EAST LANSING, Mich. The Michigan State Spartans are coming off of a stellar 11-3 season.
They won the Big Ten Legends Division title. They reached the inaugural Big Ten championship game. They defeated the Georgia Bulldogs of the vaunted SEC, 33-30, in the Outback Bowl. They return 25 starters.
Around the corner, however, lies a big, hairy "but," which in non-metaphorical terms looks like the departure of Kirk Cousins and his top four targets from last season.
Those seniors, including standout B.J. Cunningham, accounted for 76 percent of Cousins' completions (202), 84 percent of his total yards (2,799) and 76 percent of his touchdown passes (19). Cunningham had 79 receptions, 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns by himself.
Charged with the task of filling Cunningham's clown-sized shoes is Tony Lippett, a redshirt sophomore. Last season, he had only four catches for 44 yards, but those numbers were down for a very good reason: He was playing defense the majority of 2011.
The 6-foot-3, 192-pound Detroit native (Crockett Technical) was a wildcat quarterback in high school before making the transition to wide receiver at Michigan State. He made the move to cornerback before last season a position he also played in high school and handled the move fairly well.
Lippett played in all 14 games and started five. He registered 18 tackles and broke up five passes on his way to being selected as a BTN.com Big Ten All-Freshman Team honorable mention.
A big reason for the original transition was the overload of senior talent the Spartans had at the receiver position. With the seniors gone now, Lippett will be moved again, back over to the offensive side of the ball, a move head coach Mark D'Antonio says is a permanent one.
"Tony will go exclusively to offense," D'Antonio said. "I think he's a guy that we moved over there to the defensive side of the ball, really along with (running back Jeremy) Langford last year, because we just felt like we had depth (at receiver and running back), and they were just too good of athletes to stand there and watch."
With Tennessee transfer D'Anthony Arnett's status still up in the air, Lippett should be the Spartans' top receiving option, given his size, speed and maturity level. He's only a sophomore eligibility-wise, but Lippett has been around the program for three seasons and knows what's expected of the Spartans' passing attack.
"We know that we're a young group, but we're going to try and get better every day," Lippett said. "Not to prove anyone wrong or anything, but to be good on our end."
At the helm of that effort will be junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell. He and Lippett are charged with the unique task of building an entirely new rapport one predicated, in part, on the time they spend working this spring and summer.
According to Lippett, that bond has been in the making for a while now. They both spent the last couple of seasons (along with the majority of the new receiving corps) practicing together on the second team.
That time has allowed the group to establish some chemistry and familiarity with their new quarterback.
"He's not that much different than Kirk," Lippett said in regards to Maxwell. "Maxwell might even throw it with a little more zip than Kirk, but that doesn't bother anybody."
After relocating with the frequency of a fugitive the last few seasons, not much bothers Lippett. He seems confident and excited.
"I just love being back on this field," he said through a grin.