There’s little doubt the Michigan State football team has some big shoes to fill next season. According to Athlon Sports, they’re some of the biggest in the Big Ten.
One of them, surprisingly, isn’t quarterback Connor Cook.
The Spartans landed three players on Athlon Sports' “10 Toughest Players to Replace in the Big Ten,” but missing is the quarterback who’s led them to more victories than any other in school history, a pair of Big Ten titles, and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Michigan State finished 12-2 this season and ranked No. 6 after back-to-back top-five finishes.
The list, released Monday, did include a pair of Cook’s offensive linemen: Center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin, who were joined by defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock also made the list, which wasn’t ranked in any order.
“While quarterback Connor Cook got all of the attention for the Spartans over the last couple of seasons,” wrote J.P. Scott of Athlon Sports, “it was Allen who was the real glue that held the Michigan State offense together. The continuity and experience he provided at the center position were evident in the win over Ohio State, where the Spartans were able to secure a victory despite Cook being sidelined. Allen’s calming presence and leadership will be missed just as much as his skill set.”
Conklin was one of three tackles on the list.
“Conklin was the man who protected Connor Cook’s blindside and allowed the Michigan State running game to remain formidable regardless of who was carrying the ball,” Scott wrote. “He brought with him a toughness that become the identity of one of the better offensive lines in the land.”
Scott called Calhoun a “once-in-a-generation-type of player” for the Spartans, finishing his career with 27 sacks and 44 tackles for loss.
“You could make the case that Calhoun was the best pass rusher in college football over the past three seasons,” Scott wrote. “Whether he was pressuring quarterbacks and forcing them to serve up gifts to the Spartan secondary or cleaning up plays before they reached the linebacker level, his impact was obvious.”
Rudock made a big impact in his only season in Ann Arbor, after transferring from Iowa. He threw for 3,017 yards, with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions in helping lead the Wolverines to a 10-3 record and Citrus Bowl victory over Florida. He owned a 141.5 passer rating.
“Rudock may have been the most overlooked player in the Big Ten outside of Ann Arbor,” Scott wrote. “ ... Rudock was the calming force that allowed Jim Harbaugh to game plan each week without inexperience at the quarterback position holding him back. From a pure skill and athleticism standpoint, Rudock is replaceable. From the neck up, however, the Wolverines may miss him more than any team in the Big Ten misses any player in 2016.”
Michigan State and Ohio State shared top honors with three players apiece on the list.