Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Michigan State hung around the top of the Big Ten standings for most of the season and lost just twice in league play. But those were lopsided losses to Ohio State and Penn State, the league's two standard-bearers last season.
The bulk of the offense was provided by workhorse tailback Javon Ringer, who has to be replaced this season.
The Spartans also are looking for a new quarterback, but at least the defense looks to be in solid shape.
Here's a look at the Spartans as they begin spring ball.
michigan state AT-A-GLANCE
Mark Dantonio's Spartans have a solid defense back.
Coach: Mark Dantonio Last season: 9-4, 6-2 Big Ten. Lost to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
Spring dates: March 24-April 25
The secondary really came on last season, and again should be a strong area with the loss of only one key figure – strong safety Otis Wiley. Cornerback should be the strongest area of the secondary with the likes of Chris L. Rucker, Johnny Adams and Ross Weaver, who could move to safety. All three starting linebackers return, as does the left side of the offensive line.
Help is needed
The Spartans are looking for a new starting quarterback and tailback. There isn't an abundance of depth on the offensive line, and the unit also must replace the right side with the losses of guard Roland Martin and tackle Jesse Miller. The defensive line needs playmakers at end and some run-stuffers inside at tackle.
Keep an eye on
RB Andre Anderson: He has looked good at times in scrimmages, but Anderson – a sophomore – was inconsistent as Ringer's backup last season. Should the smallish Anderson fail to deliver with the ultra-productive Ringer gone, the staff could turn to senior A.J. Jimmerson.
QB Keith Nichol: He transferred "home" from Oklahoma with his eye on replacing the departed Brian Hoyer. Nichol, a sophomore, has the skills to be a special passer. But he'll have to fight off sophomore Kirk Cousins, who has shown glimpses of promise. Don't be shocked if Nichol and Cousins split time early this season as the coaches wait for one to emerge.
DE David Rolf: Now is the time for the sophomore to step up with the loss of Brandon Long. Rolf has a good motor and underrated athletic ability. If he isn't ready, coaches could turn to redshirt freshman Tyler Hoover to be a playmaker off the edge.
His time is now
Michigan State is set at one spot inside on the defensive line with the return of Oren Wilson. Staffers hope junior Antonio Jeremiah finally fulfills expectations and claims the spot formerly occupied by the departed Justin Kershaw. If Jeremiah flops, senior Michael Jordan could claim the spot.
No doubt most eyes will be on the battles at quarterback and running back, but keep an eye on how the offensive line develops. The line has been the slowest to develop under coach Mark Dantonio, and the linemen need to become stronger and more physical. Defensively, the Spartans need to find some productive defensive ends who can bring the heat.