Niyo: Michigan State's future is on the line

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — They arrived with little fanfare. They'll leave with many admirers.

But what comes next, whenever this magical championship run for Michigan State ends, that'll be up to the ones left behind, just as it was for this current leadership group with the Spartans.

"I wouldn't say we put Michigan State on the board," said co-captain Jack Allen, part of a senior class that has won a school-record 43 games the last four seasons. "I would say it started with guys like Joel Foreman and Kirk Cousins — they laid the foundation for this program."

And while the Spartans' path to prominence was mostly carved out by its defense under coach Mark Dantonio, this season's program-defining playoff push was made on the strength of its offense. More specifically, Michigan State's offensive line, culminating with that title-clinching drive against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game three weeks ago.

This season and that drive — at 22 plays, it was the longest in college football all year — may help put the Spartans on the board, in more ways than one. With two likely NFL draft choices next spring in Allen and Jack Conklin — and possibly a third in Donavon Clark — it's an opportunity for Michigan State to establish a new tradition as a proving ground for offensive lineman.

Led by that trio of pro prospects, the Spartans – under the tutelage of assistants Mark Staten and Jim Bollman — were a finalist this season for the inaugural Joe Moore Award, presented to the nation's top offensive line unit. Alabama — next week's opponent in the Cotton Bowl — won the award over Michigan State, Iowa, Notre Dame, Stanford and Arkansas.

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"That was our goal at the beginning of the year," said Conklin, a junior left tackle who earned first-team All-America honors this season. "I think that's sort of the first step, where you've seen the difference with the Michigan State O-line. I don't know if in past years you'd see a team with the ability to win an award like that here, or play as well together as we've been playing."

Unsung Clark

It's good company to keep, regardless, joining programs known for producing NFL linemen. Alabama and Iowa have had 15 offensive linemen drafted since 2000, including nine first-round picks, while Notre Dame — the all-time leader in that category — has had 14 selections. Only Wisconsin, with 17 draft picks in that span, has more.

Michigan State, meanwhile, has just four since 2000, the last coming in '06, when center Chris Morris was chosen by the Oakland Raiders in the seventh round.

But in one draft class, the Spartans could nearly double that total, though few would've guessed it a handful of years ago.

Allen, a finalist for the Rimington Award as the nation's top center, only had three scholarship offers coming out of high school in suburban Chicago.

"And one of them, they wanted me to play defensive tackle," laughed Allen, whose tenacity and intelligence help make him one of the top five or six draft prospects at his position. "Every other team that I talked to said I wasn't good enough or athletic enough. It's kind of funny to laugh about now."

Nearby, as the Spartans met with the media early last week, the laughter of Clark — a fellow fifth-year senior — is hard to miss. Yet to hear Allen and others talk, Clark's contributions are too-easily overlooked. The 6-3, 315-pound Cincinnati native has played every position but center at Michigan State, something NFL teams might find appealing in a late-round pick.

"He's just a big, physical guy," Allen said. "But he's another utility guy. He can play any position this offense needs. And that's huge for him going to the next level, too. That's just showcasing his talent, really. … I would say, definitely, he doesn't get the attention he deserves."

Bright prospects

That's no longer the case for Conklin, the former walk-on out of Plainwell, Mich., who has developed rather quickly into an elite tackle prospect. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, the junior impresses NFL scouts more with his power than his athleticism, and may ultimately play on the right side in the pros. But most draft analysts have him penciled in as a first-round pick if he decides to forego his senior season of eligibility. (The last Michigan State offensive lineman to go in first round was Tony Mandarich in 1989.)

Conklin, whose father, Darren, has been busy fielding calls from agents the last year, says he's not worrying about that right now, however.

"We have such a great chemistry on our team, I don't want it to be about me," Conklin said. "I want it to be about my teammates. It's been 50 years since Michigan State has been in a position like this, so that outweighs anything that I'll do.

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"That's ultimately going to be a part of who I am. Was I a part of Michigan State's national championship team in 2016, or did we fall short and was I being selfish and did I hinder my team? I don't want that to be the story. I want it to be I was a leader on that team and we were able to accomplish something special."

Either way, they may already have, though the Spartans have a long way to go to match the offensive-line traditions at Iowa or Wisconsin or Michigan or Penn State.

If Conklin leaves, next year's line will have a huge void to fill. But Allen's brother, Brian, and Kodi Keeler will be returning starters, with backups Miguel Machado, David Beedle, Benny McGowan and Brandon Clemons vying for promotions. Redshirting freshmen Kyonta Stallworth, Noah Listermann and Tyler Higby also will be in the mix. And the Spartans still may add the nation's top junior-college tackle, Garrett Bolles of Snow College in Utah, to next year's incoming class.

"I think we're steadily starting to rise up in the ranks, and I think we'll start becoming more and more known," said Jack Allen, whose youngest brother, Matt, also is part of the 2016 recruiting class. "We haven't had anybody drafted or anything yet. But I don't think that really matters. I mean, look where we are."

Draft notice

Michigan State could have as many as three offensive lineman selected in the 2016 NFL draft. They've had just four drafted since 2000:

Chris Morris, C, 7th round, 2006

Will Whitticker, G, 7th, 2005

Tupe Peko, G, 7th, 2001

Greg Randall, T, 4th, 2000

2016 draft projections

Jack Conklin, OT, 1st

Jack Allen, C, 4th-5th

Donavon Clark, OL, 6th-7th