East Lansing — When Michigan State takes the field Saturday at Spartan Stadium, it will be the final home game for 18 seniors. Some came to East Lansing as prized recruits, others not as much, and some didn't even have a scholarship. They all took different paths, but the journey has included a lot of wins and unprecedented success.
For the fifth-year players — only linebacker Taiwan Jones did not redshirt — their time has been highlighted by 50 wins, two Big Ten championships and three consecutive bowl victories. The cherry on top came last season with a victory in the Rose Bowl after a 26-year absence.
"They've been really critical in our development here over the last five years in terms of our success," coach Mark Dantonio said. "They've had great success here themselves, but they've worked through the ups and downs of everything."
And while they will fall short of their ultimate goal of reaching the College Football Playoff, the Spartans still have a shot to match last year's seniors for the winningest class in school history. With wins in the final two games and a bowl, the class of 2014 would finish 42-12, identical to the class of 2013.
"I definitely dreamt about playing in the Rose Bowl, so for us to go there and win was big," safety Kurtis Drummond said. "I dreamed of winning Big Ten championships, which is also something we did, and then there are the relationships I've made through being here."
■ As with most classes, the individual stories are compelling.
Jeremy Langford was a middle-of-the-road recruit out of Westland John Glenn and even had the designation of "athlete" even though he always counted on being a running back. But he was in the same class with Le'Veon Bell and Nick Hill. And with the likes of Larry Caper and Edwin Baker on the roster, that meant Langford was well down the depth chart.
He moved from running back to defensive back in 2011, but was back on offense at receiver in 2012. That didn't take, and entering 2013, few thought he could be the starting running back.
"When I came in I always wanted to play running back," Langford said. "That was my goal. I lost that vision sometimes but still thought about it in the back of my head. I knew when I got the chance again to play running back I would do my best to keep that job."
He did exactly that, running for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, and this season he has 1,116 yards and 15 touchdowns. He credits much of it to Dantonio sticking with him.
"I think when I got moved to receiver from corner, I realized Coach D was trying to get me on the field," Langford said.
"He saw something in me to get on the field."
■ Linebacker Mylan Hicks was one of the higher-rated recruits, garnering four stars from some services as a cornerback.
The Detroit Renaissance product never was able to crack the secondary rotation, even after moving to safety, so midway through last season he moved to linebacker. He showed enough promise to be a regular this season. A broken arm sidelined him four games, and he returned last week at Maryland.
"What I've been through here strengthened my character," Hicks said. "It made me better as a person and as a man and I actually found out what I could go through and the stuff I could overcome.
"I've been battle-tested, faced adversity, all those things that build up a great character."
■ Tony Lippett didn't take long to make an impact, even if most Spartans fans didn't see it.
The Detroit Crockett product flashed his potential mimicking Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson the week before the Spartans beat their rival on the road. Lippett's performance widely was considered to be one of the main reasons Robinson was contained.
By the next season, there was no doubt Lippett would play. The only question was where. He was playing receiver and cornerback early before settling in on defense. But when 2012 began, it was full-time on offense.
Lippett and the entire receiving corps, however, struggled as the Spartans went 7-6. None of it foreshadowed what was to come from Lippett, who closed 2013 with touchdowns in the Big Ten title game and the winning score in the Rose Bowl.
This season he has six 100-yard games and has a Big Ten-best nine touchdowns. He also leads the conference averaging 99.9 yards.
"It clicked probably early 2013 season where I told myself I'm running out of time, I'm about to be a junior and I have to make plays," Lippett said. "That's what I was brought here for and I went through the struggle so it can only get better. To get better you gotta execute.
"That's one thing I told myself, just go out and have fun, play loose and play with confidence.
■ Offensive lineman Connor Kruse was a walk-on at Michigan State. All he wanted was to get on the field. There were no grand plans of super stardom.
"I came into this just wanting to earn a scholarship and be a part of something bigger than myself, and I've gotten way more than that," said Kruse, who overcame a preseason injury to start four games this season. "I've got friendships that will last forever."
He earned that scholarship two years ago and is one of the most reliable players on the team, able to play all five spots on the offensive line. It likely won't lead to an NFL career, but Kruse is cherishing every minute he can.
"I've played in stadiums I've never been to before and I've played against some people that will be in the NFL," he said. "I've exceeded my expectations by a ton and I'm really blessed for that. It's a little emotional because we're getting toward the end, but this year's been a blast."
Going out a winner
The winningest senior classes in Michigan State history: