|Defensive end William Gholston :: Icon SMI|
Mark Dantonio isn't interested in resting on laurels. The Spartans are coming off consecutive 11-win seasons and will enter 2012 as a preseason top 10 team, but their coach isn't satisfied.
"None of us can be complacent," Dantonio said. "Last year is the past. We need to move forward."
Michigan State will be taking those steps without Kirk Cousins, the winningest quarterback in program history. He'll be replaced by two-year backup Andrew Maxwell, who impressed his coaches and teammates even after spraining his right knee in mid-April. "He was basically another coach," said backup QB Connor Cook after the spring game. "He was giving signals, and he would help me with my reads." Maxwell, a junior, has seen action in only nine career games, completing 29-of-51 passes for 294 yards and one touchdown, but Dantonio isn't worried. "He's a student of the game, has attention to detail, great leadership qualities -- much like Kirk Cousins," said the coach.
Maxwell may have to study up to compensate for the team's lack of experience at receiver, as the Spartans have lost standouts Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham. The team has high hopes for corner turned receiver Tony Lippett and got a boost when the NCAA granted Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett a residence waiver to play in 2012. But while Arnett adds depth, he's still just a sophomore. "We've got to find guys who are going to mature rapidly," Dantonio said.
Maturity isn't an issue on the offensive line, where four starters return to form the most experienced unit of Dantonio's tenure. MSU is also well-seasoned on defense. All-America candidate William Gholston replaces NFL second-round draft pick Jerel Worthy as the face of the D, but Gholston is hardly the Spartans' only playmaker. Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Chris Norman form one of the nation's top linebacker corps, while corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard and strong safety Isaiah Lewis are the heart of a technically sound, hard-hitting secondary.
That skill level, of course, does nothing to erase those fears of complacency. "We have to guard against that issue when the expectations are there but the work ethic isn't," Dantonio said. "We're going to make sure we're all in, that we address one game at a time and build from there."
277.4 -- Yards per game allowed by the stingy Michigan State defense, whose 18 interceptions were best in the Big Ten.
Johnny Adams, CB, Sr. -- With 122 career tackles, 17 pass breakups and eight interceptions, the two-time All-Big Ten selection could greatly improve his already high draft stock with an All-America campaign in 2012.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Jr. -- Bell had 1,553 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 289 carries while splitting time with Edwin Baker in 2010 and '11. Now the featured back, Bell could emerge as a dark-horse Heisman contender. He'll also need to be a leader on offense with Kirk Cousins gone.
Dion Sims, TE, Jr. -- Injuries have limited Sims's numbers to 23 catches for 232 yards and six TDs in 27 games. Mark Dantonio expects the 6-foot-5, 280-pounder, now healthy and a starter, to be "tremendous."
Denicos Allen, LB, Jr. -- The edge rusher spearheads a loaded corps that should keep Michigan State's defense among the elite. Allen was second in the Big Ten last year with 11 sacks, an unusually high total for a linebacker, and he will be a threat again in Pat Narduzzi's blitz-heavy scheme.
Andrew Maxwell, QB, Jr. -- The Midland, Mich., native may not have Cousins's game experience, but he does have superior arm strength and athleticism. "He's very patient -- he's an excellent athlete who's waited for his opportunity," Dantonio said. If the Spartans can furnish capable receivers, Maxwell, healed from a springtime knee injury, will find them on the field.
Demetrious Cox, S, Fr. -- Cox, a four-star safety from Jeannette (Pa.) High, picked Michigan State over Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. Dantonio calls him a "headline guy" in what he notes is the top class in his time with the Spartans.
William Gholston likes to pretend he's a different person. On the field, he is a 6-foot-7, 275-pound defensive end with All-America talent, first-round draft potential and a knack for making his way into the opposing backfield. Off the field, he's a self-professed "big kid" with a runaway imagination, love of family and commitment to mentorship. On stage, though, he can be anyone he wants.
"The thing I love about [acting] is you get to transform into somebody else," said Gholston, who began taking theater classes at Michigan State during the 2011 season. "You can turn something imaginary into real life."
Gholston's real life would be fantasy for many. The former five-star recruit out of Detroit's Southeastern High chose the Spartans after receiving offers from Alabama, Oklahoma and USC, among other elite programs. He saw action in 10 games as a true freshman in 2010 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, then earned a starting spot as a sophomore and finished with 70 tackles (16 for loss) and five sacks. His best performance was his last, when he tied a Michigan State bowl record with five tackles for loss, including two sacks, in the Spartans' 33-30 triple-overtime win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
Perhaps more memorable, though, and certainly not in a good way, was his performance two and a half months earlier against in-state rival Michigan. Gholston earned some Internet infamy after cameras caught him twisting Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson's helmet, then punching Michigan lineman Taylor Lewan in the face mask. The Spartans did not publicly punish Gholston for the incident, the first and only time the player had generated any sort of trouble on or off the field, but the Big Ten suspended him for one game.
"I've apologized, I've done all I can do," Gholston said. "You have to take the criticism and keep going."
He has the support to do so. Gholston was drawn to Michigan State because of the program's "family atmosphere" and the continuity of the defensive staff, which has remained intact heading into coach Mark Dantonio's sixth season in East Lansing. That consistency makes life easier on players like Gholston, who can focus on perfecting their games instead of learning new plays and schemes after coaching changes. But Gholston's respect for his coaches is about more than X's and O's.
"I want them to help me grow as a man, and that's really what they're doing right now," Gholston said of the Spartans' staff, whose support for him has never wavered.
"He's extremely motivated to be the best," said Dantonio. "He's got leadership qualities. He's a great young person. He's fun to be around. We're going to benefit from those [strengths]."
Gholston is looking to pay that guidance forward as a member of the veteran cast. "We try to reach out to the younger players, to let them know the tradition we have at Michigan State," he said. "We can only be as strong as the weakest link in our chain, and we don't want any weak links."
What Gholston does want is a Big Ten title, and, just as he gets to do on stage, a chance to transform his persona.
"You can never be perfect in football, because the game changes every snap," Gholston said. "I've got a lot of goals: To have an All-America campaign. To make sure my team wins. To help everybody around me. To be an overall great person."
SI: With an experienced back in Le'Veon Bell and an offensive line that might be the best of your tenure, will you rely more heavily on the run game?
MD: No, we always try to be balanced. You get in situations where if you're behind, you throw a little bit more. To be successful, we have to be able to do both.
SI: The no-huddle is becoming more prevalent in the Big Ten. How challenging is it for defenses, yours included, to adjust?
MD: Defenses are catching up. Our staff and players are doing a great job. Bottom line, it comes down to: Are you schematically correct? Can you tackle well? Can you pressure the quarterback? If you've got a hurry-up offense and you're not making gains, you don't have the ball very long.
SI: You've come close to the Rose Bowl. Were the last few years breakthroughs or disappointments?
MD: Some combination thereof. If you end up in the top 10, you're making strides. But we came up short. Until we get to the Rose Bowl, that will be the feeling.
SI: What makes this group special?
MD: We've got good players, and more than that, we've got great chemistry. We've got a good blend of older and younger players, and our guys will pick up and lead. They understand we've been successful because of the chemistry here.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.