It's too simplistic to attribute Michigan State's offensive woes in 2012 to the season-ending injury Fou Fonoti suffered before a Week 3 matchup with Notre Dame.
The Spartans' struggles went deeper than that.
Fonoti's return to the field this fall isn't a panacea for a unit that finished 95th nationally in yards and 108th in scoring last fall. But it's a big, big help. Although most of the criticism for MSU's offense went to the coordinator, the quarterback and the receivers, the Spartans really missed Fonoti's presence up front.
"When he got hurt, that was devastating to him and devastating to our team, not only from a physical position on the field but from an emotional leadership standpoint," quarterback Andrew Maxwell told ESPN.com. "All he kept saying throughout the winter was, 'Can't wait for spring ball to get here, can't wait for spring ball to get here.' Now that it's here, you really do see that pep in his step, you see the fire that he has."
Fonoti is relishing every minute of spring practice after a long rehab from foot surgery. He has been a busy man, working as the Spartans' starting left tackle and also taking snaps at center, as Jack Allen, the projected starter there, missed the spring following shoulder surgery.
The 6-foot-4, 298-pound Fonoti, a junior-college transfer who started 11 games at right tackle for MSU in 2011, announced in November that he would take a medical redshirt for the 2012 season and return to the Spartans rather than make himself eligible for the NFL draft.
"I'm a little mad at myself," Fonoti told ESPN.com. "What took me so long to make that decision in saying yes? The second opportunity, I'm truly blessed with it."
Fonoti admits he wrestled with the decision to stay or go. Although he felt mentally ready to return after the surgery, the rehab for a man his size -- " That’s a lot of weight on one foot," he said -- made it difficult and risky to return before the end of the season.
"I was like, 'Man, it's another year away from home, another year of struggling, being homesick,'" said Fonoti, a native of Cerritos, Calif. "I really considered aspects like that, but I just thought about it, I prayed about it and talked about it with my family and my girlfriend. It was only right for me to come back.
"Now I'm excited for this season and I'm excited for what's yet to come."
His immediate future is protecting Maxwell's blind side, an adjustment after starting 13 consecutive games at right tackle in 2011-12. Fonoti admits he's "rusty in a lot of aspects" and has focused mainly on his footwork this spring. He didn't feel 100 percent physically until the end of Michigan State's winter workouts.
"I've got to be able to balance my weight equally," he said. "From the right, I was so used to having my left foot as my post. Now I have it as my kick. Right now, I'm just trying to push off my right foot, playing with lower pads and pretty much weight distribution, be more of a knee-bender on the left side."
After starting Michigan State's first two games of last fall at right tackle, Fonoti was all set to make the move to the left side the blockbuster home matchup against Notre Dame. He worked at left tackle in vigorous practices Tuesday and Wednesday.
Then, in the team's final pregame workout, Fonoti suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.
"It made me that much madder because Thursday's practice is pretty much a clean-up type practice," Fonoti said. "You're not in full pads, and the next thing you know, I'm on crutches."
Fonoti underwent surgery the following day and had to watch as Michigan State fell to Notre Dame 20-3, failing to score a touchdown at home for the first time since 1991. The Spartans rushed for only 50 yards and surrendered four sacks.
The offense sputtered most of the way from then on. Although work horse running back Le'Veon Bell barreled his way for 1,793 yards, Michigan State struggled to convert red-zone chances into touchdowns and dominate the line of scrimmage.
Fonoti embraced the move to left tackle and sees the value in working at center this spring. Although he might never snap the ball in a college game, his versatility could pay off in the NFL, as his size is more suited to center than tackle.
He sees "amazing" chemistry forming in the offensive line, which boasts seven players with starting experience and loses only one starter (guard Chris McDonald) from 2012.
"It’s been great to have him back as a player," Maxwell said, "but also as an emotional leader for this team."