Sophomore Darian Hicks is the favorite to replace Darqueze Dennard at one cornerback spot for Michigan State. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — It’s hard to imagine a college football season at Michigan State as highly anticipated as the one beginning in a few weeks.
The Spartans are coming of one of their most successful seasons, winning the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl en route to a record 13 victories. And with the core of the offense and several defensive playmakers returning, hopes are high.
Michigan State is again one of the favorites to reach the conference title game and is being mentioned as one of the teams that could take part in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
But like most teams, there are no givens. When preseason camp begins in a little more than two weeks, there will be plenty of key position battles to keep an eye on leading up to the opener against Jacksonville State on Aug. 30.
Most of the interest will lie on defense, a unit that has been among the best in the nation the past three seasons.
Here is a look at some of the key battles:
It’s been a while since there was much question over who would man the middle of the defense after a seven-year run of Greg Jones and Max Bullough. The Rose Bowl offered a glimpse after Bullough was suspended.
Senior Taiwan Jones is the leader heading into camp after playing his first three seasons on the outside. At 6-foot-3 and better than 250 pounds, Jones is physically suited to play in the middle but must prove he can handle the change. There will be several players pushing him, primarily redshirt freshman Jon Reschke.
“I think that’s an ongoing decision that we’re making,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “It really depends on how (Jones) comes back, what’s he done over the summer to improve. ... There are certain things he does very well and there are certain things he needs to get better at.”
The guarantee will be that junior Trae Waynes is manning one side. The question is who steps in for Darqueze Dennard, the Jim Thorpe Award winner drafted in the first round by the Bengals.
Waynes has turned into a steady defender, but having two solid corners is a key to Michigan State’s scheme. The best odds are sophomore Darian Hicks will get the nod after playing as a true freshman in 2013. But sophomore Jermaine Edmondson will push hard, as will junior Arjen Colquhoun. Hicks has all the tools and hardly lacks confidence.
“I think I’ve established myself as the leader for that position, but we still have fall camp so we’ll just have to see what is in store,” he said after the spring game.
This could be one of the most wide-open battles as both spots on the interior are up for grabs. Juniors Joel Heath and Damon Knox are the front-runners, but senior James Kittredge and junior Brandon Clemons can’t be counted out.
Then there is the notion the Spartans brought in an outstanding class of lineman this year, including Craig Evans (6-2, 313) and Enoch Smith Jr. (6-2, 275).
“It’s a pretty special freshman class,” Dantonio said. “The one thing about playing defensive line is you can move them in and out, you can roll them in and out. So they can go in there and they can play two or three plays and then get out. … But it’s gonna depend on things like can they stay healthy in camp? Can they pick up the system?”
It might seem like an odd position to watch considering junior Shilique Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush might be among the best tandems in the Big Ten.
Redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper is a clone of Calhoun’s who many believe is primed to become the next impact player. And, junior Lawrence Thomas, finally healthy, made significant strides during the spring as he moved from defensive tackle. Add in the arrival of freshman Malik McDowell and the Spartans likely won’t have any issue giving their starters a break.
“I would think that Malik … and guys like Craig Evans or Enoch, those guys are very good players,” Dantonio said.
Offensive line should again be a strength, but there will be some shuffling. Sophomore Jack Conklin has emerged as a potential dominating player at left tackle while senior Travis Jackson takes over at left guard and junior Jack Allen mans the center spot.
The right side appears to be the most fluid, with junior Donavon Clark listed as the starter at right tackle after playing primarily on the left the past two seasons. But sophomore Kodi Kieler has drawn praise from the staff and will push Clark, as well as senior Connor Kruse.
“I think Kodi Kieler is gonna play a lot of football for us,” Dantonio said.