Saturday, February 8, 2014

Thoughts on 2014 Recruiting Class

Folks, it's been said that this could be the best recruiting class of the Dantonio era, and I think that we can safely say that's true for the defensive talent. IF it all pans out, this class has the talent to take MSU's d-line and safeties to unheard of heights. The linebackers and corners should be solid, though I don't think they improve on what MSU already has for those groups. Overall, this class could help MSU's defense field Alabama-type talent within 2 or 3 years.

On offense, the talent looks solid, but I don't think it dramatically improves on what MSU already has or has had (in the past few years) at most of the positions. However, if Montae Nicholson ends up at wide receiver, then we're looking at a step up at wide receiver. He has Plaxico Burress kind of talent. Overall, the offensive talent in this class is something to be happy about, but I wouldn't say that it will allow MSU to field Alabama-type talent on offense in the near future.

With that, let me pass along my quick take on each member of the 2014 class.

Miguel Machado. Somehow missed him when I first created this post, and I don't know how, since I'm quite excited about this kid. He reminds me of Fou Fonoti, but he seems to be a little bigger, and possibly stronger and quicker. He also shows good aggressiveness and a good motor, which makes him a very good match for MSU's style of offense. He is another JUCO kid who should immediately be able to compete for the starting right tackle position. But even if he doesn't win that position, he should provide valuable depth at a position that was getting a bit thin. I wouldn't be surprised if Machado becomes a 2-year starter, though he will have to beat out some other talented guys.

T.J. Harrell. He was considered a 3-star recruit by most recruiting services, but he had offers from several top programs. So something doesn't add up. Perhaps it's because most recruiting services list him as a safety, and I would agree that he doesn't have elite explosiveness for a safety. But MSU recruited him to play linebacker, and that's where he really looks like a 4-star recruit. His athleticism is excellent for a linebacker, but what's more impressive is his ability to find the ball and his aggressive tackling. He'll need to add some size, but I could see him contributing by year 2, and perhaps even starting by year 3.

Malik McDowell. Don't want to say too much about McDowell until he actually makes it to campus. But he clearly deserves his 5-star rating. He will need to work on technique, but he is certainly very athletic, strong, and disruptive. If he makes it to campus, he could definitely contribute as a freshman.

Craig Evans. He is one of the highest-rated recruits in this class. He does look strong and he consumes a lot of space, but he will need to continue working on becoming more explosive and disruptive. Dantonio suggested that Evans may contribute as a true freshman, but I think that will be easier said than done, considering that MSU is quite loaded at DT. Even if he plays as a freshman, I don't think he'll have a significant impact until his second year in the program. To me he looks like he's going to need a year with Ken Mannie and a year of working on technique.

David Hedelin. Still waiting for word on his LOI, but Hedelin is actually one of the guys I'm most excited about. He's supposed to be an OT, but he moves and hits like a fullback. So he has the athleticism to play left tackle, but he'll need to add about 30 pounds. He is a JUCO kid, so he should be able to contribute early, if he gets to campus.

Montae Nicholson. He's one of the highest-rated recruits in the class and for good reason. He is an outstanding athlete who could excel at safety or wide receiver. At wide receiver, he could dominate like Plaxico Burress once did. But I'm sure the defensive coaches will fight to keep him on their side.

Montez Sweat. He is one of the lowest-rated recruits in this class, but he clearly has the tools to be one of the top guys by the time it's all said and done. Unfortunately, I can only find video of Sweat playing basketball. Still, you can see that he has the size and athleticism to be an elite defensive end -- which is what Dantonio mentioned he would play. I can see him easily getting around most offensive tackles. I wouldn't be surprised if he also turned into the next Dion Sims, who went from basketball to tight end. He's likely raw, so he probably won't start to really contribute until his third year in the program.

Madre London. I originally thought of London as more of a slashing runner like former Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor. But I'm thinking that he moves more like Chicago running back Matt Forte. He's not going to break off 60-yard runs, but it looks like he has the vision and power to deliver LeVeon Bell kind of productivity. There are rumblings that he could play as a true freshman, but I don't quite see that happening, unless there are a lot of injuries. The Spartans are too loaded at running back next year. Nonetheless, London should start to contribute significantly by his second year.

Jake Hartbarger. The Spartans have a good track record with kickers, so I trust that Hartbarger will be another good one by year 2.

Nick Padla. He is one of the lower-rated players in the class, but he has a great frame and good aggressiveness. Kind of reminds me of Jack Conklin, who obviously turned out to be quite the diamond in the rough. Of course, only time will tell if Padla is really another diamond in the rough. I could see him making contributions at guard earlier in his MSU career, and perhaps eventually moving out to tackle. In short, I'm hoping Padla is another Conklin, but I will settle for another Dan France.

Robert Bowers. He is not that highly rated, but I think he's one of the more exciting guys in this class. He is clearly in the mold of Shilique Calhoun and Demetrius Cooper: a long, fast kid who needs to add some size and strength. That formula has been working well for the Spartans, and I expect it to work again with Bowers. He has all the tools, including the aggressiveness and "high motor." I expect him to take a similar developmental trajectory as Calhoun: redshirt the first year, make some plays the second year, and then really start to emerge by year three.

Matt Morrissey. He has the tools to be a solid safety or receiver. He has good size, awareness, and aggressiveness. His speed is decent. I could see him evolving into an elite linebacker, but he would need to gain about 30 pounds, which might not be easy for him to do. Since MSU is loaded at linebacker and since they are bringing in 4 linebackers in this class, Morrissey's best opportunity for early playing time will come at safety and wide receiver -- where MSU could be a little thin in a couple of years.

Gerald Owens. If he can manage his weight, Owens could turn out to be a star. He really looks like TJ Duckett. But you never know with running backs. Many have the talent, but they end up lacking something, like vision or the ability to learn pass protection. Owens seems to have all the tools, but we'll see where he ends up. He could be like Delton Williams and get some carries as a freshman, especially in goal line situations. But he'll have to show that he can protect the ball.

David Beedle. He's the least hyped of MSU's DT recruits, but Beedle has some excellent quickness and size. He has the tools to develop into a very good DT by his third or fourth year. But I also wouldn't be surprised if he moved to offensive guard. MSU is deep now at DT, and they have not recruited any guards in 2 years.

Jalen Watts-Jackson. He is one of the lower-rated recruits in the class and in the limited video that is available I don't see much explosiveness. But JWJ was only a junior in that video, and he did impress the coaches at a summer camp with his speed and vertical jump. So he is likely a much different player now than in the video I saw. So there is not much info to evaluate him by, but I will say that his vertical and his ability to go up for the ball in the air are traits that could make him a solid safety. But as a safety he would also have to stop the run, so he would need to put on some mass. We'll have to wait and see what happens with JWJ.

Vayante Copeland. He is one of the higher-rated recruits in this class with the gifts to play corner or running back. He will very likely be a corner, but the coaches may be tempted to give him some plays on offense and special teams -- though I don't think that he'll be able to beat out RJ Shelton to get those plays. Copeland could be the highest-rated corner MSU has been able to recruit in the Dantonio era, so big things will be expected from him. He has all the tools, but only time will tell if he can bring them all together.

Chris Frey. For a linebacker, he has a good frame, pretty good mobility, and good field awareness. He will need to keep adding size and strength, but I could see him becoming the starting middle linebacker in a couple of years. Of course, MSU is always loaded at linebacker, so the competition will be fierce. If the competition turns out to be too fierce, Frey looks like he could make a nice contribution at fullback.

Matt Sokol. He has outstanding size and I would say elite athleticism for a tight end. So the potential is there. But tight ends also need to be able to block and run routes, so there's no guarantee that Sokol's potential will be fulfilled. If he can figure out the fundamentals, and if he can avoid injuries, he has a bright future ahead of him. But he also has several talented players to compete with, so I think he won't start to emerge until his third year in the program.

Enoch Smith. He is one of the better DT recruits MSU has brought in, not just in this class, but in the last few classes. He is a little small, but he is very strong and relatively quick. His size and the talent ahead of him will probably limit his contributions in the first 2 years, but he should have a shot at starting by his third year.

Brian Allen. He's a little small for a center, but he has everything else going for him. The center position is part of the family business (with brother Jack already starting at center for MSU). He is also a wrestling champ, so he has good quickness and a great understanding of leverage. He should take over for Jack in a couple of years, but until then, I don't know if he'll be able to get on the field. Perhaps we'll see him play some guard by year 2.

Chase Gianacakos. Ken Mannie will need to help him reshape his body, but he has a good frame and pretty good quickness for offensive tackle. I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up at guard for the first few years, since MSU has recruited several offensive tackles in the last few years. But I also wouldn't be surprised to see him develop into a solid tackle by his junior year.

Deon Drake. If he has fully recovered from injury, Drake is one of the more exciting recruits in this class. He has speed, field awareness, and best of all, a Denicos Allen type of toughness. He looks like he could play outside or middle linebacker, but he will have to add quite a bit of size to play middle. He looks like he could contribute by year 2, but we'll have to see how it's going with things like injuries and learning the playbook.

Byron Bullough. He looks like he is the most athletic of the Bullough brothers, and he seems to have the same kind of football intelligence. If he can add size and keep his speed, there is no reason why he can't match and perhaps surpass what Max did. The only obstacle is the competition at linebacker. MSU is now set to be loaded at the position for years to come, so several talented guys won't get to play as much as they hope.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Training with QB Gurus

As we look forward to the next season, I have begun to wonder about things like, "should all MSU's quarterbacks make their way out to California to train with a quarterback guru?" On the plus side, Connor Cook probably benefited at least to some extent from doing so. In my view, it never hurts to get training tips from different coaches, as long as they know what they're doing. Different coaches emphasize different things, and they usually have good reason for doing so. On the other hand, I assume that training with gurus is expensive, and I would hate for kids to feel pressured to have to spend large sums of their own money to compete for starting positions as QBs. Perhaps this would be a good reason to give players a stipend, to help them defray the costs of additional training that will probably become standard in the coming years.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review of Rose Bowl: Elation Forever!

Folks, why are we so blessed? I saw this coming a few years ago, and that's why I started blogging about Spartan football. And I felt that 2013 would be the year the Spartans could even compete for the national championship. Only a few bad calls in the Notre Dame game kept that prediction from coming true.

The bottom line is that I could see that Dantonio was building a special program, not something based on luck, but on substance. This is a program that does not depend on one or a few special players, and a lot of lucky breaks. This is a program with incredible depth and with excellent coaches. Indeed, next year, this team will be set to make another run. Folks, we have our Joe Paterno (but hopefully without the program-killing scandal).

Thoughts on the game:

Defense

They showed the nation their eliteness. They kept a high-scoring Stanford offense to 13 points (Stanford's D scored 7). They were burned a few times a deep passes and they tackled poorly in the first quarter. But they figured things out and completely shut down Stanford's offense after the first quarter. Elsworth and Harris obviously stepped up, and I fully expected that would be the case.

Offense

They actually dominated a tough Stanford D. If not for a few bad breaks, MSU could have put up over 30 points on an elite defense. Can you believe that? Dantonio has built a team with an elite D and a nearing eliteness O.

Cook paired greatness with 3 really bad plays. At least he recovered from the poor plays and really contributed to the victory. Man, if his judgment improves a little more, he really could contend for the Heisman next year.

Langford looked great in the second half, except for the fumble. The o-line was outstanding most of the game, against an good front-7. The receivers were excellent -- I can't believe how much progress they've made.

Special Teams

Sadler struggled with some punts, but otherwise, the special teams avoided critical mistakes and contributed significantly to the field position battle.

Coaches

Narduzzi was too much for Stanford, and really, so were Warner and Bollman. If not for some MSU mistakes, this game would have been more of a blowout. Oh, if we could only keep this staff together forever...

Upshot

What an astonishing achievement. It is not luck or an easy schedule that brought MSU its first Rose Bowl victory in 26 years. This team had to defeat two really tough teams -- Ohio State and Stanford -- and that accomplishment could only be achieved through a methodical building process. MSU's future looks so unbelievably bright.

The crazy thing is that I really think this team could be better next year. The entire offense should come back, except 3 senior o-linemen, who I think can be replaced with the talent MSU has brought in and is bringing in -- more on that later. They lose a lot on defense, but they also have phenomenal talent coming back on that side of the ball. Folks, a national championship is very possible -- more on that later.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Recruiting 2014: Montae Nicholson

So the word is that Montae Nicholson committed to MSU today. That's a pretty big deal because he becomes the highest rated recruit in the 2014 class, according to 247's composite index, and because he may be the best athlete I've ever seen on Youtube.


Seriously, Nicholson looks like he is not even trying while he glides by scores of people. Nicholson has the size (6'3") and athleticism to excel at many positions -- safety, wide receiver, even linebacker -- perhaps as early as his second year in the program. Personally, I think he would be most devastating at wide receiver, he reminds me of Megatron a bit when he goes against those high school defenders.

Of course, that's also the source of biggest concern with elite recruits like Nicholson. I think the biggest reason high-rated recruits often underachieve is that they become a little spoiled in high school. Their dominance in high school makes them think that they won't have to work hard when they get to college. Hopefully, that won't be the case with Nicholson, especially since he'll get to see that Demetrious Cox (who had a higher 247 composite score than Nicholson) wasn't able to just come in and beat out lower-rated guys like Drummond and Williamson at safety. The competition is always intense. He could be great, but he will have to work for it.

As for the rest of the class, the Spartans now have 18 recruits and will probably end up with something like 21 or 22. They'll most likely be going after another wide receiver, a JUCO offensive tackle, another d-lineman, and perhaps a quarterback.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Preview of Rose Bowl: Looking Like a Toss-up

Finally getting a chance to think about the Rose Bowl a bit and my initial thought is that this will be MSU's toughest game of the season. OSU was clearly an outstanding opponent, but I actually felt relatively confident about that game. The game actually broke down about how I expected: the Spartans held Ohio State to the 24 points I felt they needed to hold them to, and the offense was actually able to score above the 30 points I felt they would need.

I don't get a similar sense about Stanford. The weak simulations that run through my head keep suggesting a toss-up. This game basically looks set to go either way, which means it is likely to be settled by things like turnovers and critical mistakes.

Stanford has been shutting down explosive offenses most of this season, so we could expect that the Spartans will struggle to score above 20 points. On the other hand, Stanford's defense doesn't seem so dominant against more physical offenses. Their two losses came against Utah and USC, the 2 most physical teams on their schedule. But even those offenses didn't score a lot of points. So, I expect "pound Green pound" to have some success, but I would be very surprised if MSU can score more than 27 points. And MSU won't get to 27 if Cook and the receivers have an off game. The offense will have to be firing on all cylinders.

Then it will be up to the defense to contain Stanford's very physical offense. Stanford's offense looks a lot like Wisconsin's offenses under Brett Bielema. They have a huge o-line and they are able to run the ball very effectively, and they put up a lot of points. Thankfully, they don't have Russell Wilson to make their passing game elite, so they are relatively unbalanced as an offense, running the ball 548 times versus passing it 293 times. That means MSU will be able to stack the box a little more frequently than they could against Russell Wilson. But careful, Kevin Hogan is a pretty good quarterback, with numbers eerily similar to Cook's.

MSU has the advantage that it has played against Wisconsin under Bielema, and won. But we all saw what happened in those games. Most of them turned into shootouts. And they were toss-ups.
Folks, that's what this Rose Bowl is reminding me of: the battles against Wisconsin. The good thing is that I always felt that MSU had a good chance to win those games, but the bad thing is that I could also see MSU losing those games. Well, I suppose that's what toss-ups should make you feel like.

So it will ultimately come down to critical mistakes. Who will make less of them? That means protecting the ball on offense and special teams. Stanford is a well-coached team, so don't expect them to make many mistakes. MSU will have to match them in that area, and then hope for something to break their way. And as a Spartan slappy, I expect that break to happen.

Final score: MSU 27  Stanford 24

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thoughts on B10 Championship Game: Eliteness Has Arrived!

Folks, why did I start blogging about MSU football a few years ago? Why do I blog even though I barely have enough time to clip my toenails these days? It's because of moments like this! I started this blog because I saw where this program was headed and I was upset that MSU did not have a network of football blogs as extensive as it deserved. Well, I decided to whatever I could to help, and today, I'm glad I stuck with it.

Folks, this is the biggest victory since the 1988 Rose Bowl win. This victory was the most impressive I've ever witnessed. MSU just beat what seemed like an unstoppable Ohio State team, with overwhelming talent. For about 2 quarters, I even started to feel like MSU just could not compete with that overwhelming talent. But then MSU's stars started to fight back and they asserted their dominance for most of the fourth quarter. Just an unbelievable performance.

Folks, we are blessed. We have an elite coaching staff, that recruits and develops amazing talent. Now, all we can hope is that the right steps are made to ensure that this program stays on top for many years to come. Of course, that will involve some luck. But more on that later. Here are some thoughts on the game itself.

Offense

Connor Cook had his best game of the season. He's going to be a Heisman candidate next year. The receivers and tight ends dropped a couple, but overall they were excellent, and made several big plays. The receivers and tight ends should be elite next year. Langford was bottled up most of the game, but I love how tough he ran in the second half and once again he broke a long one to seal the victory. The o-line had their struggles, but they seemed to take over in the fourth quarter.

Defense

I was actually a little afraid that the defense would get exposed by Ohio State's explosive offense, and for a while they did. But especially in the fourth quarter, this defense stuffed an overwhelmingly talented offense. What an astonishing achievement.

Special teams

They played an incredibly clean game. Geiger hit his field goal attempts, Sadler only had the one punt partially blocked, and Kings and Shelton made some nice returns.

Coaches

There were a few calls I disagreed with: the blitz at the end of the first half that contributed to a long pass that set up OSU's field goal, too many run plays that didn't take OSU's defensive speed into account (especially Shazier's). But folks, that's just nitpicking. This coaching staff is elite and they deserve credit for a remarkable achievement.

Upshot

It's safe to say that MSU is now an elite football program that really should be playing for a national title. The pass interference calls against Notre Dame really ruined the prediction I made a couple of years ago that Dantonio could win the national championship this year. Oh well, at least MSU could still end up ranked number 2 in the country, if they can beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

As for long term implications, I expect this victory to give MSU momentum on the recruiting trail. We should see MSU start to win more recruiting battles than ever before.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Preview of B10 Championship Game: Unleash Hell

I'm going to post my preview of the B10 Championship game a little early this week -- and I'll be adding to this post as more ideas enter my mind. In short, I think the MSU defense should be aiming to hold Ohio State to about 24 points or less, while the offense needs to score around 27 or more. I think that's feasible, if MSU can do some of the following:

First, MSU needs maximum intensity. It needs to prepare with intensity and play with intensity. In short, the Spartans need to unleash hell.

Second, MSU must limit the big plays. OSU is getting a lot of points this season from long passing plays and long runs. The big passing plays are the result of the same strategy: confuse the secondary by overloading a passing zone with receivers. They keep doing it and teams don't seem to be prepared to stop that play. Nebraska used that type of passing play effectively against MSU, so if I were the coaches, I would work on defending that type of play over and over this week. You know it's coming, so the secondary needs to clearly understand their assignments. The other big plays are coming from long runs by Braxton Miller. You know Miller is going to get his yards, but the Spartans have to limit the damage. They can't allow him to break off 60 or 70 yard touchdown runs.

Third, MSU is going to have to stop the option. They won't be able to fully stop it because Miller and Hyde are so talented. But they have to limit the damage. And the best way to limit the damage is by practicing to stop the option.

Fourth, MSU must tackle well. Miller and Hyde are tough to bring down and that's a big part of why OSU gains so many yards. Considering how much MSU struggled to bring down Minnesota's David Cobb (especially the secondary had a hard time bringing him down), this has to be a concern. Tackling Miller and Hyde is going to hurt, but this is a championship game, so it's now or never.

Fifth, Connor Cook and the receivers have to play well. OSU has a dangerous front 4 on defense, but I think the MSU o-line has the talent to neutralize them, to a great extent. So MSU should be able to run the ball, but that's not going to be enough to score the 27 points they will need. Cook and the receivers are going to have exploit Ohio State's biggest weakness on defense: their secondary. A repeat of the performance against Minnesota will make victory unlikely.

Sixth, the Spartans can't take their foot off the gas. MSU cannot allow itself to relax at any point on Saturday because this OSU team can score touchdowns in a hurry. Even if MSU jumps ahead by 21, or something like that, they must keep playing with maximum intensity, or else OSU will come back on them in a hurry.

Seventh, MSU must be ready for trick plays. I'm not a fan of Urban Meyer, but he is kind of wily. So expect OSU to go for a fake punt, perhaps even a fake kickoff. The Spartans should also watch out for the punt block. OSU will likely try to block punts all night long, and if MSU is not careful, OSU could get one.

Upshot: I think MSU will be ready, but OSU is talented and tough. So this is one that could go back and forth for a while . . . before MSU locks down the game in the fourth quarter.

Final score: MSU 30  Ohio State 21