The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off July 25, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago.
We’ll post two per day starting today, with one from each division, and leading off the Big Ten East with the defending Big Ten champ …
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
1. Is Tyler O’Connor up to the task at quarterback?
Michigan State has become a bit of a quarterback factory lately, turning out one multi-year starter after another and then sending them on to the NFL. Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook have created a great pipeline, but is Tyler O’Connor in that tier? More specifically, can he get to that tier this season? As a fifth-year senior, he doesn’t have much of a choice if he hopes to leave a mark on the university.
O’Connor has had the time to learn, and leading the Spartans to a win at Ohio State showed he knows how to handle pressure, but it still doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Remember, Cousins’ first season as a starter in 2009 culminated in Mark Dantonio’s only losing season in East Lansing at 6-7. Cousins was efficient, but he wasn’t a game-changer enough to lift a team with no running game. In 2012, Dantonio rolled with Andrew Maxwell over Cook, and the result was another 7-6 dud of a season.
For Michigan State to contend for the East title in 2016, it has to count on two things:
- A) That O’Connor is the right quarterback to start. Entering the Ohio State game, he was thought to be in a real competition with mobile junior Damion Terry, and …
- B) that he can lead with his arm and not simply try to manage, because an offense with just two returning starters and none at the skill positions isn’t going to be the kind that can win that way in one of the toughest divisions in the country.
2. How is Ed Davis’ knee?
Perhaps the small blessing in disguise in Ed Davis’ preseason MCL tear a year ago was that it would buy him one more run as a sixth-year senior in 2016, just as Shilique Calhoun and Aaron Burbridge were leaving and Michigan State would be desperately in need of a playmaker to step up.
That could end up being the case this season, but that’s only if Davis’ knee is healed and he can be the player he was in 2014. That Davis was a blitzing machine who totaled seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss, presenting a versatile threat in the middle of the defense that opposing offenses found difficult to gameplan for with his unpredictability.
The Spartans sorely lacked that kind of threat in the back end last season, and with no true No. 1 cornerback for the first time in years, the pass defense became a scab to pick. Alabama’s skill players took control in its 38-0 win in the Sugar Bowl, and had the Ohio State game not been played in a swamp, it might have been the anchor in an East title run as well.
This year, with Calhoun gone and still no established shut-down cornerback, the Spartans are going to need Davis’ game-wrecking ability to maintain their turnover edge, which has ranked in the top five in margin the past two seasons. Knee injuries are unpredictable, however, so how Davis’ turns out could answer plenty for the Spartans defense this season.
3. Is four-star freshman WR Donnie Corley the real deal?
With Burbridge’s departure to the NFL, the Spartans lost their only receiver or running back who totaled 700 yards last season (Burbridge had 1,258). The 38-0 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl exposed the need to find playmakers out wide on both sides of the ball, and as the calendar flips to 2016, all eyes are on freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley to be that man.
The hype inside the building is bursting. That’s because of the spring Corley had in closed practices after enrolling early out of Detroit Martin Luther King High School. There, he was a four-star recruit and the No. 2 player in the state of Michigan, according to 247sports.com’s composite averages. As an early enrollee, it didn’t take him long to start lighting it up on receptions and reverses alike in front of his teammates and coaches, making him one of their most popular talking points in the spring.
Recruiting stars only mean so much, and so do spring football plays. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Corley will find out quickly this season whether those break-the-distance skills have a place in a physical conference or if they’ll need a year of growth, as many freshmen do in the Big Ten.
The answer could determine plenty for Michigan State, which feels like it has a feature running back in L.J. Scott and a couple of stud returning offensive linemen but needs to find a passing game after losing Cook and Burbridge to the NFL. If O’Connor is to step right in and have the productive single year he’s been waiting for, it’ll almost certainly come in tandem with the breakout of a receiver that hasn’t shown it yet on the football field.
Whether or not that happens likely will come down to whether Corley’s hype is legitimate or premature.