Editor’s note: In June 1917, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives invited Michigan back into the league, increasing membership to 10 and eventually spawning the iconic “Big Ten” nickname. One hundred years later, Land of 10 will spend the summer looking at the history of America’s legendary conference and its teams.
Michigan State wasn’t part of the original conference we know as the Big Ten. The Spartans replaced the departed University of Chicago in 1949 and became a full member in football in 1953. With that in mind, Land of 10 is unveiling our selections of the top 25 Michigan State football players since the Spartans began competing in the Big Ten. Players were evaluated solely on their performance at Michigan State.
On Monday, we release the fourth set of the countdown: 10-6.
10. Javon Ringer, running back (2005-08)
Former Michigan State coach John L. Smith’s best recruit saw his potential truly unleashed only after Smith got fired. As a freshman and sophomore under Smith, Javon Ringer ran for a combined 1,314 yards despite only getting 208 carries. That’s an average of 6.3 yards per carry, which would have been a program-best mark in the Big Ten era.
But, of course, he didn’t stop there. Ringer, along with running back Jehuu Caulcrick and wide receiver Devin Thomas, gave Coach Mark Dantonio a formidable offensive attack for his first season in 2007. Ringer became the first-choice back with 245 carries for 1,447 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Then Caulcrick left, and Ringer’s role expanded even further in 2008. He had 390 carries for 1,637 yards and 22 touchdowns, passing the single-season record of 21 set by Caulcrick the year before. His senior season garnered first team All-Big Ten and first team All-America honors. Ringer finished his career with 843 carries and 4,398 yards, both good for second in program history.
But more importantly, Ringer was crucial to Dantonio finding early success and establishing a reputation of toughness. He played in all 26 games as a junior and senior, leading the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins after winning just three in the previous two seasons under Smith. As he flourished, so did Dantonio’s vision.
Ringer’s four-year NFL career was beset with knee injuries. Now he works as a recruiting intern for Dantonio and the Spartans.
9. Connor Cook, quarterback (2012-15)
Had this list been about impact, Connor Cook may have landed even higher. As a three-year starter, he led Michigan State to three straight seasons with double-digit wins, a feat never before accomplished at the school. His record of 34-5 as a starter, though it says just as much about his teammates as it does him, is enough to put him right alongside the best in Spartans history.
Cook made three appearances as a freshman during Michigan State’s trying 2012 campaign, then took the reins the following year. Blessed with talented receivers Tony Lippett and Aaron Burbridge, Cook trusted them by throwing into tight coverage and allowing them the chance to make plays. His risks generally paid off, as he finished his college career with 71 touchdowns (best in school history) against 22 interceptions (not even in the top 10).
His 57.5 completion percentage didn’t challenge the Michigan State leaderboard, but his 9,194 career passing yards put him just past Kirk Cousins (No. 15 on our rankings) for No. 1 in program history. A two-time All-Big Ten honoree, Cook always seemed to show up in the big moments, leading the Spartans to two Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl win and a Cotton Bowl win.
As just a sophomore, Cook threw for 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Michigan State took down Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl. Had fans not already been sold, that did the job. And now he stands as the program’s most productive passer of all time.
Cook was drafted in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders and continues to jockey for playing time. It’s a tough task when the team’s starter, Derek Carr, just signed the most lucrative contract in NFL history.
8. Brad Van Pelt, safety (1970-72)
It’s been almost 50 years since Brad Van Pelt patrolled the field at Spartan Stadium, and Michigan State quite possibly hasn’t seen a more impressive all-around athlete since. Not only did he excel as a 6-foot-5 beast in the secondary, but he played 29 games for the Spartans basketball team (averaging 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds) and was drafted to the MLB.
Football clearly became Van Pelt’s calling, though, and he dominated in the final years of legendary coach Duffy Daugherty’s tenure. HIs 21 tackles against Notre Dame in 1971 tied a program record, and was part of his first All-American campaign.
He reached that height again as a senior, earning a consensus All-American nod as well as receiving the Maxwell Award, given to the best player in college football annually. He became the first defensive back to win the award.
Van Pelt’s 14 career interceptions are tied for fourth in program history, while his 268 interception return yards still rank first among Michigan State players in the Big Ten era. Oh, and did we mention Van Pelt returned kicks as well? He might not have played on good teams, but Van Pelt was as good an athlete as Michigan State has seen.
He went on to have a lengthy NFL career, earning five Pro Bowl nods while with the New York Giants. He died of a heart attack in 2009 at age 57.
7. Darqueze Dennard, cornerback (2010-13)
Have you heard this one before? Recruited by Dantonio and his staff, Darqueze Dennard came to Michigan State as a 2-star recruit in the 247Sports composite, and was unrated by some. He was very eager to prove himself, and it didn’t take long at all, as Chris L. Rucker’s suspension pushed him into the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2010.
He just kept getting better, from honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore to first team All-Big Ten as a junior to unanimous All-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best defensive back as a senior. All along, Dennard cultivated the “No Fly Zone” mantra that not only inspired fear in those who went against the Michigan State secondary, but also spread so far that it continues to have a positive recruiting effect today.
Throughout his career, Dennard showed impressive instincts in man coverage as well as reaction time and positioning that made him a nightmare for opposing receivers. When quarterbacks had the courage to throw toward him, he delivered, racking up 10 interceptions in his career.
Dennard, when healthy, was as good as it gets at cornerback. He helped Michigan State to 42 wins in his four seasons, culminating in a Rose Bowl victory in his final game. Statistics don’t tell the story with a player like him, so just look at the accolades, from ESPN’s Big Ten Defensive MVP to the Jack Tatum Award honoring the nation’s best defensive back.
A first-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014, Dennard has been solid as long as he’s been healthy. Unfortunately, injuries have continued to set him back.
6. Andre Rison, wide receiver (1985-88)
In a different era, Andre Rison’s production might have been even more spectacular. As the Lansing State Journal’s Graham Couch noted, Michigan State threw just 13 times per game during Rison’s senior year before a Gator Bowl deficit forced the Spartans to air it out. He was the beneficiary, finishing with nine catches for 252 yards (then a program record) and three touchdowns.
Rison would say that the number of catches didn’t matter so long as he picked up the yards. And with 20.5 yards per catch in his college career, he didn’t need the ball often to rack up yardage. And whether he thought the statistics were significant or not, he crushed record numbers. His 146 career receptions and 2,992 yards were both school records when he left campus. Both have since been broken.
Rison, also a member of the basketball and track teams at Michigan State, made up for whatever he lacked in size with speed and sure hands. And few players had his confidence. When he lined up, he looked as though he didn’t think any cornerback in the world could stop him. The Michigan State teams of his day were loaded with talent, but it’s hard to believe that without him, the Spartans would have reached and won the 1988 Rose Bowl.
A first-round selection in the 1989 NFL draft, Rison went on to make five Pro Bowls and win a Super Bowl. Now he’s passing the baton to his son Hunter, who will kick off his true freshman season as a Michigan State receiver in September.