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Team countdown: No. 7 Michigan State

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Michigan State is in the midst of one of the best runs in school history.

The Spartans have 22 victories in the past two seasons, their winningest two-year stretch ever. The Spartans were Big Ten tri-champs in 2010 and won the Legends Division title last fall. And as good as they have been, the Spartans might be even better this season, thanks to what should be an excellent defense.

The Spartans, who return eight defensive starters, will miss T Jerel Worthy. But E William Gholston has All-America potential, and LB Denicos Allen heads what should be one of the best linebacking corps in the nation. The secondary looks quite good, too.

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William Gholston is the star of a stout Spartans defense. (Getty Images)

Offensively, there are questions. Michigan State returns four full-time starters along the line – but that's it on that side of the ball. With the exception of TB Le'Veon Bell, who started six late-season games, the Spartans return no skill-position player who started even once last season.

The particulars

Last season: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in Big Ten (1st in Legends Division; lost to Wisconsin in Big Ten championship game)
Coach: Mark Dantonio (44-22, 6th season at Michigan State; 62-39, 10th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (4) – T Fou Fonoti, T Dan France, C Travis Jackson, G Chris McDonald. Defense (8) – CB Johnny Adams, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, CB Darqueze Dennard, E William Gholston, SS Isaiah Lewis, LB Chris Norman, E Marcus Rush. Special teams (2) – K Dan Conroy, P Mike Sadler.
Fast fact: The Spartans haven't played in the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season; that's also the last time they played in a major bowl.

Offense

Michigan State lost its starting quarterback, its top three wide receivers and its top two tight ends.

Junior Andrew Maxwell is the heir apparent to Kirk Cousins at quarterback. Maxwell has thrown 51 passes in his career. He played in four games last season in mop-up duty in easy victories. He missed the second half of spring drills with a knee sprain but is 100 percent now. Maxwell has the needed physical tools; he just has to prove himself against legitimate opponents.

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Expect the offense to revolve around Bell, a bruiser (6 feet 2, 244 pounds) who came on strong down the stretch last season. He ran for a team-high 948 yards last season; he had 516 yards and seven TDs in the final six games, the only ones he started. He is one of the best receiving tailbacks nationally, so his presence will be huge in numerous facets for Maxwell. There also is good depth behind Bell, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Spartans rely heavily on their rushing attack.

The receiving corps is a giant concern. Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomores Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery look to be the contenders for the go-to role. The problem: That trio has combined for 22 career receptions. Fowler had a solid season as a redshirt freshman in 2010 but played in just five games last season because of a foot injury; that injury limited him in spring ball, too. Lippett is an excellent athlete who played both cornerback (he started five times at that position) and wide receiver last season. But he missed important practice time in the spring with an ankle injury. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who had 24 receptions as a true freshman, will see time. He was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA this season because of an illness in his family (he is from Saginaw, Mich.). Arnett had offseason finger surgery.

Junior Dion Sims will be the new starting tight end; he had 12 receptions last season and should see his total climb into the low 20s.

There are no questions about the line. Four starters are back, and each of them – Ts Dan France and Fou Fonoti, C Travis Jackson and especially G Chris McDonald – could earn all-league mention. McDonald, a senior, is heading into his third season as a starter. Jackson earned some freshman All-America notice last season and is a star on the rise. The one new starter will be G Blake Treadwell, who began his career as a defensive tackle, moved to center (he started the first three games there last season before being injured) and finally switched to guard in spring practice. Depth is good, too.

Defense

Coordinator Pat Narduzzi has a ton of talent with which to work, and if the defense is as good as expected, it could mean Narduzzi becomes a head coach somewhere a year from now.

The Spartans have a potential All-America at each level of their defense: Gholston along the line, Allen at linebacker and CB Johnny Adams in the secondary.

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Gholston, a junior, is an athletic marvel and looks to finally be on the verge of a breakout season. He is 6-7 and 280 pounds, and has alarming quickness. He also plays with a mean streak (opponents know all about that, as he has crossed the line at times in the past). Gholston had five sacks and 16 tackles for loss last season, and he dominated Georgia's offensive line in the Spartans' Outback Bowl win. The other end is no slouch; sophomore Marcus Rush is undersized (6-2/250), but he is relentless and productive. Rush had 58 tackles, four sacks and 12 tackles for loss last season.

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Pat Narduzzi has built the Spartans defense into one of the best in the league.

There will be two new starting tackles, but the Spartans still look good at the position. Senior Anthony Rashad White is a squatty guy (6-2, 330) who started four times last season and proved to be a good run-stuffer. He'll likely line up next to senior Tyler Hoover, who played just one game last season before being sidelined by a fractured rib. He moved from end, where he had nine career starts, to tackle during spring practice. Sophomore James Kittredge, who sat out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, is Hoover's main competition. Kittredge played three games as a true freshman offensive lineman for the Commodores in 2010.

Allen is coming off a huge season, his first as a starter. He had 80 tackles and led the team with 11 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Allen also had seven quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. Max Bullough, who led the Spartans with 89 tackles, and Chris Norman also return as starting linebackers. Bullough's grandfather and father also played for the Spartans. Bullough is especially good against the run. Norman often is overlooked on this defense, but he is heading into his third season as a starter; he has made 135 tackles the past two seasons.

The big loss in the secondary is FS Trenton Robinson, but the defensive backfield still should be a strength. Adams is a big-timer who had three picks and six pass breakups last season. The other starting corner will be Darqueze Dennard, a Georgia native who had a big game in the bowl win over Georgia. Fifth-year senior Mitchell White is a solid No. 3 corner. SS Isaiah Lewis is another who should vie for all-league honors; he had four interceptions last season and took two back for TDs. He also made 74 tackles. Sophomore FS Kurtis Drummond is the one new starter in the secondary; he played a lot as a reserve last fall and had two interceptions and 17 tackles. True freshmen Demetrious Cox (safety) and Ezra Robinson (corner) could force their way into the rotation.

Special teams

K Dan Conroy and P Mike Sadler are back, and both could contend for all-league mention. Conroy was 17-of-23 last season, with three misses coming on attempts of at least 50 yards. Sadler averaged 41.1 yards per punt and dropped 25 of his 61 attempts inside the 20.

Backup TB Nick Hill is an excellent kick returner (26.3 yards per return last season), but the Spartans need a new punt returner.

The Spartans' coverage units need a lot of work. Michigan State was awful in punt coverage last season, ranking 118th nationally while allowing 16.2 yards per return. The kickoff coverage was only nominally better: 86th at 22.9 yards per return. The Spartans allowed one punt and one kickoff to be returned for scores.

Schedule

The Spartans have a tough schedule. They open with a visit from Boise State on Aug. 31. They play host to Notre Dame on Sept. 15. The Big Ten opener is a biggie at home against Ohio State on Sept. 29.

In a four-week stretch in October and November, Michigan State plays Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska in four consecutive weeks, with the games against the Wolverines and Badgers on the road.

If the Spartans repeat as Legends Division champs, they will have earned it.

Overview

Coach Mark Dantonio has done a great job in his tenure, and has the Spartans in a good position to repeat as division titlists.

He and Narduzzi have built an excellent defense; they have three potential All-Americans on that side of the ball, and the back seven should be among the top 10 in the nation.

One potential sticking point: A rebuilt offense doesn't have much time to find its stride, with three big games before the end of September. The flipside, of course, is that the Spartans should be able to rely on their defense as the offense jells.

Michigan State has had back-to-back 11-win seasons. Expect a third consecutive season with double-digit victories, and if the Spartans can extend their winning streak over archrival Michigan to a school-record five, they should win the division again.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 33rd nationally
The buzz: The Spartans signed the Big Ten's top wide receiver class in 2012, highlighted by the state of Michigan's top-ranked player, Aaron Burbridge of Farmington Hills Harrison. Burbridge was one of three four-star prospects signed in 2012, joining Cox and Southfield (Mich.) Lathrup DE Jamal Lyles. Dantonio addressed a need at defensive tackle late in the process by grabbing sleeper David Fennell of Portland, Ore. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

WR Bennie Fowler. Michigan State obviously is looking for a new go-to receiver, and a healthy Fowler easily could be that guy. Fowler, a 6-1, 218-pound junior, is physical and fast, and played well as a redshirt freshman in 2010, when he had 14 receptions, seven rushes and 15 kickoff returns. He reportedly is healthy after having foot surgery in the spring, and his relationship with Maxwell (they were on the scout team together when redshirting as true freshmen in 2009) should begin to truly pay off this fall.

For more on Michigan State throughout the season, check out Spartanmag.com

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