Who will replace Brian Hoyer? Who will replace Javon Ringer? Will the Spartans suffer without their productivity?
These questions, and a host of similar questions, have been hovering around Michigan State since they ended their 2008 campaign with a loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Two seniors at two key positions gone due to graduation, and a mish-mash of capable yet inexperienced players waiting in the wings for their chance.
Mark Dantonio definitely has a difficult task ahead of him as Michigan State prepares for their season opener. He's got to find himself a new starting running back from a field of six candidates. He also has to decide which of two evenly-matched quarterback candidates will take the reins for the first series of 2009.
I don't envy the man one bit.
At running back, he's got to replace one of the best backs that Michigan State has ever seen. Until the wear and tear of carrying the ball over 30 times a game caught up to him late in the season, Ringer was talked about as both a Doak Walker and a darkhorse Heisman candidate.
Those are some seriously big Nikes to fill.
At quarterback, the task is a little less daunting. Yes, Brian Hoyer was a two-year starter, but he never quite wowed the fans like Ringer and he never produced quite like he was expected to.
But still, regardless of who wins the quarterback battle, Dantonio will be giving control to somebody who lacks a lot of game experience. That's a nerve-wracking prospect for a coach and a program.
Will the new quarterback step and and have a great first season like Colt McCoy in 2006? Or will they struggle mightily like Jimmy Clausen in 2007?
My money is on the former. Whoever wins the quarterback battle is going to have a very experienced receiving corps to help ease the transition. Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Blair White, and Keshawn Martin are all returning and should prove to be great targets for Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol.
There are several things for Spartan fans to keep in mind as these position battles take place.
1. Losing Brian Hoyer is not a big deal
Most of the analysis I've read this summer seems to imply that losing Brian Hoyer is going to be a mortal blow to the 2009 season. That simply isn't true.
While Hoyer had a very productive season in 2009, throwing for 20 touchdowns and leading the second-half comeback against Penn State that clinched a bowl berth for MSU, he took a giant step backward in 2008.
Nine touchdowns, nine interceptions. And oh yeah, he barely completed half of his passes.
Even though Mark Dantonio ran the ball a lot last season, a quarterback for a program of Michigan State's stature should be throwing for more than .69 touchdowns per game. That's downright anemic.
Cousins and Nichol are waiting in the wings and offer a lot of promise. Cousins got a little bit of game experience last season and showed an accurate arm, completing just short of 75 percent of his passes. Look at the numbers, it's a definite upgrade.
Nichol doesn't have any meaningful game experience, with just seven collegiate passing attempts to his name. But, keep in mind that he was sitting behind Sam Bradford at Oklahoma for a season, and Bradford didn't beat him out by much. Nichol was a highly-touted recruit when John L. Smith originally got him to commit, and his talents haven't diminished.
2. We could see a return to the 2007 running game (kind of)
With no established veteran star to take the reins at running back, Dantonio will likely be forced to use a running back by committee system until somebody separates themselves from the pack. This is by no means a bad thing.
Think back to 2007, Dantonio's first season in charge. He had the beefy Jehuu Caulcrick and the quick Ringer at his disposal. Caulcrick scored 21 touchdowns that year and was virtually impossible for opponents to handle in short yardage situations. Ringer added six touchdowns in 2007, combined with an incredible 5.9 yards per carry.
Fans and media alike dubbed the pair Thunder and Lightning.
We could conceivably see something similar this season, with the 230 pound Ashton Leggett used in a platoon with a lighter, quicker running back like Edwin Baker or Caulton Ray.
This system was so effective in 2007 because it forced opponents to prepare for two different styles of running attack each week. Time is a precious thing during the season, and it takes a great deal of time to prepare for two very good, very different backs. That's why the Ringer and Caulcrick combined for over 2300 yards in 2007.
3. The new additions will be mentored by established veterans
This is last on the last but probably first in importance. A solid core of veteran players will help ease the transition for new talent this season. The fact that the Spartans don't have to start over from scratch everywhere is hugely important.
I've already mentioned the returning wide receivers. Those four will do wonders for the new quarterback's confidence. They've all got big game experience and will be better than they were in 2008. Even with Hoyer's erratic throwing, those four combined for 131 receptions last season in an offense that was very rush-heavy.
Look for the receivers to improve on those numbers considerably in 2009.
The running backs will also reap the benefits of an experienced veteran, fullback Andrew Hawken. While Hawken didn't carry the ball at all last season, he's an experienced blocker who will help pave the way for the new generation of running backs in East Lansing. The running backs can feel confident because they have the luxury of rushing behind a guy who knows exactly what he's doing.
Hawken's blocking should also benefit an inexperienced offensive line.
The position battles will continue as we progress toward the opening week of the season, but they shouldn't cause Spartan fans to panic. Yes, we'll miss Ringer and Hoyer, but the cupboard hasn't been left bare, not by a longshot.
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