gone and there’s no reliable replacement in the wings. Incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will get looks. Also, the Spartans lost the right side of their offensive line. This is a bit of a revamp, with the eye falling on what happens at running back. A sturdy running game helped shaky QB Brian Hoyer through some rough spots. This year, the Spartans also will have a new QB. Sophomore Ashton Leggett might be the answer. He’s 5-11, 235 pounds and, from Ringer’s review, a very smooth back.
THIRD DOWN — STRENGTHS: The Spartans’ receivers might be their best group. MSU’s top three receivers — Blair White, B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell — return from last season. All three had about 40 catches for about 600 yards. That should cushion what the first-year starter at QB faces, whether it’s Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol. Between Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum, Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek, the Spartans should also have a tight end or two who’ll contribute.
SECOND DOWN — THE TALK: “When you have a top-20 recruiting class, you have something to work with,” — Mark Dantonio, on the Spartans’ highly rated 2009 recruiting class. Dantonio was so pumped he called signing day “a day of celebration” and gave his class an unabashed “A.”
“I don’t want to have a quarterback controversy, but I also want to provide equal opportunity for everybody involved. I don’t want it to be, ‘He played well one time, so he’s the guy.’ What we’re building for is consistency and performance over the long term.” — Dantonio told ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg. Cousins and Nichol are fighting it out to replace Hoyer.
FIRST DOWN — THE PLAY: Cousins is the QB with the quick release and deadly accuracy. Nichol has the big arm and fast legs. The Spartans’ offense will likely travel through the air this season. Running back might be a problem. The receiving corps is stocked. They just have to figure out who the man will be at QB. They matched numbers in the spring game, 357 yards and four TDs. Coaches are comfortable with either. They’re athletic. Will this drag on, maybe into the third game, Sept. 19 at Notre Dame?
Defense might be what carries the Spartans this season. LB Greg Jones returns with 127 tackles last season. End Trevor Anderson had eight sacks in ’08. The secondary has depth and athleticism. Dantonio is poised to make it three straight bowls in ’09.