Building a Championship Program: Spartans for Life

Building a Championship Program: Spartans for Life

“We ain’t going nowhere, we can’t be stopped… It’s Spartans for life”

Two seasons ago the Michigan State Spartans adopted rapper Rich Homie Quan’s “Some Type of Way” as their unofficial theme song and it guided them to a Rose Bowl victory — the program’s first since 1988.

For the 2015 season, its time for them to take it back to 2001 for their next musical inspiration: Puff Daddy’s “Bad Boy for Life.”.

In the lyrics of the song Sean Combs, Diddy, P. Diddy or whatever he was calling himself at the time bragged that even with the success of his Bad Boy record label, he was still focused on being the best. The same can be said for the 2015 Spartans team; despite being in the midst of one of its most successful runs in program history — four straight bowl wins and back-to-back Top 5 national rankings — the team still wants more.

And while it may hard to find a current artist contributing significant music in 2015 — no French Montana doesn’t count — Diddy rightfully walked out that bravado back then and it is quite possible that Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio is doing the same on the gridiron.  Because of the foundation he laid years ago, Michigan State is setting itself up to be a top program for a very long time — at least until a high-profile athletic department or NFL owner throws enough money at Dantonio to convince him to leave East Lansing.

But before we look too far into the future, we must deal with the present and for MSU fans it is quite bright — almost bling-bling championship ring bright. Yes, this lifelong Wolverines fan is saying that the rival Michigan State Spartans have a legitimate shot at not only winning the Big 10 in 2015, but the team has enough talent to be playing in the College Football Championship game on January 11, 2016, in Glendale, AZ.

To succeed in football, on any level, you must have good quarterback play and the Spartans have that in future first round selection, Connor Cook. Cook fit the mold of the typical Dantonio recruit: two-star, not heavily recruited, and the desire to prove everyone wrong.

“Well, I saw a big-bodied quarterback who played at a good high school league, in a good program,” Dantonio said. “They were well-coached. I saw a rangy guy with a quick release and a strong-arm. He did a nice job in (MSU’s prospects) camp, a really nice job in camp. And we saw the ability to run and take a bad play and make it a good one.”

After leading MSU to a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory in 2012, it was the MSU staff that he would have to prove himself to as he found himself backing up Andrew Maxwell in 2013. But because he was prepared, Cook quickly replaced Maxwell after one game and he hasn’t looked back since. There were some who felt after his 314-yard performance in the comeback victory over the Baylor Bears in the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic, Cook should declare for the NFL draft. But cook saw differently:

“I’ve sat down, I’ve talked to my family, the main goal is obviously to come back to school,” Cook said, per MLive.com. “I have unfinished business I want to do and I want to accomplish next year, and I think the only way I can do that is if I return.”

And that unfinished business is winning the national championship. But Cook won’t have to do it alone. The offense is returning a quintet of senior receivers: DeAnthony Arnett, Aaron Burbridge, AJ Troupe, Andre Sims Jr. and Magarrett Kings Jr.  who are looking to leave a bigger imprint in their MSU legacy.

In 2014, the five upperclassmen combined to only catch 70 balls for 972 yards. To put that in perspective, former lead receiver and current Miami dolphin cornerback Tony Lippett had 65 catches for 1198 yards by himself. So why the big drop off? It’s not like each of these players don’t possess the skill set or size needed to be involved in the offense; whatever the issue was it has to be rectified and Cook will have to trust that these guys can be trusted week in and week out.

One place the team isn’t lacking talent or production is the offensive line. The Spartans return four of five starters including preseason All-Big 10 first team members center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin; along with tight end Josiah Price, the line will look to maintain its top 20 nationally ranked rush offense (235.2 ypg) and be the catalyst to create open holes for the next great MSU running back.

“RB U”

That may be slightly hyperbolic, but it’s hard to deny the lineage of success that MSU has had at the position. Since 2008, four different Spartan backs have rushed for at least 1,000 yards: Javon Ringer, Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford and with the departure of Langford, it’s time to find the next great Spartans back. Because he was the primary backup last season many thought that junior back Delton Williams would be next in line, but he missed time during fall camp which opened the door for redshirt freshman Madre London, who earned the right to start when they open against Western Michigan in Kalamazoo on Friday. Even beyond those to there is great depth at the position if you include Gerald Holmes and even LJ Scott. So while one Spartans back may not rush for 1,000 yards, the unit could be just as effective in 2015.

Not that they need the help, but being able to control the ball offensively will make the Spartan defense even more tough to handle. The identity of the head coach — tough rugged and no-nonsense — has been personified on this side of the ball since Dantonio took the job in 2007 and with the recent success of the program he now has the talent to make the scheme even more tough to handle.

Just like the offense had its best player return for his senior year in Cook, the defense benefited from the return of a potential high draft pick as well in defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Calhoun, a 6’5 defensive end,  is a former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year that is looking to cement his career as a spartan with a college football playoff berth and maybe even a national championship. And like other positional units Calhoun will have plenty of help attaining that goal. Last year he led a defense that was first in the nation in rush defense and joining him up front will be seniors Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas and talented sophomore Malik McDowell — so there is a great chance they will be the top team in that category again.

The collection of talent on the defensive line is indicative to how Coach Dantonio has used the recent success of the program to attract top recruits, but still find under-the-radar prospects and turn them into high performing talent once they reach campus. Thomas and McDowell were five-star recruits from the metro Detroit area — Dantonio did a great job of capitalizing on Michigan’s recent downturn — Calhoun was a three-star tight end out of New Jersey that had offers from east coast BCS programs, but Dantonio saw the second coming of former Spartan great Julian Peterson and made him a defensive star. Perhaps the one constant for the MSU staff was the importance of the state of Ohio as far as recruiting. Heath, a four-star recruit from Cincinnati, OH is one of 26 current players from the Buckeye state and dipping into the backyard of a rival has been integral to the team’s success on the field.

If there is cause for concern, it would be at the once strong defensive backfield position. The departure of leaders Kurtis Drummond and first round pick Trae Waynes have left many wondering if this could be the year that “No Fly Zone” is finally lifted. Despite the reputation  of being a lockdown pass defense, last season opposing teams were bombing away with great success if you look at the stats and the box score from the OSU game. The Spartans struggled against the pass (allowed 227.3 ypg) and ranked 11th in the conference and 60th nationally — so an infusion of new talent could help. Cornerback Arjen Colquhoun and RJ Williamson are the only seniors in the two-deep, but there is plenty of talent as underclassmen starters sophomore Montae Nicholson, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland, in addition to juniors Demetrious Cox and former starter Darian Hicks, look to once again make it tough for opposing receivers.

Every championship run will have its share of challenges and in addition to the revamped defensive backfield, the Spartans have two large obstacles on its schedule: a home game against Oregon on September 12th and a November 21st road game against the Ohio St. Buckeyes — which could be the “Game of the Year” (cue annoying echo effect) if both teams are undefeated as expected. The Spartans are looking to exact revenge on the two teams that handed the team its only two losses last year and it’s quite possible that even with a loss to one of them, MSU can still be legitimate contenders for a College Football Playoff berth this season.

For a team that had its two best players turn down millions of dollars from the NFL in hopes of securing a legacy-cementing moment for the program, nothing less than a championship would be acceptable and if it does happen, don’t be surprised if they are Diddy bopping while holding that championship trophy and screaming “take that take that.”

 

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