SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  Michigan St. Spartans

 
The Lowdown
Coach: John L. Smith (1st year)
2002 record: 4-8
Big Ten finish: T-8th
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 142.4 ypg
(10th in Big Ten, 66th in nation)
Pass: 228.6 ypg (6th, 51st)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 213.8 ypg (9th, 110th)
Pass: 188.8 ypg (3rd, 30th)
Projected Starters
Offense (4 returning starters in bold)
WR  Kyle Brown  So. 
WR  83  Matt Trannon  So. 
SL  Agim Shabaj  So. 
LT  72  Stefon Wheeler  So. 
LG   68   Joe Tate   Sr.  
C   73   Brian Ottney   Sr.  
RG  76  William Whitticker  Jr. 
RT   77   Steve Stewart   Sr.  
TE   81   Jason Randall   Jr.  
QB  Drew Stanton  Fr. 
RB  31  Jaren Hayes  So. 
Defense (6)
DE   94   Greg Taplin   Sr.  
DT  99  Brandon McKinney  Jr. 
DT   91   Kevin Vickerson   Jr.  
DE   59   Clifford Dukes   Jr.  
WLB  48  Seth Mitchell  So. 
MLB   44   Ronald Stanley   Jr.  
BLB   45   Monquiz Wedlow   Sr.  
CB  12  Ashton Watson  So. 
CB  17  Roderick Maples  Jr. 
FS   25   Jason Harmon   Jr.  
SS  27  Derron Ware  So. 
Special Teams
16  Dave Rayner  Jr. 
18  Jason Daily  Sr. 
KR  31  Jaren Hayes  So. 
PR  82  Ziehl Kavanaght  Sr. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  Western Michigan 
Sept. 6  Rutgers 
Sept. 13  Louisiana Tech 
Sept. 20  at Notre Dame 
Sept. 27  Iowa 
Oct. 4  Indiana 
Oct. 11  at Illinois 
Oct. 18  at Minnesota 
Nov. 1  Michigan 
Nov. 8  at Ohio State 
Nov. 15  at Wisconsin 
Nov. 22  Penn State 
John L. Smith is hoping Michigan State will continue its recent habit of defying expectations. Little is expected of the Spartans this year, but the new head coach believes a winning season is within reach.

The Spartans were picked to contend for a Big Ten title in 2002 but instead had their worst season in 11 years. Much of the talent that led to high expectations a year ago is returning. Were those players overrated? Were they in need of sharper coaching? Probably a little bit of both.

Smith was not known as Mr. Discipline at Louisville. But he had to become a staunch hard-liner to begin the cleaning process at Michigan State.

"The guys have the want-to; they want to win and they want to learn how to win and do what's necessary," said Smith, who took Louisville to five bowls in five years. "We are not going to be the most athletic team, especially on defense. But if we improve a lot in the summer, play hard and smart and stay healthy, we will be OK."

"OK" means contending for a bowl bid and a winning record. Smith said both goals are realistic, although most believe a .500 record is the best this team can do.

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

Jeff Smoker was the hottest quarterback in the country in November and December of 2001. He missed the last five games of 2002 after admitting to a substance abuse problem. When healthy, Smoker might be the best quarterback in the Big Ten. If he can harness top form, he is capable of putting up huge numbers in Smith's spread offense. Smoker spent the spring on the third string in a semi-suspension.

Drew Stanton has good feet and a solid arm at quarterback. Damon Dowdell has good speed and Big Ten experience but is 1-5 as a starter.

Spartan coaches believe there are ingredients to produce a 1,000-yard rusher, largely because of an offensive line that returns six players with starting experience. Tyrell Dortch is the leading candidate to carry the ball, but he has a history of injuries. Small but elusive Jaren Hayes rushed for 113 yards in the 2002 finale at Penn State. Freshman David Richard led the team in rushing but has since transferred to Missouri.

The Spartans have three gifted but unproven young receivers. Sophomores Kyle Brown, Agim Shabaj and Matt Trannon should blossom in the spread offense. Brown can fly. Shabaj is quick as a slot man. Trannon has been compared to Plaxico Burress. Tight ends Jason Randall and Eric Knott are All-Big Ten candidates. They will flourish in Smith's offense, which was generous to tight ends at Louisville.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

Defensive line should be a team strength. Plenty of experience returns, including strongman Brandon McKinney at nose guard. Ends Clifford Dukes and Greg Taplin should be productive. They have been marginal in the past but are excited about new upfield freedom in Smith's attack-oriented defense.

At linebacker, Michigan State is low on sideline-to-sideline speed, but four players with starting experience have something to offer. Ron Stanley gets off blocks and scrapes with effectiveness.

The Spartans must replace three starters in the secondary, where there is a shortage of depth and experience. Free safety Jason Harmon wraps well in run support and has been solid in pass coverage. Cornerback Roderick Maples played better than expected in the spring.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Placekicker Dave Rayner was 10-of-16 as a sophomore, including 2-for-2 from beyond 50. Punter Jason Daily averaged 40.4 yards per attempt last fall.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

The Spartans were horrendous tacklers on defense last year. With continued speed problems in the middle of the field, it is hard to believe that the defense will improve enough to help the team post a winning record.

The offense should be productive and exciting. Smoker is capable of making Michigan State dangerous on any given Saturday, if he is available. If Smoker or one of the other quarterbacks is sharp and a tailback emerges, the Spartans could be competitive.

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