It’s going to be hard to replace Le’Veon Bell.
Bell was Michigan State’s senior running back a year ago, and he had a tremendous campaign, leading the Big Ten with an average of more than 137 yards per game. His 1,793 rush yards were more than any back not named Montee Ball, and Bell was named to the All-Big Ten first team by both coaches and members of the media.
But now Bell plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Mark Dantonio is charged with replacing the talented back.
Still, though, the Michigan State coach feels that running back is one of the few positions he will have to replace on the offensive side of the ball.
“Our offensive side of the ball, (we have) a lot of players back,” Dantonio said, “a lot of experience back at wide receiver. We don't lose a quarterback really. We don't lose a wide receiver. We did lose a running back and outstanding tight end. But everybody's losing somebody. So we've got to just pick up the pieces there and get after it, with those guys playing.”
And he’s right. The offensive line returns four starters from a year ago. And to borrow a word from the coach, the Spartan defense is “loaded” with returning players.
Perhaps that experience will help rectify the team’s biggest weakness from last season: winning close games.
Michigan State went just 7-6 in 2012, but five of those losses came by four points or fewer.
Bell’s replacement, or replacements, will go a long way toward determining whether that hurdle can be cleared. Topping Michigan State’s depth chart out of spring practice was converted linebacker Riley Bullough, and the team’s media guide also says that three true freshmen will have an opportunity to try to lock down a job this summer.
Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Bowl: The Spartans finally got a close game to go their way in the postseason, upending TCU, 17-16, in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
At the helm
Mark Dantonio is in his seventh season as the Spartans' head coach. He’s led Michigan State to a bowl game in every one of his seasons as head coach and is currently riding a two-year bowl winning streak after four straight losses in the postseason. Since 2008, the Spartans have more Big Ten victories than any other team.
On the 2013 schedule
After three easy home games to open the season, Michigan State heads to South Bend for a road game against national-title contender Notre Dame. They lost to the Fighting Irish by more than two touchdowns a season ago as Notre Dame marched to the national title game.
The Spartans get a huge advantage in their draw from the Leaders Division this season. Last year, they faced both Ohio State and Wisconsin, while this year they’ll play Purdue and Illinois. Michigan State probably has one of the easiest conference schedules, though back-to-back road games at Nebraska and Northwestern in November will be real tests.
Dantonio is leaving his quarterback decision less-than-locked-in right now, preferring to list several names at Big Ten media day, though senior Andrew Maxwell, who played in all 13 games and threw every pass except 10 for the Spartans last season, is currently No. 1 on the depth chart.
Dantonio also mentioned redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor, sophomore Connor Cook and freshman Damion Terry.
“Our quarterback position, first of all, is much stronger than it was last year,” Dantonio said. “We had Andrew Maxwell as our starter, but he had limited experience. Now he has 13 games of starting experience. ... What they do collectively in August will really determine as we move forward. Right now Andrew is our No. 1 quarterback. He's got a great deal of experience and a lot of confidence right now. With that said, Connor Cook has played, as everybody knows, and I think that's a big positive for us.”
Back in the fold
The offensive line strength is huge for Michigan State, helping lead to Bell’s terrific season a year ago which ranked as the second-best single-season rushing performance in school history. Senior guard Blake Treadwell was with Dantonio in Chicago, and sophomore guard Jack Allen was a First-Team Freshman All-American last year.
Michigan State should be in the thick of the Legends Division race, given their relatively easy conference schedule that opens with four straight against Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois. The November road games will be a challenge, though just one win in those two games could put them right in the mix for a return to the Big Ten title game.