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A college sports blog from The Oakland Press, dedicated to covering Michigan and Michigan State athletics as well as former Oakland County athletes at other schools.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Spartans should still be strong at WR position next year

Losing your programs' record-holding quarterback and wide receiver, along with the other primary passing targets, usually doesn't bode well for the passing numbers the following season. In the case of the Spartans, who lose receivers B.J. Cunnigham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, the damage should be rather tame, however.
Michigan State still has the untapped potential of Bennie Fowler, the former multi-sport star and speedster from Birmingham Detroit Country Day. Injuries have prevented Fowler from being effective thus far in East Lansing, but if he's healthy next season he could put up big numbers in the Spartans' pro-style offense. Also returning to MSU is Tony Lippett. Lippett split time at WR and defensive back this season, but will likely be a full-time offensive player next year. The coaching staff is also very high on youngsters Juwan Caesar and Keith Mumphrey and have newcomer and four-star recruit Aaron Burbridge waiting in the wings. Usually freshman don't make an immediate impact in the upper-echelon of Division I football, but having the opportunity to see Burbrige a ton in person while he played at Farmington Hills Harrison, I think he's going to be an exception to that rule. Physically, Burbridge is already built for Big Ten play, and his conditioning should only improve. He's also got the potential to be a major playmaker, both down the field and gaining yards after the catch.
The wildcard, or in Michigan State's case the potential trump card, could be Saginaw native DeAnthony Arnett (pictured right), who's transferring from Tennessee after a strong freshman season with the Volunteers. Arnett has been granted his full release by Tennessee and has said he wants to transfer to either Michigan State or Michigan — he's returning to the state to be closer to his ailing father, and was upset at the initial response from UT that would have only granted him his release if he played for one of the MAC schools in the state.
Arnett will also likely get a waiver from the NCAA which will allow him to play immediately, wherever he ends up. Various message boards and social media posts around his situation have pointed to the fact he has a strong friendship with incumbent MSU starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Arnett could also be swayed to East Lansing and away from Ann Arbor based on the fact that the receiving core, in terms of experience at least, is thinner at MSU than with the Wolverines. Arnett has NFL talent and NFL aspirations, so the safe bet would be for him to choose to play in the Spartans' pro-style offense and not catch passes in a hybrid offense with Denard Robinson at quarterback at Michigan.
The Spartans will have to make up for the loss of both their primary tight ends (Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek) but do have Dion Sims to step in at that position. Sims was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of Orchard Lake St. Mary's and if he lives up to his potential, and pure talent, will be a much better playmaker at that position.
As for the quarterback position, Cousins won't be easy to replace. I think he was the best quarterback in MSU history, and the stats back that up (my apologies to Tony Banks and Jim Miller... and yes even Jeff 'Slap my face' Smoker). Mark Dantonio said he wanted to get Maxwell more playing time this season, but a too close for comfort opener against Youngstown State and a rigorous schedule prevented that. Maxwell got in during the FAU and Central Michigan games and played fairly well given the circumstances. He'll be a work in progress next season, but as a whole the Spartans' passing attack should remain strong — if not even improve.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sugar Bowl pre-game notes: Big games have meant big results for Robinson

Say what you want about Denard Robinson. He's far from perfect at the quarterback position, and at times he can even be maddeningly dreadful. Yet, tonight he'll have a chance to lead Michigan to its first BCS bowl win since Tom Brady 12 years ago in the Orange Bowl. One thing the Wolverines have to like about their chances is that their quite, easy going QB has established a track record of becoming an absolute animal in big moments this season.
Whether it was leading Michigan back from a 24-7 deficit in 15 minutes against Notre Dame in the first night game ever played at the Big House, or closing out the season with arguably the best performances of his career in back-t0-back weeks against Nebraska and Ohio State — Robinson has showed a flash for excelling on the big stage.
Robinson's season stats aren't great: He's completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,056 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He's also rushed for 1,163 yards and 16 touchdowns (with the occasional fumble mixed in).
But the kid who went by the nickname "Shoelace" the past few years has taken on a different name under the new Michigan regime.
"I would classify Denard Robinson as a pure baller," Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges told the media this week in New Orleans. "He balls. When it's time to line up and go, he goes. He's going to perform. That's what he is."
It's what his teammates and coaches love about him. He never loses his composure, whether it be during an interception and incompletion loaded first half against Notre Dame or Northwestern, or a post-game press conference where he's getting peppered with questions about his accuracy, he just goes about his business.
It's a trait he's always had, as his former high school coach in Deefield Beach, Fla. explained to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, Robinson just has "the look."
The Wolverines turnaround this season is also strongly attributed to the team's defense. The same group of players that ESPN analyst Chris Spielman said would be "a bunch of guys who would be nice little subs at Indiana," the Wolverines have become the 17th-ranked defense in the country this season under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Beating Virginia Tech in tonight's Sugar Bowl would serve as the ultimate validation for the job Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke have done "coaching up" a group of defensive players that they didn't recruit.
Defensive lineman Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen said the improved Wolverines defense is a credit to the approach that the new coaches brought this season.
Adding to the intrigue of tonight's game is the fact that both Michigan and Virginia Tech have so much in common. It's not out of bounds to say that the Wolverines play more like a ACC team than a Big Ten team — which given the Big Ten's track record in bowl games might not be a bad thing. Virginia Tech has a dual threat QB as well in Logan Thomas but also has the ACC's Offensive Player of the Year in running back David Wilson. And like Michigan, the Hokies are starving for success in a BCS bowl — they were blown out by Stanford last season.
While Michigan's turnaround has drawn much of the national attention around this game, there's also considerable pressure on Virginia Tech and coach Frank Beamer to start producing wins, not appearances, at the BCS level. put together a statistical comparison of the two teams.
The Sugar Bowl kicks off tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Outback Bowl pre-game notes: Cousins gets ultimate shot in spotlight

When the lights have been brightest on the Michigan State football program, the Spartans haven't shined. Michigan State hasn't won a bowl game since 2001 (Yes, when Bobby Williams was the coach) and the Spartans were embarrassed in last year's rout against Alabama, 49-7. They also came up short in this year's conference championship game. However,
Michigan State is, in my opinion, hands down the best team not playing in a BCS bowl game and will be looking to prove so against Georgia today.
MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins will also get his moment under the national microscope, as he'll take part in Jon Gruden's QB Camp on ESPN. The segment will air approximately at 11:50 a.m. Spartans blogger Chris Vannini has a sneak peak of the segment on his blog.
The Spartans will also be trying to compete against the notion that Big Ten teams aren't fast enough to compete with the SEC. Northwestern already lost to soon-to-be SEC team Texas A&M and the Big Ten conference has never performed very well against SEC opponents, especially in bowl games.
MSU does have perhaps the best defense in the conference, with enough speed to match up with the Bulldogs playmakers. Pressure on Georgia QB Aaron Murray is crucial and MSU linebacker Denicos Allen said he plans on causing havoc for the Bulldogs signal caller. Allen leads MSU with 10 sacks this season, some of which have become known inside the Spartans locker room has "Waterboy sacks" in reference to Adam Sandler's Bobby Boucher character.
The Spartans will be up against a fully-loaded Georgia offense today, which will feature a convoy of receiving targets for Murray as well as a healthy Isaiah Crowell, the freshman running back who leads Georgia in rushing this season. There's also been some speculation that Georgia coach Mark Richt could be coaching for his job today. While I don't think Richt will be fired if the Bulldogs lose, a win would certainly go a long way towards improving his job security.
Besides getting the no bowl win moneky of his back, Dantonio is also well aware of the importance a win in this game has in terms of recruiting. With Urban Meyer now at Ohio State, Michigan back in the BCS and Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl yet again, the stakes have been raised in the Big Ten. Dantonio talked about the Spartans bowl losing streak, which includes a loss to Georgia and Matthew Stafford in the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl. While the even keel coach is not the type to put a "must-win" label on any game, rest assured the importance of this game resonates throughout the Spartans' program.
Finally, there's the issue of being slighted. The Spartans are angry, and rightfully so, that they're in the Outback Bowl and Michigan is in a BCS game despite losing to MSU, playing a weaker schedule and not reaching the conference championship game. It's created a tough situation for MSU. A Spartan loss, compounded by a Michigan win over Virginia Tech could cause a considerable shift in recruiting momentum for the two programs. Oakland Press columnist Pat Caputo talked more about that very topic in a recent column.
Finally for Cousins, along with teammates Jerel Worthy and B.J. Cunningham, it's an audition for the NFL. Worthy said he's pretty much "50-50" on whether or not he'll return to East Lansing for his senior season. Cousins expressed his desire to play professionally as well and is ranked by ESPN's Mel Kiper as a Top 5 senior quarterback in this year's draft class. Cunningham is less of a known name nationally, but a big game today followed by a strong combine could put him in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft. He has 72 receptions for 1,240 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. I think all three will be drafted by the fourth round, but they'll need to convince NFL scouts that they're worth that early of a pick.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. on ABC.