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Monday, August 13, 2012

"DEPTH" - Are You Tired of Hearing it Yet? Why is it Such a Big Deal? Here...

MSU football: Spartans' depth may be best in long time

11:59 PM, Aug 11, 2012
Green and White
Lansing State Journal
Written by
Chris Solari

EAST LANSING — Flash back to 1995, Nick Saban's debut game as Michigan State's head coach and Mark Dantonio's first here as an assistant.

It's a harsh loss most Spartan fans, players and coaches have tried to forget since, yet it provides a valuable lesson in where they want to eventually get as a program.
The opponent that September afternoon, Nebraska, utterly controlled MSU from start to finish despite losing its starting quarterback, Tommie Frazier, early in the game. The Cornhuskers brought in capable backup quarterback Brooks Berringer, rode running back Lawrence Phillips for much of the afternoon, then subbed in a true freshman named Ahman Green to continue the ground pounding.

The final score, 50-10, couldn't even sum up the dominance. Nebraska gained 681 yards, 567 of them on the ground. A few months later, the unbeaten Cornhuskers captured college football's national championship.

That's what having depth in a football program means. It can help overcome injuries, it can wear down opponents, it can make competition for playing time bring the best out in backups and starters alike.

And, as Dantonio and his staff's current blueprint for success has shown
the past two seasons, depth can lead to titles.

While talented players remain the essential component to winning, football coaches say they can never enough of them. MSU continues to stockpile highly regarded recruits, who the Spartans are hoping can continue to keep them as a Big Ten frontrunner as they've been the past two seasons and push them into national prominence.

But as the Aug. 31 season opener with Boise State nears, turning depth and promise into productivity remains the staff's primary task.

“I think you want depth at every position as a football coach,” Dantonio said this week.”You're trying to solidify every single position out there.”

Start with defense, which returns eight returning starters and about 10 others who have seen significant playing time. Dantonio — who served as defensive coordinator when Ohio State won the national title in 2003 — makes no secret that his belief is that defense wins championships.

Much of the Spartans' star power returns along the front seven, starting with defensive ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush up front and returning linebackers Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman behind them. And in eyeing the preseason depth chart, it's hard not to realize just how deep MSU can be at those spots.

Never have enough

Still, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi craves more.

“I think we have quality depth, probably as good of quality of depth as we've had,” Narduzzi said. “You just wish you had more guys with more experience. If we have our three-deep, I'd feel pretty good, because you can be two-deep and one-deep pretty quick. All it takes is a blip here and a blip there, and all of a sudden, your depth's not that good.”

A large part of Narduzzi's concern comes from unknown entities. Linebacker Taiwan Jones was the only newcomer to play last season, and 14 of the 25 Spartans' returning redshirt freshmen participate on defense.

Coaches rave about defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Joel Heath, and they've also moved fellow redshirt freshman and five-star linebacker recruit Lawrence Thomas to the same position and think he can make a quick first impression there.

Sophomore Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and redshirt freshmen Damon Knox and Brandon Clemons are in the mix inside at tackle, along with seniors Anthony Rashad White and Tyler Hoover. Junior Micajah Reynolds adds more depth and versatility.

“During the game, we are going to be playing fresh,” said Hoover, a converted defensive end who coaches could shift back outside if needed. “It's not going to be the guy trying to force himself through the entire game and getting tired at the end of the fourth quarter. You are going to see guys playing quick the entire game, because so many guys can play.”

High-profile recruits load the linebacker depth, including sophomore Jones and redshirt freshmen Darien Harris and Ed Davis. Dantonio singled out true freshman Jamal Lyles as another future star who might get squeezed for playing time now because of the number of talented players in front of him, but juniors Kyler Elsworth and TyQuan Hammock, along with senior Steve Gardiner, all saw significant snaps in recent years.

“If a guy knows he's gonna play, that's a big deal,” defensive line coach Ted Gill said. “If they know they're gonna play, their practice attitudes changes, the rotation changes, their study habits change. The more we can play, the better off we'll be.”
In the secondary, three starters return — cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, and safety Isaiah Lewis. Junior safety Jairus Jones and senior cornerback Mitchell White each have playing experience.

And much like the other spots, a bevy of newcomers fill in behind them, the most talked-about being redshirt freshman Trae Waynes and true freshmen Ezra Robinson and Jermaine Edmondson at cornerback and true freshman Demetrious Cox at safety. Cox is expected to give chase for a starting role at free safety, along with sophomore Kurtis Drummond and redshirt freshman RJ Williamson.

“The depth is pretty good, but we are still developing the depth,” defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said. “But talent-wise and potential of the depth is there. As long as the guys keep progressing as the game goes along, we should have pretty good depth throughout this entire season.”

Unproven depth also plagues the offense, predominantly at skill spots, but coaches feel the talent exists to continue the record-breaking numbers of the eight departed starters. Only four players with significant experience return in production positions: Dion Sims at tight end, wide receiver Bennie Fowler at wide receiver and running backs Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.

“As the pieces around us emerge at the skill positions, I think that will bring a level of perspective as to who we are,” offensive coordnator Dan Roushar said. “Then as we get into the season, it will be finding the things we do well and trying to highlight those.”

Roushar pointed to the four returning starters along the offensive line as lynchpins to expediting that development. Back are Travis Jackson at center, flanked on his right by guard Chris McDonald and tackle Fou Fonoti and on his left by tackle Dan France. The others competing for snaps include three others — Blake Treadwell, Skyler Burkland and Ethan Ruhland — with starting experience, along with expected contributions from Jack Allen and Henry Conway.

Here, more than anywhere, Dantonio feels the depth is necessary.
Strong on the line

“I don't think we have ever had this much experience or this much depth coming back,” first-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell said of the offensive line. “Good offense is going to start with a good offensive line, and we definitely have that. It's going to allow us to run the ball first and foremost. And if we can run it effectively, we can throw it effectively. And when we are two dimensional like that, that's when we have the opportunity to make plays and we can really put some points on the board.”

Kirk Cousins' stability and health at quarterback didn't permit Maxwell many chances to get work during games, but Dantonio did make a concerted effort to ensure his heir apparent would get a few series when the situation allowed for it. Junior Maxwell's inexperience, along with two new and untested backups in redshirt freshman Connor Cook and true freshman Tyler O'Connor, will be essential.

Developing four to six receivers for Maxwell to throw to will also be critical.

Junior Fowler and sophomores Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey — three of the four returning receivers who have any MSU playing experience — entered camp as the projected starters. Of the 15 wideouts on the roster, 10 are either true or redshirt freshmen, but sophomore transfer DeAnthony Arnett proved his ability at Tennessee last season and should see passes thrown his way as well.

And beyond fifth-year senior Sims, tight end remains equally as concerning. Junior Denzel Drone, a converted defensive end, moved over during spring practices. Junior college transfer Jamare Mills could be in the mix, as well as true freshmen Josiah Price and Evan Jones.

One constant theme among the coaches is a belief that there isn't as significant a drop-off from starters to backups as in previous seasons.

To chase a national championship and become a dominant aggressor as Nebraska did here nearly two decades ago, the Spartans will need that to come to fruition – and fast.

“Every year, we come in and say, 'Hey, we're going to play the best players,'” Dantonio said. “It doesn't really matter who those guys are, they have to continue to perform.

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