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March 22, 2010

Spartans hope to get back on winning track

Mark Dantonio has a lot on his plate as he tries to right a program coming off its first losing record in his three-season tenure in East Lansing.

The program was rocked by a fight at a residence hall that resulted in 12 players being suspended in December. Eight since have been reinstated, but it still was a black eye for Dantonio's program.

This spring, Michigan State will focus on developing a grinding rushing game that was lacking in 2009. The Spartans were too pass-heavy last fall. The defense must focus on patching up what was the Big Ten's worst pass defense (267.6 ypg). The Spartans allowed a league-high 32 touchdown passes and picked off only six passes.

Here's a look at the Spartans as they prepare for spring practice.

MICHIGAN STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Returning starter Greg Jones is among the top linebackers in the nation.
THE BASICS
Coach: Mark Dantonio
Last season: 6-7 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten. Lost 41-31 to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.
Spring dates: March 23-April 24.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (6): QB Kirk Cousins, WR B.J. Cunningham, G Joel Foreman, TE Charlie Gantt, TE Brian Linthicum, T D.J. Young.
Defense (7): LB Eric Gordon, S Marcus Hyde, LB Greg Jones, S Trenton Robinson, CB Chris L. Rucker, NT Oren Wilson, T Jerel Worthy.
Special teams (1): P Aaron Bates.

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Is there a better linebacker in America than Jones? Gordon is good, too. There is a lot of skill-position talent on offense, headed by a trio of wide receivers: B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell and Keshawn Martin, who doubles as a good return man. The tight end duo of Charlie Gantt and junior Brian Linthicum is formidable. Kirk Cousins is an emerging force at quarterback. Keep an eye on junior QB Keith Nichol. With Cousins seemingly entrenched at quarterback, Nichol could be moved to receiver. Nichol, who has struggled with accuracy, also could be used in a "Wildcat" formation.

HELP IS NEEDED

Both lines need to be fortified. The offensive front is looking for three new starters, and G Joel Foreman must be a leader this spring. The defensive line needs to find a pass rusher with E Trevor Anderson gone. The staff is counting on T Jerel Worthy setting the tone. The running game needs to find teeth after ranking sixth in the Big Ten (136.9 ypg). Sophomore RBs Larry Caper and Edwin Baker need to take the next step. And MSU needs to improve its turnover margin after finishing 10th in the Big Ten (minus-6). Lastly, Brett Swenson was a standout kicker, but he's gone.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

OT Henry Conway: He created a buzz while working on the scout team in 2009. Now, the redshirt freshman is expected to jump some veterans and earn a starting nod on a line that must replace three fifth-year seniors.

DE Tyler Hoover: The staff is counting on the sophomore to replace Anderson. Hoover has the build (6 feet 7/268 pounds) and ability to be a special player, but he needs to prove that he can be a consistent producer.

NT Blake Treadwell: He turned heads in practice early last fall, then had his redshirt lifted and showed flashes on the field. Treadwell can be an anchor inside playing behind Oren Wilson.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

Ss Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson: Each is coming off a bad season, making this a critical spring to show that each has regained his form. If Hyde and/or Robinson struggle, youngsters Jairus Jones and Denicos Allen will get an opportunity.

THE BUZZ

Dantonio has taken Michigan State to bowl games in each of his three seasons. But last season's 6-7 mark was a step back. Couple that with the off-field issues, and that makes this Dantonio's most critical spring yet in East Lansing. But count on the no-nonsense Dantonio getting Michigan State back on track.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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