by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Life should be good for Mark Dantonio. MSU is coming off an appearance in the inaugural Big Ten title game and an Outback Bowl upset of Georgia. The team was league co-champions in 2010 and has won 14 in a row at home in East Lansing. The Spartans boast five all-conference selections among the eight returning defensive starters from a stop unit that was the best in the Big Ten. MSU has four starters returning on the offensive line, a group Dantonio says should be his best ever. The Spartans have a 238-lb. horse of a tailback in Le’Veon Bell (948 YR 5.2 ypc, 13 TDs), and have made massive inroads in recruiting around the country. Spring went well beyond the fact that “Sparty” fumbled in his only carry in the spring game, right after the coach warned the MSU mascot “don’t put it on the ground.” So Dantonio should be in “What, me worry?” mode, right?

He’s a coach...they’re always worried. This one in particular (remember that heart attack he suffered after the Notre Dame overtime win in 2010?). He’s replacing the winningest quarterback in school history and also loses the top four pass catchers, including both starting WRs and had a total of six players taken in the NFL draft. Successful coaches answer when asked if they are paranoid is usually, “Yes. But am I paranoid enough?”

The team is confident jr. Andrew Maxwell (right) is ready to step up to the starting QB spot. Maxwell mopped up last season, completing 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards while caddying Kirk Cousins’ clubs. Interviewed in April, Cousins said he expected Maxwell to be a very polished first-year QB due to his time in the system, smarts and big arm. Maxwell didn’t get a chance to prove everyone’s confidence was warranted in the spring game, as a sprained knee kept him on the sidelines while redshirt frosh Connor Cook took the bulk of the snaps for both sides in the dress rehearsal. If Maxwell is as capable as the coaches think, this offense will be humming nicely by the time Ohio State comes to Spartan Stadium for the conference opener.

The wide receiver situation should be just fine, as MSU has consistently recruited well at that position under Dantonio. Soph Tony Lippett, who played in every game last year catching 4 passes and making 18 tackles as a defensive back, is a 6-3 target that should make big plays in the fall. Lippett is one of several players that joined Maxwell on the sidelines during the spring game nursing minor injuries. TE Dion Sims (6-5, 280; 12 catches 3 TDS LY) will take the sting out of losing Brian Linthicum (31 recs.) to graduation. All-conference CB Johnny Adams, who was a great WR in high school, took some snaps at wideout in the spring game, and the team is high on 4th-year junior WR Bennie Fowler (coming off foot surgery). However, the wild card could be DeAnthony Arnett, a 4-star HS prep from Saginaw who caught 24 passes as a frosh for Tennessee last season and completed a hardship transfer to East Lansing in order to be with his ailing father.

Defensively, you need a magnifying glass to see any warts (hey, Sparty was ready to take a knee, but they held him up and stripped the ball...these guys are mean). The eight returning starters include five from the all-Big Ten team: NFL-ready jr. DE William Gholston (left), jr. MLB Max Bullough (89 stops), jr. LB Denicos Allen (led team in TFL), and 5th-year CB Adams as well as jr. S Isaiah Lewis (who Dantonio says is the best safety he’s seen in 32 years of coaching). Replacing DT Jerel Worthy, who went to the Packers as the 51st pick in the draft, will be 5th-year sr. Tyler Hoover, a 6-7, 295-lb. vet who started 9 games recording 36 stops and 3 sacks in 2010 but was limited to playing only in the opener against Youngstown due to a fractured rib last season.

The secondary should provide blanket-like coverage, as Adams and Darqueze Dennard are “white on rice” cover corners, and DB coach Harlon Barnett was smiling ear-to-ear about the spring performances of backup CBs (RS frosh Trae Waynes and 5th-year sr. Mitchell White). The Spartans will be able to handle most wideouts with single coverage, allowing d.c. Pat Narduzzi to use his safeties more creatively.

Summary: All of Dantonio’s assistants were given raises in the offseason. Word is that Narduzzi, who had his salary more than doubled to $500,000, is in line to fill the next major college coaching vacancy (are you listening, Derek Dooley?). Last season the Spartans were 6th in total defense and 10th in scoring “D” and we’d bet Narduzzi puts a top five unit on the field this season as his swan song before he moves on to a top job elsewhere (especially if he’s tipped some of his young studs will opt for early-entry to the NFL). The team’s success not only lined the coffers of the athletic department, but has opened up recruiting options and allowed MSU to make raids into new territories. The team successfully “sold” East Lansing in SEC country (Florida and Georgia), and the Spartans were able to wrestle six Ohio recruits away from the Buckeyes, despite the arrival of rainmaker Urban Meyer in Columbus.

Memo to Dantonio, “Don’t worry....be happy.”


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