If there's one major question surrounding Michigan State this season, it's the offensive line.
The Spartans must replace three starters from last year's group, including both tackles and their center. To get a feel for how things are shaping up with that unit, I checked in with offensive line coach Mark Staten, who's optimistic but still shuffling things around before next Friday's opener against Youngstown State. Here's my conversation with Staten:
With about 10 days until kickoff, how do you feel in general about the state of the line?
Mark Staten: We are lacking in game experience, but I like the unity and the way they've been working together. The neat thing to watch is our two older guards, Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, who've played quite a bit. They're taking the younger guys and continually working the combination blocks and just being real leaders. That's been real promising, and with that spawns some leadership out of the younger guys.
That's the nice thing about the room right now. It's not like you mess with egos a lot on the offensive line. You kind of get your work done behind the scenes in a cold, dark room, then go out there and get it done -- and be criticized when you mess up and go hug the guy when he scores a touchdown. They're an athletic bunch -- maybe as athletic a group as we've had here in five years. They can get from Point A to Point B in a hurry. We've just got to make sure they get to the correct Point B.
They're going to see different schemes and different things in each of their first three games. Hopefully as we move through those and get to the Big Ten schedule in game five, we will have corrected things and made things better, and the guys will be comfortable.
Have you locked down the starting spots, or is there still competition going on?
MS: They're still competing. I thought the left tackle was one way. Dan France, who came over from the defensive side, really, really stepped forward [in the spring]. Then he -- I don't want to say he got overwhelmed, but I don't know what happened. Then Jared McGaha, the senior, kind of started stepping it up a little bit. So they're still battling there.
The right tackle spot, Big Fou [junior college transfer Fou Fonoti] and Big Sky [redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland] continue to battle. Yet they help each other out. They sit there and talk and watch each other in team periods. They ask each other questions like, "Did you see this? Did you see that?" So they're competing but they're doing so with the common theme of team and what we preach about family values and what being a Spartan is all about. It probably sounds like baloney coach-speak, but these guys believe in it and so do I.
We're young. But God willing, we'll be coming into next year saying, "Boy, we have a lot of experience on the O-line." And we won't have to read the things we have to read whenever they pop up.
How about at center? Is Travis Jackson still leading there?
MS: Travis has been doing really well. And that's given us the opportunity to take Blake Treadwell and say, "OK, we want to see you at the guard positions." The nice thing about Blake is -- and I don't know if it's being a coach's son with his dad, Don, who I was fortunate enough to coach with the last six years -- is that he's a knowledgeable kid, and he's going to sit out there and work at it until he gets it right. So we moved him around to the guard spots to see how he fits into those spots.
Travis has stepped up his game. It's kind of unique to see a young man who's a redshirt freshman, the way he leads. He doesn't necessarily lead vocally but in how he goes about his work and the questions he asks in the film room and the notes he takes and his attention to detail. That's what's impressive about Travis.
It sounds like while you're lacking experience, you have some depth.
MS: We've got some guys. I've had a blast, an absolute blast being in that room. It's an honor to coach those young men. I'm not saying we're not going to mess up now. I'm not saying we're not going to get some exotic blitz or things of that nature. But day by day and step by step, we'll continue to get better.
While I'm sure you like competition, how soon would you like to have a definite starter at the two tackle spots?
MS: We'd like to by the rehearsal scrimmage [this week]. Afterword, I'll talk with [offensive coordinator Dan Roushar] and [head coach Mark Dantonio] and make sure we're all on the same page. Then we can go into next week and say, "This is how we're doing it, guys." And then being able to tell those who haven't won the spot, "Hey, you're getting in on the third series or the first series of the second quarter, whatever it might be."
Last question: How does having an experienced quarterback like Kirk Cousins help the offensive line?
MS: It helps tremendously. Kirk's presence in the huddle, as well as Joel Foreman, who's started for four years at left guard, those guys have the ability to settle things down and calm things down. Then when we get up on the line, they've been there for a while. So they can look around and see the depth of the safeties, see maybe the positioning of a 'backer or an alignment and help with some calls or changes that need to be made. So it's truly a blessing.