The 2014 Michigan State football season is upon us, as the No. 8 Spartans are set to kick off the season at home against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks on Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
With the season drawing closer and closer every day, the Michigan State staff at isportsweb has put together a season preview and predictions article for the 2014 season. Below are the thoughts of Matt Hoeppner (@matthoeppner), Max Lapthorne (@mlapthorne), Jameson Draper (@jamdraper) and Ryan Squanda (@squandaryan).
Hoeppner: Connor Cook, QB
While I expect Jeremy Langford to have another very good season for the Spartans, Connor Cook is the engine that will drive the Michigan State offense. After a breakout season last year Cook enters his junior year as the starter from day one and is poised to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He will have a variety of weapons to work with including a deep receiving corps, an emerging threat in Josiah Price at tight end and backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield. All the pieces are there for Cook to succeed and he will.
Lapthorne: Jeremy Langford, RB
I would argue that Langford had more to do with the offense’s turnaround in 2013 than Connor Cook did. Langford not only stabilized the position but also brought big play ability, which the offense desperately needed. With a full year of experience under his belt, Langford is poised for another huge season in the Spartans run-heavy offense.
Draper: Connor Cook, QB
This probably isn’t a very surprising pick, but it is nonetheless my choice. Last year, Connor Cook solidified himself as a top 3 Big Ten quarterback despite not starting the first several games of the season. Coming into this season, it looked as if Cook was just behind Ohio State’s Braxton Miller for best Big Ten QB. Now that Miller is out for the year, Cook as the best offensive leader in the Big Ten doesn’t seem outlandish.
Squanda: Jeremy Langford, RB
Langford has come a long way in his career at Michigan State. A year ago, not much was known about the 6-foot-1, 208 pound running back from Wayne, Mich. However, after a breakout 2013 season where he rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns, Langford is now a darkhorse contender for the Heisman Trophy. How the Spartans replace three starters on the offensive line will ultimately play somewhat of role in how effective Langford will be able to be. Still, there’s no question that workhorse Langford is the best and most consistent skill position player MSU has.
Hoeppner: Marcus Rush, DE
While the obvious answer here is Shilique Calhoun, I believe his partner on the other side of the defensive line will have a huge season. Rush has started 40 games in his Spartan career and is a four year starter. Calhoun will draw a lot of attention from opposing coaches, leaving Rush an opportunity to take advantage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rush ended the season with double digit sacks and/or tackles for loss. His experience will also be important with the new pieces to the Spartan Dawgs defense this year.
Lapthorne: Taiwan Jones, LB
If the Spartan defense is going to be anywhere close to as dominant this season as it was last year, Taiwan Jones must evolve into an elite-level middle linebacker. He has all the physical tools to be a great player, but his value to the defense this season will be his mastery of the defensive scheme. Jones is the most important player on the defense and I believe he will step up to the challenge.
Draper: Trae Waynes, CB
50 tackles. Three interceptions. Five pass deflections. Honorable mention All-Big Ten. Those are the 2013 numbers for Trae Waynes, MSU defensive back. Last year, Waynes played second fiddle to consensus All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard and was probably the third best player in the secondary behind Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. This season, Waynes– along with safety Kurtis Drummond– is the leader of the generally young and extremely talented secondary, and he is carrying big expectations. He’s been reportedly improving a lot after an already great season, and he was just named to the 2014 Jim Thorpe Award Watch List; that’s the award Darqueze Dennard won last year.
Squanda: Shilique Calhoun, DE
For a while last season, it seemed Shilique Calhoun was the only player on the Michigan State football team that could get into the end zone – not something normally said about a defensive end. Simply put, though, Calhoun is a defensive playmaker. Last year in his first season as a starter, Calhoun accounted for 8.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries, an interception and three touchdowns. Expect to hear a lot more from Calhoun this season.
POSITION TO KEEP AN EYE ON
With the departures of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, the biggest hole to fill for Michigan State this year is at linebacker. Taiwan Jones started 13 games at the Star linebacker spot last year and is currently scheduled to slide over to the middle linebacker spot, replacing Bullough. Junior Ed Davis looks like he’ll get the first shot at replacing Denicos Allen at the Sam linebacker spot. Junior Darien Harris was listed at the starter at Star linebacker when fall camp opened but is in tough competition for the spot, primarily from Riley Bullough and fifth year senior Mylan Hicks. Regardless of who wins the spots, the Spartans will need someone to step up into Max Bullough’s role of defensive quarterback, diagnosing the offense at the line and getting players into the right spots to make plays.
Lapthorne: Tight End
Tight end is such an interesting position to me because of the potential that both Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles possess. Price had more success last season, but both will likely see increased roles this season. They are both athletic and have good hands, so watch out for those two to make some big plays this year.
Draper: Wide Receiver
After a couple relatively down years for the Michigan State receiving core, the wideouts should be back in force this year. Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Aaron Burbridge, and Macgarrett Kings are all players returning this year with a significant amount of experience under their belts. Add that on to the budding young stars in RJ Shelton, DeAnthony Arnett and Andre Sims, Jr., and you have yourself an undoubtedly deep group of wideouts. It’s going to be interesting to see which receivers stand out amongst the rest and get the playing time.
Squanda: Offensive Line
Finally able to string together a healthy season, the offensive line was arguably the most valuable part of MSU’s offense last season. They did it all a year ago, giving both Jeremy Langford holes to run through and Connor Cook time to throw. This year, though, after losing Dan France, Blake Treadwell, and Fou Fonoti to graduation, how MSU replaces those three guys will be key in how successful they’ll be in 2014. As for the guys this year, the recent injury to Connor Kruse stings. However, Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen have all played a lot of football in their careers at MSU and should be poised for solid seasons.
POTENTIAL BREAKOUT PLAYER
Hoeppner: Lawrence Thomas, DT
Thomas was a five star recruit when he came to Michigan State and after bouncing around between offense and defense, seems primed for a breakout year. Thomas will get a shot at a starting defensive tackle spot this year and seems ready to rise to the challenge. Coach Narduzzi has praised Thomas throughout fall camp, even comparing him to former MSU standout Jerel Worthy and calling Thomas “a bad man right now.” Thomas could have a huge year in the middle, especially if teams are trying to commit extra help to stopping Calhoun and Rush on the edges.
Lapthorne: R.J. Shelton, WR
Shelton has already begun his quest to become a breakout player by earning a starting spot on the Spartan’s first preseason depth chart. He has made the transition to wide receiver this year and figures to be one of Cook’s top targets. His elite playmaking ability is what makes him a special player, and I believe Spartan fans will get to see a lot of it this season.
Draper: DeAnthony Arnett, WR
Squanda: R.J. Shelton, WR
Shelton, who came to the Spartans a year ago as an electrifying running back out of high school, saw limited action in his freshman season. Mostly used in jet sweeps and end arounds, Shelton ran for 153 yards on 21 carries and caught just four passes for six yards during his rookie campaign. Now having made the transition to wide receiver, expect Shelton (who has 4.4 speed) to get involved in the offense in as many ways as possible.
FRESHMAN TO MAKE THE BIGGEST IMPACT
Hoeppner: Malik McDowell, DT
I really didn’t want to pick McDowell for this spot but the Spartans are so deep everywhere else that it looks like players like Madre London and Montae Nicholson, who have impressed in camp, will likely be red-shirted. The MSU defensive line is also deep but the injury to Damon Knox, along with McDowell’s ability to play both the edge and interior of the line, means that he will likely see playing time as part of MSU’s D-Line rotation. I wouldn’t expect him to be a difference maker, but he will probably make a couple big plays when he’s out there.
Lapthorne: Malik McDowell, DT
For me, it’s impossible to choose anyone other than McDowell here, even though he has such talented players ahead of him on the depth chart. Regardless, McDowell is a physical specimen who will be part of the defensive line rotation, especially in pass rushing situations. I can only imagine what would be going through a quarterback’s head if he saw McDowell on one end and Shilique Calhoun on the other.
Draper: Jon Reschke, LB
Although it seems like Taiwan Jones is going to get the nod for the Spartans at middle linebacker to replace Max Bullough, redshirt freshman Jon Reschke had a great spring camp, and is continually impressing Mark Dantonio. He’s probably going to end up behind Taiwan Jones, but will still rack up a significant amount of playing time. He might not be the most talented freshman on the roster, but he’s going to make a big impact on the second unit this year.
Squanda: Malik McDowell, DT
His recruitment to Michigan State was bizarre. But now that he’s arrived in East Lansing, the 6-foot-6, 290 pound defensive tackle is focused on earning his place on a defensive unit loaded with talent. Initially it looked as if McDowell would spend much of this season buried in the depth chart, but with Damon Knox out with an injury for a while (the expected replacement for Tyler Hoover), the door is open for McDowell. At the very least, though, expect to see McDowell out on the field at some point this season making an impact.
Hoeppner: When I initially wrote this I had MSU losing to Ohio St and missing out on the Big Ten Championship Game. With Braxton Miller out for the season I have changed my tune and believe that if Michigan State is as good as they think they are, that the Spartans should once again run the table in the Big Ten regular season. If they do that then they will set up a second straight trip to Indy and a chance to repeat as Big Ten Champions. I think the loss at Oregon keeps them out of the College Football Playoff but maybe not. Either way, the expectations will be sky high now in East Lansing. It’s up to the Spartans to play up to them.
Final Regular Season Record Prediction: 11-1
Lapthorne: High expectations haven’t treated Michigan State too well in the recent past, and while I don’t foresee another 2012 debacle on thehorizon, I also don’t believe the Spartans will be able to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Spartan’s schedule is much tougher this season, and with so many new pieces on defense it’s hard to imagine them running the table.
With that being said, there is no shame in a 10-win season which would most likely put the Spartans in position for a 2nd consecutive Big Ten Championship. Michigan State football is on the rise, and a successful 2014 season could solidify MSU as an elite football program.
Final Regular Season Record Prediction: 10-2
Draper: This season is pivotal for MSU. In my suddenly optimistic thinking brain, I am feeling like Michigan State will have another fantastic season, perhaps going 11-1. However, I think that one loss will come late in the season, and the committee hates late season losses, so in seemingly typical Spartan fashion, they will finish lower than their record and skill indicates.
Final Regular Season Record Prediction: 11-1
Squanda: Following arguably one of their best seasons in school history, Michigan State is now drawing more preseason hype to East Lansing than ever before. A big theme around Head Coach Mark Dantonio’s program this offseason has been handling success and continuing to play with a chip on their shoulder. With the recent injury to Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, the Spartans should be the favorite to win the Big Ten this year and could have an argument by the end of the season to compete in the first ever College Football Playoff.
Final Regular Season Record Prediction:11-1