Fall camp preview: 10 key questions for MSU

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Connor Cook

Here are 10 key questions for Michigan State's football team with the start of fall camp right around the corner.

1. What is the quarterback situation?

Connor Cook threw for more yards (3,214) than any other quarterback in the Big Ten last season and enters his senior year with a 23-3 mark as Michigan State's starter. With him on the verge of a potentially becoming a first-round pick in the NFL draft, the real question is which player will be Cook's backup. Tyler O'Connor is a junior who has seen limited action but sophomore Damion Terry, a more athletic option, could end up the top choice to spell Cook. Incoming freshman Brian Lewerke will also add some spice to preseason camp but is likely headed for a redshirt season.

Gerald Holmes

2. What about the running backs?

This will be the most intriguing position battle of preseason camp as sophomore Gerald Holmes is the only player back with any experience, carrying the ball 15 times last season. Redshirt freshman Madre London had a solid spring and will challenge for carries early in the season while incoming freshman LJ Scott also is a likely to figure in the running back rotation that might not be ironed out until conference play. Fifth-year senior Trevon Pendleton has been a consistent blocker and pass-catcher as the starting fullback.

Montae Nicholson

3. Who's in and who's out in the secondary?

While cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond are off to the NFL, the Spartans appear to be in good shape at the safety position with fifth-year senior RJ Williamson and sophomore Montae Nicholson the likely starters. After that, things get interesting. Junior Demetrious Cox has primarily been a safety but spent the bulk of spring practice at corner and likely enters preseason camp as the starter at the boundary. He has the flexibility, however, that would be aided by other corners stepping up. Senior Arjen Colquhoun had a good spring, junior Darian Hicks is looking to bounce back from a difficult sophomore season, and junior Jermaine Edmondson might be on the verge of cracking the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland could also be in the mix, and a solid group of incoming freshman will get a shot, including four-star Josh Butler.

4. What will be MSU's toughest game?

There are difficult tests out of conference – Oregon and Air Force – as well as plenty of tough games in Big Ten play, including trips to Nebraska and Michigan. But there is little doubt the game circled is Nov. 21 at Ohio State. Both the Spartans and Buckeyes have national-championship aspirations, but winning the division and getting to the Big Ten title game will come first, and the meeting in Columbus could decide which team has the best shot at reaching the College Football Playoff.

5. Is there a trap game?

It's tempting to pick Air Force and its triple-option offense, but sandwiched between the trips to Nebraska and Ohio State is a home game with Maryland on Nov. 14. On paper, this game shouldn't be close as the Terrapins must replace quarterback C.J. Brown and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. But assuming Michigan State is still in the playoff mix after the Nebraska game, all eyes will be looking to the meeting with Ohio State and Maryland would seem like a simple hurdle. But the Terps, who have to replace plenty of starters, could be fighting for a bowl berth and might provide a stiffer test than many believe.

6. What is Mark Dantonio's biggest challenge?

There's no doubt Mark Dantonio made his mark as a defensive coach, helping Ohio State to a national championship in 2002 as its defensive coordinator. And while at Michigan State, the Spartans have become one of the top defenses in the nation. However, this will be the first year Dantonio has been a head coach without Pat Narduzzi as his defensive coordinator. Narduzzi is now the head coach at Pittsburgh and in his place are longtime assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. They will help make the transition as smooth as possible, but there is little doubt there will be times Narduzzi will be missed, as much for his fiery personality as his defensive game plans.

Malik McDowell

7. Which position unit will be MSU's best?

While the offensive line is among the best in the Big Ten and will be anchored by center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin, both All-American candidates, the defensive line is chock full of playmakers. Fifth-year senior Shilique Calhoun leads the group after deciding to wait on the NFL and returning for his final season with the Spartans. Fellow senior Lawrence Thomas was effective on the inside last season but will likely move to end this year while maintaining the flexibility to play any spot up front. Sophomore Malik McDowell was a freshman All-American last year at tackle while seniors Joel Heath and Damon Knox are solid on the interior. Sophomore end Demetrius Cooper has plenty of upside, as does redshirt freshman Montez Sweat and redshirt freshman tackle Enoch Smith Jr.

Jermaine Edmondson

8. Are there any under-the-radar players who could surprise?

Junior cornerback Jermaine Edmondson has been primarily a special teams performer the past two seasons, but the opportunities to play have been slim behind the likes of Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard. Edmondson had an impressive spring and could emerge as the starter in what should be an intense battle. Wide receiver Monty Madaris has been hampered by injuries his first two seasons but will likely get a shot to emerge as a junior, and this could be the season sophomore defensive end Demetrius Cooper begins to live up to his limitless potential.

9. Is there a true freshman who could turn into key player?

LJ Scott has the best opportunity to make an immediate impact as the competition to replace Jeremy Langford is wide open. The four-star recruit picked Michigan State and stuck with it even after a late push from Ohio State, and he will certainly get an opportunity to prove he can carry the load. Sophomore Gerald Holmes was solid in the spring and redshirt freshman Madre London has a high ceiling, meaning the job won't just be handed to Scott. But running back is one of the best spots for a freshman to contribute and Scott has all the tools necessary.

10. What will have to happen for MSU to win the Big Ten championship?

The schedule is no piece of cake for the Spartans as their biggest conference games – Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan – all come on the road, while there are key positions that remain unclear heading into preseason camp. Establishing the running game behind a solid offensive line will be important, but solidifying the secondary while beginning life without former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will be just as crucial. There will be time to work out the kinks in the first half of the season, and if things are running smoothly leading into the difficult second half, the Spartans have a shot at their third trip to the conference title game since it began in 2011.