Monday, June 17, 2024

Questions remain as players transition into new positions

Since the end of last season, John L. Smith has met difficult challenges as a football coach and a 55-year-old man.

The apparent successor to Jeff Smoker endured major knee surgery. Smith moved his top two running backs to defense. He then left football behind and climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

As life-changing as climbing the world's largest freestanding mountain seems and as confusing as the Spartans' quarterback situation remains, Smith's goals for his football team haven't changed one bit.

"The biggest thing is we have to attempt to accomplish our three goals," he said. "We have to send our seniors out as winners and compete for a championship and make it to a bowl game."

Whether Smith and the Spartans accomplish those goals depends on the performance of the new quarterback and other players at new positions. Those uncertainties make the Spartans somewhat of a wild card in the Big Ten this season.

If Smith gets quality play at quarterback and the team stays healthy, MSU can build on the surprise success of last season. If not, the upcoming season could hinge on the performance of young, unproven players.

Losing Smoker, MSU's all-time leading passer, is the most obvious difference in this season's team. But the offensive line is less experienced, the defense has less depth and the backfield has been overhauled.

"I think we're a little bit of an unknown everywhere," Smith said.

Most of the mystery is on offense. Last season's two leading rushers, Jaren Hayes and Tyrell Dortch, now play defense, leaving senior DeAndra Cobb and junior Jason Teague as the primary ball carriers. Teague and Cobb have some experience - they combined for 416 yards rushing last season - but more is expected of them now.

"I feel like I've got more responsibility now," Teague said. "My team depends on me more this fall."

Leading the way for Teague and Cobb will be an offensive line that lost three of five starters from last season. Sophomore Kyle Cook, senior William Whitticker and senior Sean Poole will step in. Whitticker is the most experienced of the three - he appeared in every game the past two seasons.

The Spartans' quarterback situation, however, is the most intriguing new aspect of the offense. Saturday's season opener at Rutgers is fast-approaching, and MSU doesn't have a starting quarterback.

The preseason quarterback drama will mean little to MSU's season. How the unnamed starter performs on the field, however, could determine whether the Spartans build on last season's success and make it to a second straight bowl game.

The competition among sophomore Drew Stanton, redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves and senior Damon Dowdell has been intense, which has been a plus, offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin said.

"They've gotten better," he said. "I wish we had competition like this at every position. We'd get a lot better."

There haven't been any high-profile competitions on defense to match the competition at quarterback on offense. The projected starters are mostly veterans, though Hayes and Dortch now play new positions.

Though experience among defensive starters is strong, depth is a concern - particularly with the defensive line and linebackers.

Despite the lack of depth on defense and the unsettled quarterback situation, Smith remains focused on Rutgers.

"It's time again. You get to a point in camp when you have to find out if we're any good," Smith said. "I know the kids are looking forward to it."

Staff writer Jonathan Gunnells contributed to this report.

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