A new crop of Spartans aims to continue program's rise

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Redshirt freshman Madre London is part of an inexperienced rushing crew.

East Lansing — Following a second straight top-five finish in the national rankings and a fourth consecutive bowl victory, expectations are as high as ever at Michigan State.

The Spartans are among the handful of teams in college football that sees the four-team playoff field at the end of the season as a legitimate goal.

But the journey won't be easy as Michigan State has its share of tests in nonconference play — including visits from Oregon and Air Force — along with a difficult Big Ten schedule that includes trips to Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan.

With Big Ten media days next week in Chicago, the opening of preseason camp is less than two weeks away. Here are some of the key issues that face Michigan State as it prepares for its opener at Western Michigan on Sept. 4.

A different defense?

Under former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State became one of the top defenses in the nation, leading the Big Ten in total defense three of the past four seasons. But Narduzzi is gone, taking over as Pittsburgh's coach. In his place are longtime assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. Barnett, promoted to associate head coach, is in charge of the secondary and Tressel the linebackers.

There is little doubt they will add some of their own twists to the defense, but they worked under Narduzzi for 11 seasons at Michigan State and Cincinnati, and no doubt will stick to the same basic principles. There is plenty to work with, including a line led by end Shilique Calhoun expected to be among the best in the Big Ten. But there are obstacles, too. The Spartans will be breaking in a new middle linebacker, likely junior Riley Bullough, and must replace starters at cornerback and safety.

Keeping the bulk of the staff intact — defensive line coach Ron Burton is back and Mark Snyder was hired to work with linebackers — will help make it a seamless transition.

Harlon Barnett will take the reins of Pat Narduzzi’s stellar defense.

Secondary scenarios

For the second straight season, Michigan State must replace a cornerback selected in the first round of the NFL draft (Darqueze Dennard in 2014; Trae Waynes, 2015).

Junior Darian Hicks will get a shot to replace Waynes, but he struggled last season stepping in for Dennard and saw his playing time dwindle. Senior Arjen Colquhoun has been steady and junior Demetrious Cox, who has played mostly safety, could join him in the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland should get a shot.

Safety is a bit more settled, even with the loss of Kurtis Drummond. Fifth-year senior RJ Williamson and sophomore Montae Nicholson likely will start, with Cox an option, as well.

Running back roulette

The past two seasons, Jeremy Langford went from a player without a position to one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. He ran for more than 2,900 rushing yards and scored 40 touchdowns during his career, gaining more than 100 yards in 16 straight games the last two Big Ten seasons.

Replacing that sort of production will be difficult, especially with the status of junior Delton Williams (arrest, weapons charge) up in the air. The only player returning with any experience is sophomore Gerald Holmes (15 for 44 yards). He battled redshirt freshman Madre London during spring practice. True freshman L.J. Scott likely will get a chance to compete for carries.

While Langford became the go-to runner the last two seasons, the Spartans have shown they are comfortable spreading the carries around.

Wide receiver reload

Another significant hole exists at wide receiver, where Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery are off to the NFL. Lippett was the Big Ten's top receiver, catching 65 passes for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Mumphery was a deep threat and averaged 19 yards a catch.

While the depth takes a hit, there still are several potential playmakers on the roster, including senior Aaron Burbridge, who has been hampered by minor injuries throughout his career. Senior Macgarrett Kings Jr. and junior R.J. Shelton have the ability to run the ball and stretch the field, senior AJ Troup is a threat in the red zone, and senior DeAnthony Arnett might get his chance to contribute.

Stardom for Cook?

His No. 1 running back and top receiving target are gone, but senior Connor Cook could be on the verge of a season that could solidify his potential as a first-round pick the NFL draft. He is 23-3 as a starter and was second-team all-Big Ten two straight seasons while leading the conference in passing in 2014, completing 58.1 percent of passes for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Cook will have plenty of protection with center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin anchoring a solid line, and Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles back at tight end.

With his experience and the potential weapons at his disposal, Cook could be on track to lead the Spartans back to the Big Ten championship game and a spot in the playoffs, on his way to a first-round date in the draft next year.