Opponent preview: Michigan State Spartans

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This is the third of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For more, check out previews for Purdue and Michigan.

The Overview:

It was a season of “what could’ve been” for the Spartans. Mark Dantonio, who Brian Kelly replaced at Cincinnati three seasons ago, enters his fourth year coaching the Spartans. After two promising seasons under Dantonio, the Spartans reverted into the inconsistent squad that existed under former coach John L. Smith, losing five games by single digits including heart-breakers to Central Michigan, Notre Dame (more on this in a second), and Iowa. While Dantonio was brought into East Lansing to instill his trademark defense and toughness, it was the defense that let the Spartans down, giving up over 26 points a game and ranking an abysmal 114th in passing. The result was a mediocre 6-7 season, ending with a 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

Last time against the Irish:

For the second week in a row, it looked as if the Irish were going to fall in the final seconds to a rival from Michigan. But Kirk Cousins overthrew Larry Caper who was all alone in the end zone with just over a minute left, and the next play Kyle McCarthy stepped in front of Cousins’ throw on the Irish four yard-line, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a home win against Michigan State for the first time since 1993.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Irish suffered two injuries that would help define their season. When a jailbreak sack came up the middle, Jimmy Clausen tried to protect himself from a big hit, but instead injured his foot. While he remained in the game, the injury hobbled him for the remainder of the season, and eventually necessitated surgery during the winter. Later that quarter, Clausen threw a fade route to the right corner of the end zone where Michael Floyd skied above a Spartan defensive back and looked to come down with his two feet in bounds for a touchdown. The officials disagreed, and worse for the Irish was the loss of their star receiver to a broken clavicle, suffered when he hit the ground. Clausen returned to the game, Floyd did not and the woeful Irish defense again struggled, getting torched for 354 yards passing and giving up 459 total yards. The Irish were also sloppy — broken plays, falling prey to an onside kick, and committing 11 penalties (including back-to-back personal foul calls), but it wasn’t enough to stop the cardiac kids, who somehow held on for the win in dramatic fashion.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had this to say after the game: “I need to throw the ball away or take a sack, do anything to throw the ball away.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank the Spartans as the fifth most difficult on the schedule. While there are still question marks in the secondary, Michigan State has seemed to have been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side, with the Irish splitting the last eight contests, with all four of their wins being decided by a touchdown or less. Winning a night game in East Lansing is never an easy task.

Bonus Reverse Degree of Difficulty:

Michigan State fansite The Only Colors ranks the Irish the fourth-hardest game on the Spartan’s schedule, with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State seemingly tougher opponents. Here’s the crux of the issue for them:

“Essentially, your opinion on ND’s chances this season must rest on your opinion of Brian Kelly. I think he’s excellent, and ND will be significantly improved.”

The Match-up:

Kirk Cousins returns to pilot an offense that only lost Blair White from an offense that averaged just a touch under 30 points a game. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, who combined for 13 catches, 195 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish last year will once again challenge the Irish secondary. The question on offense is whether or not the Spartans can replace three starting offensive linemen.

On defense, Michigan returns All-American linebacker and Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones, the Spartans leader in just about every defensive category, who was third in the country in tackles. Linebacker Eric Gordon is no slouch either, returning after 92 tackles and a starting streak of 27 games. The defensive line has a steady anchor in sophomore Jerel Worthy, but behind him they are unproven. The secondary needs big years out of underachieving Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams, who missed last season for disciplinary personal and medical reasons.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish want to neutralize Greg Jones and pick on a thin secondary, they’ll have the weapons available to do so. If they can protect the quarterback, Notre Dame can spread teams out, using four and five wide receiver sets, running mostly one and no-back formations to give themselves as good a match-up as possible with the questionable Spartan defense. (Theo Riddick will be huge.) Last year, the Irish ran the ball almost to prove a point, content to eat clock and unsuccessfully protect the defense. We already know Brian Kelly won’t do that. The defense will still need to avoid giving up the big play, as the Spartans threw every trick in the book at the Irish, including a successful onside kick recovery. While it’ll be more than unruly in Spartan Stadium that night, a quick start by the offense could have fans sitting on their hands.

How the Irish will lose:

There might not be a more hostile environment for the Irish this season than this Saturday night, and it’ll be the first trip away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium for the Irish and starting quarterback Dayne Crist. This game comes down to handling the pressure of an away game, and if Crist and the offense stumble out of the gates it could be tough sledding for the Irish. Look out for big games from Jones, the proven commodity and true freshman William Gholston, the unproven one. On defense, the Irish still need to figure out how to stop a Spartans offense that racked up gigantic yardage throwing the ball while platooning their quarterbacks. With back-up Keith Nichol now playing wide receiver, one trick play may be all the Spartans need to capitalize on the Irish defense, that will surely be tested in the air.

Gut feeling:

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, your gut should never feel good against the Spartans. That said, if this team is as good as many believe they can be, there’s no reason they shouldn’t walk out of East Lansing with an undefeated record. Consider me Missouri: I’m in a “Show Me” state.
 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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