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Key Position Battles Will Shape Spartans

By: Matt Hoeppner

The toughest thing for a college coach to do is to turn a team over after graduating its key players and still win. This will be the task for Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio in 2009. Michigan State went 9-4 and went to a New Years Day Bowl for the first time since the 1999 season. The Spartans success was a product of its seniors, three of whom, will be tough to replace. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, Defensive Tackle Justin Kershaw, and Running Back Javon Ringer all graduated, leaving big shoes to fill. The players that fill those holes and their production will determine the Spartans chance for a repeat performance in 2009. Here are the key players competing for those positions.

Quarterback

We can start with Quarterback because that is where most of the discussion starts when it comes to any football team. Brian Hoyer did not have the Senior season he expected in 2009 but he did have a solid season. However the Spartans offense was all about Javon Ringer and without him, the 2009 Quarterback will likely need to have a more productive season than Hoyer's 9 TDs and 9 INTs.

The Competitors:

Kirk Cousins – Sophomore, 6-3 202 Lbs.

2008 Stats: 32-43 (74.4 %) 310 yards, 2 TD 1 INT

Keith Nichol – Sophomore, 6-2 212 Lbs.

2008 Stats: None

Synopsis:

Cousins played decent in five games in a backup role to Brian Hoyer in 2008, while Nichol sat out the year after transferring from Oklahoma. Nichol, a Michigan native, originally committed to MSU before de-committing and signing with Oklahoma following the dismissal of Coach John L Smith. Coming out of high school he was a top notch talent, and prized recruit.

The job is up for grabs, both players put up big numbers in MSU’s Spring Game. Each player threw for 357 yards and 4 TD’s with no interceptions. Nichol went 20-28, while Cousins went 29-43. Moreover both players took almost the identical amount of reps in spring practice. With neither player willing to concede the job it looks like this battle will go down to the wire, with no clear cut choice to start game one against Montana State.

Verdict:

My money is on Kirk Cousins to be the opening day starter. He has more experience playing in the system and has done nothing to play himself out of the starting role. Whichever player wins the job, he will know that the other is lurking on the sideline waiting for his chance to get in the game. This could push both players to take their games to a new level. Either way, the player who ultimately wins the job will be the captain of the Spartan offense for the next few years.

Running Back

The starting running back in 2009 will have the biggest shoes to fill. Javon Ringer had one of the most prolific seasons in Michigan State history. He carried the Spartans on his back for most of the season. No one expects the new starter to have the same type of season that Ringer had last year, but Mark Dantonio likes to run the ball down his opponents throats so whoever wins the job will have to be productive.

The Competitors:

AJ Jimmerson – Senior(5th year), 5-10 205 Lbs.

2008 Stats: 8 carries 14 yards

Andre Anderson – Sophomore, 5-9 190 Lbs.

2008 Stats: 26 carries 97 yards

Ashton Leggett – Sophomore, 5-11 235Lbs.

2008 Stats: 6 carries 7 yards 1 TD

Caulton Ray – Freshman(Redshirt), 5-9 195 Lbs.

Synopsis:

No one in the running for the position established themselves in the spring. In fact in the Spring Game no one player had more than 10 carries in the game, and no more than 30 yards rushing. The player that wins the job will be the player that shows he can get the tough yards in third and short and goaline situations. None of the players have much game experience so it looks to be a wide open competition. Anderson played the most last year, but had problems holding onto the ball. Jimmerson was used some on kickoff returns but got very few reps in the spring. Leggett could be the answer in short yardage because of his size, but might not be ready to be an every down back.

Verdict:

Andre Anderson will probably end up getting most of the carries. He fits the mold of what Don Treadwell wants to do in the running game. He will have to do a better job of holding onto the ball and will have to improve his catching the ball out of the backfield. The Spartans might end up doing what they did two years ago at running back, when Javon Ringer got most of the carries, but Jehuu Caulcrick got the ball in short yardage and goaline situations. In that case Anderson would get the bulk of the carries, with Ashton Leggett getting the ball in the short yardage situations.

Defensive Tackle

While Justin Kershaw did not have a great season last year (28 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks) he did have a solid season on the middle of Pat Narduzzi’s defensive line. This spot is the one defensive position where the new starter will have very little experience. It is also a very important position in a conference where teams try to run the ball on you. The winner of this battle will need to play well, or there will be a big hole in the Spartan defense.

The Competitors:

Kevin Pickelman – Sophomore, 6-3 255 Lbs.

Jerel Worthy – Freshman(Redshirt), 6-3 297 Lbs.

Synopsis:

Pickleman appeared in 12 games for MSU last year, picking up 5 tackles. He was penciled in on the top of the depth chart to start the spring. However Worthy had a productive spring and a pretty good showing in the Spring Game picking up 2 tackles for loss and a sack. Worthy is a little bit bigger than Pickelman, which may be an advantage, especially against stopping the run. It is likely that these two will split reps in the fall with whoever does a better job of getting up field and creating problems in the backfield being the winner.

Verdict:

Jerel Worthy wins the spot. He is a better physical talent than Pickelman and will likely show that during fall practice. He is also bigger and you want to have some size in the middle of that defensive line to go up against the big offensive linemen that MSU will face in Big Ten play. Defensive Tackle is also a position where you want to have depth, because no one stays 100 % healthy all season. Hopefully for Coach Dantonio both of these players will prove themselves as serviceable, should one go down during the season.

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