Michigan State's defense is getting a whole lot of offseason hype -- including a bunch in this space.
The publicity is understandable given the returning talent and the performance by that defense last year. There's also a possible hidden advantage for the Spartans to have such an abundance of playmakers on that side of the ball: It's helping the much-less-talked-about offense.
Head coach Mark Dantonio's philosophy is to match up the first-stringers in practice every day. So several new potential starters on offense aren't just beating up on backups; they're battling against established stars.
"It's always been that way with Coach Dantonio, and there's no greater way for teams to get better," Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar told ESPN.com. "You can definitely see the improvement and the overall effort that's required. Our tackles and tight ends are going against Will Gholston and Marcus Rush. Our interior guys are blocking Anthony Rashad White. We're hoping that it's going to pay dividends."
Such top-flight practice competition could prepare inexperienced but key players such as quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a bevy of new starting receivers for the tough opener against Boise State. Roushar said he's already seen several areas of major improvement in the passing game since spring drills ended.
Maxwell, who missed the last half of spring practice with a knee injury, has been sharp in training camp. So sharp that Roushar said the junior hadn't thrown an interception in the past four or five practices combined.
"He's been very accurate, and his decision-making has been very good," Roushar said. "He seems to be more poised, more under control. He's been making good checks at the line of scrimmage and getting us into the right plays."
Roushar has also seen improvement from redshirt freshman backup Connor Cook, who got to take nearly every rep at quarterback this spring while Maxwell was out.
"Connor has showed some glimpses of really good stuff," he said. "He's got a big strong arm, and he can make all the throws."
The receiving corps has been stabilized by the return of veterans Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett, who were each banged up at times this spring. Roushar said both have been running consistently with the first string and are safe bets to start the opener. The Spartans feel they have identified their top six receivers, though Roushar said they're still figuring out how exactly that rotation will be sorted out.
He admitted that the coaching staff was concerned in the spring with the young receivers' overall knowledge of the offense. But that concern has been largely alleviated now, thanks he said to the summer work put in by Maxwell and the wideouts. One of the guys who has made a jump is converted running back Jeremy Langford.
"He has had some outstanding afternoons," Roushar said. "His skill set is a little unique in that he runs like a tailback, with that physical nature to him, and yet he's developing into a really good wide receiver."
"I've been pleased with how we're releasing against press coverage," he said. "We have two outstanding corners who are really good at that."
Michigan State is dealing with a few injuries on the offensive side. Potential starting left guard Blake Treadwell has a stress fracture in his tibia and could be out until mid-September. Treadwell started the first three games of last season at center before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury. Tight end Dion Sims, whom Roushar said was very impressive early in camp, has been sidelined after a hit to the head. And freshmen receivers Aaron Burbridge (knee) and Monty Madaris (ankle) haven't been able to make a move up the depth chart because of their injuries. Burbridge, a highly touted recruit, could be out up to six weeks after getting his knee scoped.
But Roushar still likes the depth on his side of the ball and thinks his players can only improve going against their own defense. Even if that defense gets more attention.
"I don't feel like our guys wake up every morning and feel like they've got to prove something because of the attention the defense is getting," he said. "They go out every day just working hard to get better."