The 2009 performance of the MSU OL could best be described as mixed results. The Spartans led the league in surrendering the fewest number of sacks, but struggled more often times than not at opening holes for the running backs. MSU went into the season unsettled at the right guard and tackle position. It required several games and multiple combinations before the staff settled on Brendon Moss and DJ Young at guard and tackle, respectively. This tandem was the best out of a very limited group of candidates without removing the red shirt status from some of the true freshmen. The left side was manned by Cironi, who was never at 100% after off season shoulder surgery, and Foreman, who suffered from a bit of a sophomore slump but was still the most effective of the linemen. Nitchman remained steady at center, doing nothing exceptionally better or worse than what he did in his previous seasons.
2010 will see MSU replacing three linemen as well as managing a position switch for DJ Young from right to left tackle. The completion of spring practice did not solidify a starting five as several of the candidates were nursing injuries and could not compete fully, while the performance of others did not display sufficient separation to warrant naming a starting unit. It would be appreciated by Dantonio if he could write down his starters in ink instead of pencil when they break camp this fall but it might start out in a similar fashion to 2009.
Center: The candidates for 2010 are fifth year senior John Stipek and redshirt freshman Nate Klatt. Stipek filled in admirably after Nitchman suffered an early season leg injury for a couple of games. Dantonio has praised Stipek’s work ethic in transforming himself into a viable center after starting out as a defensive tackle early in his career. Like his predecessor, Stipek doesn’t do anything exceptionally great, but has proven that he is not a liability and can perform at an acceptable level. Nate Klatt was the highly touted recruit that many hope will become the future leader of the offensive line by making the proper line calls. Stipek and Klatt are almost carbon copies physically (Stipek:6’5”, 292. Klatt: 6’4”, 290.). Where Stipek has a slight advantage is in playing time, but will have to show a good amount of separation between his and Klatt’s performance to earn the starting role. A performance that is equal to that of Klatt will likely result in the staff opting for starting the younger Klatt and allowing him to grow into the position. In either case I don’t see center being a position of strength immediately.
Guard: MSU appears set for the next two seasons at left guard with Joel Foreman. Foreman has been MSU’s steadiest and most consistent linemen. He rarely if ever is dominated and last year he was the preferred linemen for backs to run behind. Backing up Foreman is redshirt sophomore Ethan Ruhland. Ruhland has seen spot duty but due to Foreman’s command of this position he will have an almost impossible task of unseating him as the starter. He is a solid backup and MSU loses little in the way of performance when he fills in for Foreman. The right guard position is unsettled for the second consecutive season. Three candidates participated in spring practice (RS soph. Chris McDonald: 6’5”, 295. RS jr. Antonio Jeremiah: 6’5”, 360. RS soph. Zach Hueter: 6’6”, 330) with the possibility of true freshman Travis Jackson (6’4”, 265) pushing for a spot on the depth chart. McDonald and Jeremiah’s performance this spring has provided enough separation that Hueter will be battling Jackson for third team. Neither McDonald or Jeremiah have sufficient playing time to give one an advantage over the other. Jeremiah is an athletic big man who has struggled with weight issues since arriving on campus and has seen his weight balloon to over 360 pounds. The question about his durability is of major concern and if he doesn’t drop some weight may have eaten himself out of any possibility of seeing additional playing time after switching from defensive tackle. I would rate McDonald/Jeremiah as even when comparing them to Moss. The jury is still out as to how effective either will become or if their performance will at least maintain the minimal level that Moss performed at in 2009.
Tackle: DJ Young has all but locked up the left tackle spot for 2010. It is not because of his exceptional performance but the fact that his competition has been limited. Young did a much better job at pass blocking as a right tackle than he did as a run blocker. He has made himself into a respectable offensive tackle, but is still a work in progress. He will now have the responsibility of protecting Cousins blindside. 2009 prized recruit David Barrent has had a rocky start to his college career because of back surgery that has limited his ability to train and practice. Possessing all the physical tools one desires in a left tackle (6’8”, 312, long arms, good foot work, agility) no one would be happier than he if can overcome these early career hurdles. Barrent was able to participate in spring practice but has a long way to go in his development. Hopefully his healthy will return to 100% and he can display the talents that made him a most coveted recruit. I expect this year will be spent getting himself adjusted to technique and developing strength. He may or may not see playing time depending on how well his back holds up, and will hopefully be ready to challenge for a starting role in 2011. John Deyo (RS soph. 6’6”, 294) saw spot duty in 2009. His most noticeable performance was during the Alamo Bowl when he filled in for the injured Cironi late in the game. Deyo can best be described as a project player currently. He has enough talent that allowed him to be offered a scholarship, but needs to develop and have the coaches refine his game to really become a quality offensive linemen. With the addition of 2010 recruits Michael Dennis and Skyler Schofner, Deyo will be pushed to elevate his game or end up possibly being a career backup. Dantonio and his staff have made offensive line recruiting a top priority since arriving in East Lansing, and the increased quality of recruits will only make earning a starting position that much more competitive.
The right tackle also has three candidates vying for the starting role. Fifth year senior J Michael Deane (6’5”, 312), RS Jr. Jared McGaha (6’6”, 295) and RSF Henry Conway (6’6”, 306) are all in the mix coming out of spring ball. Deane saw time last year at this position but was unable to maintain his hold on the position. He furthered exacerbated his opportunity by being involved in the Rather Hall incident and missed valuable practice time leading up to the bowl game. McGaha started 2009 as the starting right guard and like Deane eventually lost his starting role to Moss. My personal observation from having watched McGaha was that he really struggled with the basics of the position. On sweeps he appeared to be a step too slow in getting to his assignment. In pass blocking he was often pushed back, collapsing the pocket because the defender had got under his pads and could control him. His base blocking was adequate but not spectacular. Hopefully he has improved upon his technique and will play with better pad level and switching to the outside might help, but for now he is still a question mark. The last candidate is redshirt freshman Henry Conway. Dantonio has publicly stated that he wrestled with the notion of removing Conway’s redshirt last year because of the inconsistent play of the line and how well he was doing as a scout team player. I was hoping to see Conway perform in the Green and White game but unfortunately he was injured and did not participate. Conway could be the X-factor at right tackle. I don’t believe Dantonio is satisfied with either of the performances of Deane and McGaha and is hoping that Conway’s development will continue so that he can assume the starting spot.
The 2010 version of the MSU offensive line is not that much different than that of 2009. The names and faces have changed but the uncertainty remains. There are too many questions and not enough reliable answers. MSU could find itself starting a minimum of two redshirt freshman (Klatt and Conway) and in the least three linemen with little to no playing experience. Depending on so many inexperienced linemen is rarely a positive, especially when they are underclassmen. Do they have the capability of becoming a strong unit? Yes, but that might not be a reality until midseason or later. The run blocking is an immediate concern, but there is a strong possibility that pass blocking will experience a drop off from last year as well. If that happens it will greatly reduce the ability of the skill players to perform at a high level.