Michigan State offensive line wants to prevent drop-off, despite losing three starters

By Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It’s far from glamourous, but for most football teams the offensive line is the heart of an offense.

That’s no different at Michigan State, a team loaded with plenty of returning talent at the skill positions. Quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end are all deep and draw plenty of attention.

But it’s the play up front that will drive it all, and for the Spartans, the plan is to see little drop-off from a unit that lost three starters from last year.

“We’ve got quite a few strides we need to make,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said after practice Thursday. “We’ve got guys that need to press the envelope, and like (offensive coordinator Dave) Warner said, we don’t want to be middle of the pack, we want to be great. It all starts up front, and our guys need to grasp that, understand that and run with it. They need to hold each other accountable and the entire offense, as well.”

While three starters are gone from 2013, it’s not as if the offensive line is void of experience. Much of that is because of the rotation Staten was forced into in 2012 because of injuries and used regularly in 2013.

“The rotation is gonna happen (this season),” Staten said. “It’s just figuring out what works best and making sure we have everything down with each other so when we ask for a combo block, they know where they need to be.”

Some spots are solid. Sophomore Jack Conklin is emerging as a dominant player at left tackle while fifth-year senior Travis Jackson is starting at left guard and junior Jack Allen is the No. 1 center. Fifth-year senior Connor Kruse is the starter for now at right guard and junior Donavon Clark is holding down right tackle.

Kruse has never started but has played in 28 games at every position along the offensive line while Clark has six starts at left tackle over the past two seasons before switching to the right side this year.

But Clark has also worked at guard while freshman Brian Allen is already No. 2 at center and sophomore Kodi Kieler is playing right tackle and guard.

Staten said Kieler and Allen would be the sixth and seventh players in the rotation at this point, saying Allen “absolutely” is going to play in his first year on campus. Junior college transfer Miguel Machado is also working to jump into that mix as are sophomore Benny McGowan and redshirt freshman Dennis Finley.

“We’ll see,” Staten said. “We’ll see after (Friday) because there is a lot more (in the scrimmage) where there will be different situations that dictate those guys. I’d love it if Miguel jumped back in and Benny jumped back in and Dennis had a terrific first scrimmage.”

Staten said he wants to see Clark “improve on finishing the play” and that Brian Allen has benefited greatly from having his brother, Jack, on the roster for the last three years.

“He’s been coming here for three years,” Staten said. “Just being around and understanding for the whole summer and with his brother watching film.”

As for Machado, Staten is sure once he makes the transition from junior college, he’ll play a key role for the Spartans.

“I’m excited he’s here,” Staten said. “He’s gonna be a really terrific player for us.”

However things play out on the offensive line, the players all agree the rotation has been key to creating the cohesiveness they now play with.

“Right now is the best we’ve been,” Clark said. “We’ve been together for so long, we watch a lot more film before and after practice and we’re always talking to each other. It’s going pretty good in camp right now.”