Injuries present unfamiliar challenge for Michigan State

Cornerback Vayante Copeland is the latest injured starter Michigan State must replace this season. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The topic at this week's regular post-practice player discussions at No. 2 Michigan State was as novel as it was easy to guess: injuries.

Last week, starting cornerback Vayante Copeland texted his teammates to tell them he would miss the rest of the season with a fracture vertebra. He joined senior linebacker Ed Davis, who had his season end in August with a knee injury, and right tackle Kodi Kieler, who remains on the sideline indefinitely with a right leg injury.

The Spartans captains normally say a few words after each workout to evaluate practice or address an issue on the team. This week the conversation focused on what it will take to replace the three players absent from key positions -- a problem Michigan State has avoided during most of its recent ascent.

"In the five years I’ve been here, I can’t recall a time like this," said veteran cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, who will step into Copeland’s place in the secondary this Saturday.

In a year when the injury gods have spared very few teams, the Spartans’ streak of health and good luck ended before the season began. Head coach Mark Dantonio expected Davis to have as strong of a season as any linebacker that he’s had since coming to East Lansing. His injury in early August was the most significant health setback Michigan State has faced during its stretch of 27 wins in its past 30 games.

It was the first test this season to challenge how deep into the roster the coaching staff’s development skills and diamond-in-the rough recruiting reputation could go.

Sophomore Chris Frey and redshirt sophomore Jon Reschke have acquitted themselves well in their first three games as Davis’ tandem replacement. Reschke is second on the team with 24 tackles. Frey shined on several big plays during the fourth quarter of Michigan State’s 31-28 win against Oregon.

"For Ed, that’s a tough situation. That’s a tough injury for our team," Frey said. "(But) I came into this season feeling very comfortable, honestly. I had time to prepare myself with Ed going down early in camp. I felt comfortable from the beginning."

A mixture of youth stepping into bigger roles and versatility has helped to keep the linebacker corps it usual stingy self. That combination will be tested even further this week with middle linebacker Riley Bullough missing the first half in Saturday’s game against Central Michigan because of a targeting penalty last week. The tests will also shift to the secondary -- an area that has yet to prove it has the same depth as linebacker -- in Copeland's absence for the second straight week

Colquhoun is listed as the new starter in Copeland’s place, but several players are expected to see time at cornerback this week. Dantonio said true freshman Josh Butler will be called upon and former starter Darian Hicks, who missed a good chunk of training camp with mononucleosis, will also contribute.

"We've got good players in the program, and we've got guys that played a lot of football back for us," Dantonio said Tuesday. "So my feeling is that we've got depth on this football team, and (injuries) won't be an excuse not to play well."

As the Spartans settle into their spot as a playoff contender according to early AP polls, health might be the toughest opponent they face in the near future. Games against Central Michigan, Purdue and Rutgers in the next three weeks should be step-over victories for the No. 2 team in the country. Michigan State should be favored to win each of its next seven games leading into the Nov. 21 showdown with top-ranked Ohio State.

Until then, the biggest challenges Dantonio and his staff face will be shoring up a secondary that is crucial to the Spartans’ defensive success and finding a fix for an offensive line that hasn’t looked as dominant without Kieler. New problems threaten Michigan State as it moves further into uncharted territory in the polls.