New faces, same goal for Michigan State
AUG 06, 2012 7:04p ET
The motivation is pretty simple for these Spartans. It’s all about finding a way to reach Pasadena. Michigan State lost the Big Ten championship game last season by one field goal to Wisconsin, and with it the Rose Bowl berth.
So, the quest continues.
The Spartans have not played in the Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1988 — when they beat Southern Cal with All-Americas Tony Mandarich, Andre Rison, Percy Snow and Lorenzo White.
Not one of the 105 players on this squad was born when that game was played.
“I think we’re in a position of contention,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told reporters Monday. “We always are. We keep trying to build a foundation to try to get to that Rose Bowl. We’re not there yet. We haven’t made it there yet, but that’s our goal.”
The defense will be quite capable of getting this team to its desired destination. The Spartans return 18 of their top 22 players from last season’s high quality unit.
But the impact the 2012 team — ranked No. 13 in the USA Today poll of college coaches — makes will be determined by the success or failure of a complete overhaul of the passing game.
Gone are record-setting quarterback Kirk Cousins and leading receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin — as well as dependable receiver Keith Nichol and starting tight end Brian Linthicum, who starred in the triple-overtime Outback Bowl win over Georgia.
What will new quarterback Andrew Maxwell, a fourth-year player with two years of eligibility remaining, bring on game day?
“I think Andrew had great success in high school,” said Dantonio, when asked about the “swag” his new leader brings. “He's had great success while he's been here. He's a fourth-year player, coming into his fourth year. So when you know what to do and you're able to implement that, good things can happen for you. Now, he hasn't taken the game over in a game and made that play at the end of the game. But I think he's a very confident person. And I don't think he lets things bother him. When they say he has ‘swag,’ I think he lets things roll off his shoulders a little bit. He understands the pressures of playing quarterback. He also understands the pressures of playing here. He's seen it first-hand. He's seen Kirk grow in his three years as a starter.
“So, I think all those things are positives for him and help him in that task. But I'm very confident in Andrew. I feel very good about him as a leader, which I think that's what a quarterback first and foremost has to do. Before he can ever throw the ball he has to lead and has to take control of a huddle. He can do that and he can do it with confidence.”
Maxwell, ranked the No. 9 pro-style high school quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com as a senior at Midland High in 2008, has completed 29 of 51 passes for 294 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions while backing up Cousins for two seasons.
Cousins threw for 3,316 yards and a school-record 25 touchdowns while supplying off-the-charts leadership in his final season at Michigan State. His 9,131 yards and 66 touchdowns both top the school’s career lists, and he became a fourth-round pick of the Washington Redskins.
Maxwell missed half of spring practice with a sprained knee, but is ready to go now.
Sometimes a quarterback waiting in the wings behind a legend delivers on his chance. Todd Collins provided proof of that after backing up Elvis Grbac for two seasons at Michigan and developing into a long-time NFL quarterback after two strong years in Ann Arbor.
But the guy waiting his chance doesn’t always light it up. John Brantley came in after Florida Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow with plenty of backup experience under his belt, and was mediocre at best. And keep in mind that Brantley broke Tebow’s Florida state high school touchdown passes record with 99. Brantley signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens this summer.
Adding to the challenge for Maxwell is the fact that Cunningham (Miami Dolphins) and Martin (Houston Texans) are in NFL training camps along with Cousins.
Cunningham tied Devin Thomas (2007) for the most catches in one season with 79 in 2011, and his 1,306 yards ranked third all-time. Cunningham's 218 catches for 3,086 yards both top the career lists. And Martin contributed 66 catches for 777 yards and four touchdowns in 2011.
Though, Maxwell does have a chance to develop his own niche with a group of highly-talented receivers looking to make their marks as well.
“Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery all performed well,” Maxwell said after a practice last weekend. “Their retention was good and they brought a lot of energy to the field. They broke the huddle and lined up with a purpose.
"Bennie has regained the form he displayed two years ago. He’s been battling that foot injury for a long time. So, it’s great to see him running around again and making plays down the field. Bennie will be a key play maker for our team.”
Maxwell had not thrown in that practice to Saginaw’s DeAnthony Arnett, a transfer from the Tennessee who caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns last year as a freshman for the Volunteers. He was granted a residence waiver by the NCAA to transfer home in order to be closer to his father, William, who is battling heart and kidney problems.
Dantonio was asked about the impact he thought Arnett could make.
“We knew that we were losing a lot of great players there (at receiver),” Dantonio said. “B.J. Cunningham, the all‑time leading receiver, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, those guys were outstanding players.
“So the first thing we did was try to address the concern through recruiting. We brought five young wide receivers in —DeAnthony being one of those guys . . . So he's going to have an opportunity to be obviously a great football player for us, to be a guy that is someone that can do the things that Keshawn has done for us, be a star for us . . . He's going to have every opportunity. It's exciting to watch him out there perform. And he brings something to the table, there's no question.”
Dantonio had recruited Arnett out of high school, but Tennessee won out.
“Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery all looked pretty good,” Dantonio said after a recent practice. “It’s also obvious that DeAnthony Arnett really benefitted from being here during spring practice. So, those are big positives for the passing game. Those four guys figure to play important roles in our offense.”
The heart of the running game returns almost entirely intact.
Tailback Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns, is back. So are four of five starting offensive linemen: tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti, guard Chris McDonald and center Travis Jackson.
Those players should provide a true building block for an offense that could lean more on the running game to begin the season, which kicks off Aug. 31 with No. 22 Boise State visiting East Lansing.
The Spartans already know where they want the season to end.