KR DeAndra Cobb

2003 Statistics

Coach: John L. Smith
8-5, 1 year
2003 Record: 8-5
at Notre Dame WON 22-16
IOWA WON 20-10
at Illinois WON 49-14
at Minnesota WON 44-38
at Ohio State LOST 23-33
at Wisconsin LOST 21-56
Nebraska LOST 3-17

2003 Final Rankings
AP-UR, Coaches-UR, BCS-UR

2004 Outlook

For whatever reason, Michigan State has been rather bi-polar - a team that can look like a national title contender one week and a Pop Warner team the next. They were a little more consistent under first-year coach Smith, but still had an early loss to Louisiana Tech and a blowout at Wisconsin, but wins against Iowa, Minnesota and a near upset of Michigan.

One of these years, the Spartans will put it all together. That could be 2005, but don't count on it happening this fall.

This team took some time to gel in '03, peaked near midseason, then they lost four of their last five. State still finished fourth in the Big Ten and reached a bowl, a surprise given the previous year's 4-8 finish. Smith, in the second year of a nine-year deal, locked up a top-20 recruiting class during this past off-season, one of many signs that this program is headed back in the direction Nick Saban had it going when he left in 1999.

Smith had success with the spread he imported from Louisville. But keep in mind that Northwestern turned itself around for one season, in 2000, by implementing the spread. That version was deciphered and copied, so many will see it coming. Still, the depth and speed on offense will again assure this system's success at Michigan State.

So we'll see how savvy Smith is this fall. With a new QB and some changes on both lines, expect another sluggish start and at least once weak performance (at Rutgers in the opener?) before the Oct. 30 date at the Big House. By then, with some time for these guys to gel, wins should be forthcoming. The Spartans won't finish fourth, but they should be good enough to make it back to a bowl. That momentum will carry over into the following fall, when almost the entire offense returns. Just keep away from these guys if your office pool lists them - there is just no telling when they will win and lose in 2004.

Projected 2004 record: 6-5
QB - 3 DL - 2
RB - 2.5 LB - 3
WR - 3.5 DB - 3.5
OL - 2 ..

Passing: Damon Dowdell, 12-7-0, 54 yds., 0 TD

Rushing: Jaren Hayes, 145 att., 609 yds., 5 TD

Receiving: Agim Shabaj, 57 rec., 692 yds., 5 TD

Scoring: Dave Rayner, 22-29 FG’s, 39-40 PAT, 105 pts.

Punting: Brandon Fields, 62 punts, 46.4 avg.

Kicking: Dave Rayner, 22-29 FG’s, 39-40 PAT, 52 long

Tackles: Jason Harmon, 108 tot., 64 solo, 5 TFL

Sacks: Clifford Dukes, 7 sacks

Interceptions: Jason Harmon, 3 for 74 yds.

Kickoff Returns: DeAndra Cobb, 28 ret., 27.2 avg., 3 TD

Punt Returns: Agim Shabaj, 12 ret., 3.2 avg.


WR Agim Shabaj
OFFENSE: Ziehl Kavanaght-WR, Joe Tate-OG, Paul Harker-OG, Steve Stewart-OT, Jeff Smoker-QB
DEFENSE: Greg Taplin-DE, Kyle Rasmussen-DT, Mike Labinjo-WHIP, Monquiz Wedlow-BAN, Matthias Askew-DT (NFL)

There's a three-way battle for the QB spot this spring, but the starter won't be determined then. For State fans, this is a familiar theme - a recovering Jeff Smoker didn't return until last fall, when he regained his starting job. The front-runner to step in for Smoker, the school's career passing leader in nearly every major category, is Drew Stanton. The sophomore was No. 2 on the depth chart all of last season, but injured his knee in December's Alamo Bowl loss to Nebraska and is out this spring. He has almost the same size and build of Smoker, and his 98-mph fastball caught the attention of MLB scouts back in high school. He's the strong-armed guy you want running this pass-heavy spread attack. Consider the spring three-way between limited veteran Damon Dowdell (six career starts) and freshmen Stephen Reaves and Sean Clayton a primary for the right to face Stanton in the fall. A small, quick thrower whose father John was an NFL QB, Reaves has the best shot at knocking off Stanton.

Running Back
Almost 60 percent of last year's offensive plays were passes, and John L. Smith, as evidenced above, isn't going to deviate from the one-back spread to power football just because Smoker's gone. He's trying 2003's top rusher, Jaren Hayes, at cornerback this spring. If Hayes stays there, junior burners DeAndra Cobb and Jason Teague will split reps in the backfield. Cobb, who runs 4.3 in the 40, was used mostly as a kick returner. Teague led the team's backs with 5.2 yards per carry. Hayes was also State's No. 2 receiver, but both Cobb and Teague have the mitts needed to factor into the passing game. They also have the quickness to break it outside and spread defenses (hence the cleverly named offense), but none is large enough to be a bruiser. In other words, they fit this offense, but lack the durability to be backs that get 20+ carries per game.

Wide Receiver
This group has the athleticism and experience, but will have little time to build chemistry with Stanton. That's not a promising prospect for a group that wasn't one of the more productive WR units in the Big Ten. Talented slot Agim Shabaj showed flashes of stardom as a soph with his 4.37 speed, but junior "Z" Kyle Brown (16.6 yards per catch) appeared quicker in game situations. Aaron Alexander is a 6-5 athlete who moved from QB to "X" and was Smoker's most reliable receiver by the end of the year. 6-6 junior Matt Trannon will blossom with his speed, too. The point is there's potential o'plenty here for the Green, and these guys will have to make good on it with a new QB and some uncertainty in the backfield. Look for JC-transfer Kenny Jackson to make an immediate impact. In other words, a much improved unit is what all will see.

Tight End
A key piece of the passing puzzle, sure-handed senior tight end Eric Knott should improve on his 31 catches. He responded to Smith's weight-loss demands, shedding 20 pounds during the winter (270 to 250). If you haven't noticed, speed is the theme on this offense, and a faster Knott gives defenses one more target to worry about, especially those with slower LB units. Expect his presence as a viable weapon to make the entire offense better, like a good TE should do when utilized intelligently.

Offensive Line
Three starters are gone from a unit that didn't do a great job protecting Smoker (32 sacks allowed -- seventh-most in the conference) or opening holes up front (Big Ten-worst 3.2 yards per carry). With Smoker gone, those numbers must improve. The unit will be braced by two behemoths. Junior Stephon Wheeler, quick for his size, is back at left tackle, and Smith as well likes the athleticism of 6-7 redshirt freshman Mike Gyetvai. Size and athleticism will be key, as opposing coordinators will throw plenty of disguised blitz packages at these guys to expose both a young line and its new field general so as to disrupt the passing game. You'll know when they gel - the coaches will call a higher percentage of running plays, making such blitzes inert and forcing LBs and stunting sequences to wait that extra second before committing, which is all the time in the world for these MSU QBs.

Let's face it, this team doesn't get to a bowl last fall without Smoker. That burden now falls on Stanton. Besides staying healthy, he has to display the leadership and mastery of the offense that he did last spring when he won the starting job (before Smoker's reinstatement). Smith's air attack gave teams trouble, but opponents won't be taken by surprise this year. For this team to improve on last year's 8-5 record and fourth-place conference finish, it'll need more balance from the running game. There's speed everywhere, but too many question marks to believe that'll happen. The line and its ability will make or break the Spartans, once again. If they perform, the other dimensions can thrive with the abundance of talent.


TE Eric Knott


Returning Starters/
Key Players
QB Stephen Reaves-Fr (6-1, 200) Drew Stanton-So (6-3, 223)
Damon Dowdell-Sr (6-1, 220)
RB DeAndra Cobb-Sr (5-10, 191) Jason Teague-Jr (5-9, 191)
Jehuu Caulcrick-Fr (6-0, 250)
WR Matt Trannon-Jr (6-6, 228) Aaron Alexander-Jr (6-5, 196)
WR Kyle Brown-Jr (6-1, 200) Irving Campbell-Fr (5-11, 180)
WR Agim Shabaj-Jr (5-10, 187) Jerramy Scott-So (5-10, 183)
TE Eric Knott-Sr (6-3, 254) Jason Randall-Sr (6-5, 260)
OT Stefon Wheeler-Jr (6-5, 329) Pete Clifford-Fr (6-7, 310)
OG Kyle Cook-So (6-3, 296) Luis Fonseca-Fr (6-4, 285)
C Chris Morris-Jr (6-4, 293) John Masters-Fr (6-4, 270)
OG William Whitticker-Sr (6-5, 319) Gordon Niebylski-Jr (6-3, 310
OT Sean Poole-Sr (6-7, 294) Mike Gyetvai-Fr (6-7, 312)
K Dave Rayner-Sr (6-2, 207) ..



Defensive Line
The Big Ten's best pass rush (45 sacks in '03) is retooling with the loss of three starting linemen, including their sacks leader. The pressure won't be as intense, but it'll still be a factor. Clifford Dukes, a proven penetrator, moves from the "stud" position to "rush" end. He'll be joined by plenty of unproven players, but senior Kevin Vickerson is poised to make a statement in the middle, though not as big as he needs to be for the interior areas of Big Ten lines. JC transfers Domata Peko and Daniel Zynn are ready and waiting. The beleaguered secondary will have to improve without as much help up front.

State's system has a middle and weak-side backer, along with a hybrid LB-DB dubbed "bandit." Struggles early last fall forced a switch back to a traditional three-LB look. That could be the case again as there is no ideal candidate to replace Monquiz Wedlow entering the spring (converted RB Tyrell Dortch is atop the depth chart). On the bright side, Ronald Stanley (Mike LB) and Seth Mitchell (Will LB) each had more than 100 tackles and provide nice size and speed. If the line can keep them free, they should run down most carriers enough to key a stingy run defense that should play up to 2003's 27th ranking by again keeping opponent's rushing average per carry under 3.5 yards.

Defensive Back
The switch of Dortch and Hayes to the secondary is indicative of the necessity for improvement here. All four starters are back, but that's not comforting for the Big Ten's worst pass defense, a unit that made Nebraska look like Air Coryell. It didn't help that strong safety Eric Smith, the best player in the secondary, missed the final four games due to a knee injury. He's out for the spring following knee and shoulder surgery. His health, as well as getting something out of the bandit spot, is key. But neither is certain. The entire unit has been shuffled in spring, so all are hoping that mixing it up will help. There are so many changes, something this time around has to be better for this area.

Despite some losses up front, the run defense figures to be inconsistent again - three late season losses wiped the modest gains of 2003's earlier tilts. This team cannot afford to rank in the top-third in the country for rushing defense while ranking again in the bottom-third for pass defense. That'll put even more pressure on the secondary. The offense isn't exactly built to keep the defense off the field (State's time of possession numbers were third-worst in the Big Ten). And the pass rush of a year ago won't be there. None of this bodes well for the d-backs, who will be tested more often than Lance Armstrong's urine. The Spartans will have to score points to win big games. This side of the ball will be the detriment of this 2004 Spartan squad.


FS Jason Harmon


Returning Starters/
Key Players
DE Clifford Dukes-Sr (6-3, 257) Daryl Melvin-Jr (6-5, 258)
DT Kevin Vickerson-Sr (6-4, 283) Brian Davies-Sr (6-5, 267)
DT Brandon McKinney-Jr (6-3, 330) Joe Toth-Fr (6-2, 279)
DE Clifton Ryan-So (6-2, 289) Michael Bazemore-Jr (6-3, 260)
MIKE Ronald Stanley-Sr (6-0, 232) David Herron-Jr (6-1, 250)
WHIP Seth Mitchell-Jr (6-2, 248) Kaleb Thornhill-Fr (6-1, 236)
BAN Tyrell Dortch-Sr (5-10, 206) Kiel Beltinck-So (5-9, 200)
CB Darren Barnett-Jr (6-0, 186) Ashton Watson-Jr (5-11, 179)
CB Roderick Maples-Sr (5-10, 189) Jaren Hayes-Jr (5-9, 183)
SS Eric Smith-Jr (6-1, 193) Anthony Belasco-So (5-10, 198)
FS Jason Harmon-Sr (5-11, 199) Greg Cooper-So (5-11, 185)
P Brandon Fields-So (6-6, 233) ..




There are no question marks here - Dave Rayner is one of the Big Ten's best kickers. He was near perfect on PATs and 22-of-29 on field goals, with four of those misses coming beyond 50 yards (he also hit four beyond 50). Kickoff coverage was second in the conference and will again take some pressure off.

At 46.4 yards per kick, Brandon Fields was the Div. I-A's No. 2 punter. His coverage team, helped by plenty of hang time, was sixth in the nation. This is a vital asset, and with questions on defense, it's important that this unit continue to pin opponents deep in their own end. But with the defensive depth, expect the net results to again suffer.

Return Game
Smith might not want to give Cobb too large of a role in the running game. He won't want to risk taking away from what Cobb did on kick returns, a category in which he ranked 11th. He took three kicks the distance, more than anyone in the nation. The speedy Shabaj will take over on punts and, along with Cobb, should give Stanton good spots from which to start.