Depth, stability have Spartans on the rise

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan has garnered a lot of positive attention this offseason thanks to its Sugar Bowl victory and success in attracting highly-ranked recruits to Ann Arbor.

Up the road in East Lansing, however, Michigan State shrugs off talk about the Wolverines regaining their superpower status under Brady Hoke. The Spartans are confident of their own standing and future prospects.

"We're laying in the weeds," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio says with a half smile. "We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"

Truth is, the rest of the Big Ten had better be on high alert for these Spartans in 2012. There's a quiet sense of self-assurance around the team this spring, borne of recent success, coaching cohesion and a deep well of talent.

Dantonio's team has gone 22-5 over the past two seasons, winning a share of the Big Ten title in 2010 and claiming the first Legends Division championship a year ago. The program finally got over the postseason hump in January, beating Georgia in the Outback Bowl for the school's first bowl win since 2001.

It's the best two-year run by the Spartans in nearly half a century, and only six other FBS teams have won more games since the start of the 2010 season. Of course, one elusive goal remains: Michigan State's first trip to Pasadena since 1988. Rose Bowl logos are plastered all over the team's football facility, serving as a constant reminder.

Even with a small senior class and the losses of three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham and All-America defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, this year's team believes the Rose is within reach.

"Our goals keep climbing every year, and I think they're very attainable," new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "I feel like we have all the pieces in place."

That's a tribute to both the building job and the stability Dantonio has carefully constructed.

While other Big Ten staffs have undergone tumultuous turnover the past couple of years, the Spartans coaches have mostly stayed intact. Dantonio, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and several key assistants are entering their ninth straight season together, dating back to their time at Cincinnati. The benefits of that constancy can really be seen on defense, where Dantonio and Narduzzi have been able to reinforce their philosophy year after year without changing terminology or schemes. The Spartans finished No. 6 nationally in total defense in 2011.

"That helps a lot," junior middle linebacker Max Bullough said. "So much of the game is mental, and having [the same coaches] allows you to just focus on getting better as a football player and not having to learn new things every year or two."

Dantonio said the continuity means that if he turns to, say, a redshirt sophomore, that player has received the same teaching in the same system for three years. And few teams in the Big Ten have redshirted as many players as Michigan State, which put only two of its 2011 signees on the field last season.

That patience, along with very few recruiting mistakes, has led to a situation that every other Big Team would envy: terrific depth, especially in the trenches. The Spartans have eight starters back on defense, plus Anthony Rashad White, who started the bowl game at nose tackle. The talk of the spring has been about young guys making a move behind the starters, like linebacker Darien Harris, defensive end Joel Heath and cornerback Trae Waynes -- all redshirt freshmen.

"When we go against the twos [the second string defense], I feel like those guys would start at a lot of places in the Big Ten," offensive tackle Dan France said. "We definitely have a lot of depth on both sides of the ball."

Defense has been a hallmark under Dantonio, but he may now have the deepest and best offensive line of his tenure. After a season of shuffling and injuries, that unit returns six players who have started, along with some promising newcomers. Ask Dantonio about either line, and he says what every coach would love to say about those positions: "We've got numbers."

Like every team in the spring, Michigan State has its questions, too. Maxwell is well-groomed to take over at quarterback after three years in the system, but he'll have to prove he's as unflappable under adversity as Cousins was. The receiver position is barren tract for experience, though there are plenty of athletes trying to emerge. And while the Spartans feel they can go seven- or eight-deep at defensive tackle, they have yet to discover someone there who can take over a game the way Worthy could when he was switched on.

"I didn't realize what a difference he made until he left," defensive end William Gholston said. "The first couple of practices I was like, 'Man, it's not the same.'"

Still, this is a team that's loaded at the most important positions and with a strong sense of its identity. Michigan's rise may be a fact; the Spartans don't plan on going away any time soon.

"People should be looking forward to Michigan State being one of the top teams every year," safety Isaiah Lewis said.