March 8, 2011

Which incoming freshmen will play early?

EAST LANSING - In Mark Dantonio's first four years as head coach at Michigan State, he has played five to seven true freshmen in their first autumn for the Spartans. Dantonio expects a similar number in 2011.

Dantonio and his assistant coaches have said they believe there are many players in the incoming class of 21 who are capable of helping right away, but skill talent is only part of the equation. Need is often the primary determining factor.

"It usually becomes more of, 'Where is your need?' Rather than 'Who is the guy?'" said Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "Which one is going to come out and show early? We don't know, but we feel they can all be great players for us. We think every one of the guys we signed is going to be a great player for us. Some will play a little sooner than others, because that's how it works every year."

Junior college offensive lineman Fou Fonoti was recruited to compete for an immediate role, possibly as a starting offensive tackle.

Outside of the need to bolster MSU's offensive tackle talent pool, the linebacker positions at Michigan State are in most need of a little help from incoming freshmen.

"We knew we had a need a linebacker when we began putting this recruiting class together," Narduzzi said. "We have a color coded depth chart and you could look up there and say, 'Wow, linebacker has some seniors there with Eric Gordon, Greg Jones and Jon Misch leaving.' Okay, there are three good players that played a lot for us and we have to make sure we get some replacements. So we set out last winter, last spring to address those needs and I think we got a good group of guys."

In February, Michigan State signed four linebacker prospects:

  • Lawrence Thomas of Detroit, a national Top 50 recruit.

  • Ed Davis of Detroit, the No. 27-ranked outside linebacker.

  • Darien Harris of Silver Springs, Md., the No. 35 outside linebacker.

  • Taiwan Jones of New Baltimore, Mich., the No. 30 outside linebacker.

    None of the four will be available for practice when Michigan State's spring drills begin on March 29. In fact, only one member of the incoming class enrolled early, Canadian defensive back prospect Arjen Colquhoun.

    Colquhoun has joined Michigan State's returning freshmen, sophomores and juniors for winter conditioning. Colquhoun is an outstanding, raw athlete, but will need plenty of seasoning this spring as he begins to make the transition from Canadian high school to major college football.

    Colquhoun should make good use of his head start, and possibly parlay it into an immediate role in 2010. However, others are probably more likely to make an early impact at Michigan State, due in part to needs at other positions.

    "I would suspect that two of those four linebackers would play for us next year and play significantly," Narduzzi said. "Is it going to be L.T.? Is it going to be Harris? I don't know who it's going to be, but I think two of them will. That doesn't mean the other two won't be good, it just means who was ready faster."

    With Gordon, Jones and Misch moving on, Michigan State returns Chris Norman as the starting star 'backer. He has the size and pop to move inside to Gordon's old position, Sam linebacker, if needed.

    Sophomore Max Bullough is expected to inherit the starting Mike linebacker job vacated by Jones. Bullough served as Jones' back-up last year. He collecting 23 tackles as a linebacker and on special teams.

    Sophomore Denicos Allen was second-string behind Norman in 2010. Junior Steve Gardiner was a reserve inside linebacker, capable of playing the Mike or the Sam.

    "We feel like we have some guys that are in our program right now who have been waiting their turn and are pretty good, so we weren't in a situation like we were running to a JC to get guys that could play right now when we recruited this year," said Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel. "And we have a good combination. An outsider looking in would say, okay, Darien Harris out of DeMatha, a great program, he will probably be ready to go. Taiwon played a little bit more offense, maybe it will take him a little while to adjust. But you never know until they step in the door. They all have the ability to help us early, so we will see who learns it and that will be number one. Once they all learn it they will all have opportunities."

    Tressel oversees Michigan State's special teams. He expects the incoming linebackers to help in the kicking game coverage units and return teams.

    "I'm biased. All four of those linebackers can help us on special teams this year," Tressel said. "It's just a matter if we choose to use them in that form right away. I know both of the safeties are guys that could help us, Arjen and Onaje Miller.

    "I fight in the staff room a lot about, 'Hey, let me tell you something, we want this kid if for no other reason than he is going to help us on special teams,'" Tressel said. "We didn't need any kickers or punters (in this recruiting class), we have young guys there. But the big athletes that we have (in this recruiting class) are going to help us on special teams, so I feel good about those guys. You try not to burn a guy's redshirt just for special teams but obviously that won us some games this year too."

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