Burning Questions for Michigan State's Spring Game
Heading into the spring, Michigan State figures to be a strong contender to repeat as Big Ten Champions in 2014.
The offense remains largely in tact, and will look to build on several strong performances in the second half of 2013, including the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State and the Rose Bowl against Stanford.
Although the defense loses a few key players from 2013, with Frank Broyles Award winner (best Defensive Coordinator in the country) Pat Narduzzi calling the shots, the Spartans should be very strong on that side of the ball yet again.
Here are three burning questions for coach Mark Dantonio to find answers for this Saturday:
1. Can Connor Cook Take the Next Step?
Although Cook played very well at times last year and was able to lead the Spartans to one of the most successful seasons in school history, he wasn't necessarily asked to go win games for his team last year, for lack of a better term.
Although the offense played better the second half of the season, there is no doubt that their defense that only allowed 13.2 point per game was the main reason for their success last season.
With the departure of a few senior leaders on that side of the ball, the offense will have to step up in a major way if the Spartans expect similar success in 2014, and it all begins with their quarterback.
Cook will need to go from good enough to really good, and a really good showing on Saturday will no doubt give his coaches confidence that he is ready to take on that pressure and make the next step in his development.
2. Who Will Replace Darqueze Dennard?
Dennard won the Jim Thorpe award as the best defensive back in the country in 2013, and his ability to completely take away the opponent's number one receiver was essential to the Spartans' top-5 defense last year.
With his graduation and certain departure to the NFL as a first-round draft pick, coach Narduzzi has to find out who will step up and fill the huge shoes left by Dennard.
Trae Waynes started opposite Dennard all of last season, and figures to be the most likely to take on that role. But talented younger guys like Ezra Robinson, Darlan Hicks, Jermaine Edmonson, and Arjen Coulquhoun are all competing for playing time this spring as well.
Anyone could take Dennard's spot as the number one cornerback, and a standout performance in the spring game could be enough for Narduzzi to tap that person as the leader of the secondary.
3. Can Taiwan Jones Be the Guy at Middle Linebacker?
Jones was the starter at the weak side last year, while Max Bullough was the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker. Now that he's departed, Narduzzi has tapped Jones as the man to be his eyes, ears, and voice on the field.
At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds and good speed for his size, Jones has all of the physical tools necessary to thrive at the position. Although he was a little out of place as the weak side linebacker, he still proved more than capable of being playmaker wherever he's at on the field.
The question is whether or not he is capable of handling the mental and the communication aspect of the middle linebacker spot.
The middle linebacker is responsible for everyone and everything that takes place on the field. He has to relay all of the play calls to his teammates, make sure any instructions are clearly communicated, and be certain that all eleven players are lined up properly.
For Jones, a senior, that's a lot to learn and take on all in one offseason. His development is key to the Spartans maintaining their status as an elite defense, and the spring game this Saturday should give Dantonio and Narduzzi a good feel for how far along he is coming as the new middle linebacker.