August 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Michigan State's receivers, once a weak link, emerge as strength

Keith Mumphery is one of two fifth-year seniors expected to lead Michigan State's group of receivers. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

East Lansing — Two years ago, when Terrence Samuel was in the midst of his first season as wide receivers coach, the Spartans found themselves in a difficult stretch.

They were struggling to a 7-6 mark as the offense sputtered, much of it because the receivers simply couldn’t hang on to the ball. The Spartans managed to keep their head above water and reached a bowl behind an outstanding defense and the impressive running of Le’Veon Bell.

By the start of last season, the offense wasn’t much better and the receiving corps was dealing with a revolving battle at quarterback.

Now, with the start of this season weeks away, the receiving corps is one of the strengths of an offense that averaged nearly 30 points a game last year.

“You knew it was going to happen,” Samuel said Monday. “You could see flashes. But when you take learning the offense and the pressure of wanting to play and then going out there and doing it … you have to give them a chance to grow.”

It was the first chance for many in 2012 after the departure of Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol. And while the first shot didn’t go well, by the time Michigan State was rolling to a Big Ten title last season, the likes of Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler were shining.

“We’re still knocking on wood and have to continue where we left off,” Samuel said. “Last year it was a rocky start at first but then we just kept going up.”

While Fowler has moved on to the NFL, the rest of the group is back, and it has created an interesting battle for playing time. Samuel said the guarantees for playing time will be from the pair of fifth-year seniors — Lippett, who led the Spartans with 44 catches last season, and Mumphery, whose 72-yard touchdown sparked Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

After that, it’s an intriguing race. Junior Aaron Burbridge might be the most talented after injuries slowed him down last year.

“He is 4.4 speed all day,” Samuel said of Burbridge. “He is finally comfortable with the offense. He can play any position and understands the offense at a great level. That is a tribute to him because we have moved him around a lot and now he understands it all.”

R.J. Shelton showed big-play ability moving from running back as a true freshman last year while junior Macgarrett Kings, coming off a suspension in the spring, hopes to pick up where he left off in 2013 when he had 43 catches for 513 yards.

“There is nobody with better ball skills than Macgarrett Kings,” Samuel said. “He smacks at the ball.”

Throw in the promise of junior DeAnthony Arnett and the Spartans have six receivers fighting for playing time.

“I’m excited about our wideouts,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s an experienced group. Go back to 2012, not much experience, but now you’re going into three years with a lot of experience.”