We are closing in on August, which means fall camp is about to start. Here are 10 major questions that come to mind regarding the 2012 Spartan football team.
1.) Who will emerge as the top receivers for the start of the season?
The addition of sophomore DeAnthony Arnett (5’11″, 170 lb.) will really help provide depth at the young and inexperienced Spartan receiving corps. Arnett caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman for the Tennessee Volunteers last season. Redshirt freshman Andre Sims Jr. (5’9″, 187 lb.) had the biggest showing in the spring game, catching three passes for 22 yards and a touchdown. The banged up sophomore Keith Mumphery (6’0″, 208 lb.) caught two passes in the spring game for 68 yards. Juco sophomore John Jakubik (6’1″, 190 lb.) combined for eight catches for 67 total yards in both jersey scrimmages prior to the spring game. Sophomore Jeremy Langford (6’0″, 208 lb.) might play at receiver, or he might play at running back. Dantonio said that Langford is just too talented to have on the bench. Junior Bennie Fowler (6’1″, 218 lb.) and sophomore Tony Lippett (6’2″, 189 lb.), who were both injured during the spring game, have the most experience as Spartan wide receivers. Fowler actually had a very productive freshman year, combining for 573 all-purpose yards. In that 2010 Big Ten Championship season, Fowler had 7 rushes for 62 yards and one touchdown, 14 catches for 175 yards and one touchdown, and he returned 15 kickoffs for 336 yards. He made two key plays in the Spartans comeback win at Northwestern that year, including the pass he caught from Aaron Bates on 4th and 11, AKA Mouse Trap. Fowler was injured last season but did appear in 5 games. This may not be known by many, but Fowler recovered the punt blocked by then-sophomore Kyler Elsworth in the end zone for a touchdown against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium. Lippett had four catches for 44 yards early last season before moving to cornerback in place of the injured Darqueze Dennard. Lippett caught three passes for 29 yards in the Spartans win over Central Michigan.
We will probably see different receivers each possession for the first few games, but I expect Fowler to emerge as the top wide receiver.
2.) How will Tyler Hoover perform as he makes the transition from defensive end to defensive tackle?
In 2010, the 6-foot-7, 295 pound defensive end appeared in all 13 games, including 9 starts, registering 36 tackles and 3 sacks. In the first game in 2011 against Youngstown State, Hoover fractured his rib and missed the remainder of the season. Now in 2012 with two of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten, William Gholston and Marcus Rush, Hoover will make the transition to start at defensive tackle. He is filling in for the departing Kevin Pickelman, who was an honorable mention All-Big Ten Selection in 2011. The middle of the defensive line is the biggest question mark on the defense, along with the free safety position. If Hoover and senior nose guard Anthony Rashad-White perform well, then this Spartan defense will be the best in the Big Ten once again and will rank towards the top nationally.
3.) Seven offensive linemen that have started at some point for the Spartans return from last year. Who will be the top 5 in August?
Left tackle Dan France (junior), left guard Blake Treadwell (junior), center Travis Jackson (sophomore), right guard Chris McDonald (senior), and right tackle Fou Fonoti (senior) will likely be the starting five in 2012. At left guard, with the departing of starter Joel Foreman, redshirt freshman Jack Allen is expected to compete with Treadwell for the starting job. Sophomore Skyler Burkland was starting at right tackle at the beginning of last season before suffering a season ending injury at Notre Dame. Senior Ethan Ruhland has started on the offensive line in the past, and senior John Deyo has had plenty of game-experience in the past. The puzzles are there to establish the rushing attack in every game. It’s up to guys like Chris McDonald and Fou Fonoti to take charge.
4.) Le’Veon Bell will start at running back. Who will be the back-up?
Le’Veon Bell emerged as the top running back at the end of last season, and now with the early departure of Edwin Baker, Bell will likely see more carries as a junior. Larry Caper returns for his senior season, having battled injuries for the past two years. He suffered a concussion early in the Green-White game as well. Spartan fans might have forgotten that Caper actually led the team in rushing as a true freshman in 2009 with 468 yards, including the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Michigan at Spartan Stadium. If he can stay healthy, then he may be able to provide depth at the running back position, or even be a solid special teams player. Nick Hill, on the other hand, returns as a sophomore and will likely return kicks and punts this year. He had the biggest showing in the Green-White game, carrying the ball 19 times for 95 yards and a touchdown. Hill also experienced some brutal hits that game, playing for both teams and going against some of the top defensive players in the Big Ten and in the country. He won’t get 19 touches in a game this year, but he definitely showed that he can carry the ball 5 to 8 times per contest.
5.) Who will start at free safety this year?
Sophomore Kurtis Drummond backed up senior Trenton Robinson in 2011, recording 17 tackles and two interceptions. Now, going into fall, there is a battle between Drummond and redshirt freshman R.J. Williamson. Incoming freshman Demetrious Cox will also vie for playing time as well. Who ever wins the starting job this fall will have to have leadership qualities as well, especially since they are filling in for Robinson.
6.) Is Andrew Maxwell ready?
This will now be Andrew Maxwell’s fourth year in the program. Having watched Kirk Cousins play these last three seasons and learning the ropes as his back-up the last two years, it would seem that he is ready to take over at quarterback. What Maxwell doesn’t have much of though is game-experience, which is crucial for a starting quarterback. What Maxwell does have is an experienced offensive line, a running back that ranks towards the top of the Big Ten, and the best defense in the Big Ten. Kirk Cousins made plenty of mistakes as a sophomore in his first season as a the starting quarterback, including throwing an interception across his body at Notre Dame in the closing minutes of the game. It may take some time for Maxwell to get going, but mistakes early in the season shouldn’t cost the Spartans a game like it did for Cousins.
7.) Is this the year for Dion Sims?
Dion Sims came into the 2009 season as one of the best tight ends in the country. He caught the ball 11 times as a true freshman in 2009, competing for time with guys like Charlie Gantt, Brian Linthicum, and Garrett Celek. Then in 2010, Sims sat out the entire season due to legal issues. In 2011, Sims started against Youngstown State, but a wrist injury held him out for basically the rest of the year. Now he returns as the only tight end with much game-experience and Spartan coaches know that Sims is capable of being one of the best in the Big Ten. Sims has to have a good year, especially with the inexperience at the wide receiver and quarterback position. He can provide a great weapon for Maxwell to throw to this year.
8.) Will the defense have to be perfect all season for this team to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl?
The defense will have to do what it did last year, and maybe a little more. If Michigan State’s passing attack is really as inexperienced as talked about, then other teams are going to put nine guys in the box to stop the Le’Veon Bell and the Spartans ground game. Michigan State’s defense will have to keep making plays this year.
9.) Any Heisman candidates?
Depending on whether Le’Veon Bell becomes the featured running back, the junior is capable of putting up huge numbers this year. The formula is there: 1) A very, very experienced offensive line, 2) an inexperienced receiving corps, 3) a first-year starting quarterback, 4) and a defense that should force many three-and-outs. Dantonio isn’t afraid to do it. He did it with Javon Ringer in 2008, when Ringer ran the ball 30-to-40 times per game. Plus, in that 2008 season, Ringer was surrounded by senior quarterback Brian Hoyer and wide receivers Mark Dell, BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Blair White, and tight-end Charlie Gantt. If the defense is as good as it’s supposed to be and keeps the opposing team’s offense off the field, then Dantonio will use the clock and run the ball all day long.
10.) Is there a possibility for the Spartans to play for a national championship this year?
The Spartans return eight starters on defense, nine if you count Tyler Hoover as a starter. Anthony Rashad-White started the Outback Bowl last year as well. We have covered all of the offense already. Looking at the 2012 schedule for the Spartans, they have a great chance of going into Ann Arbor with 7-0 record. Easier said than done of course, but the Spartans should be favored in all seven of those games. Week 8 at Michigan and week 9 at Wisconsin followed by a home contest against Nebraska is the heart of the schedule. The Spartans will probably be underdogs when they play the Wolverines and Badgers, and will most likely be favored to beat the Cornhuskers. It’s definitely possible for the Spartans to do it. Michigan State could be one of those five or six teams that are in the mix when mid-November rolls around.