MSU Football: 2016 Dark Horse Players

This is the fifth in a series of previews of Michigan State football. To read about the Spartans’ top three trap games, click here.

There are certain athletes every season that rise to the occasion and surpass their coaches’ and fans’ standards. Last season, no one could have predicted the unlikely emergences of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer. They were all sophomores who each validated themselves among the nation’s elite under specific circumstances.

It’s crazy to think that McCaffrey went from the fourth-leading rusher on his own team at the end of 2014 to the 2015 Heisman runner-up. The incoming junior posted video game numbers, eclipsing the 2,000-yard rushing mark and 645 yards receiving. He accumulated an NCAA single-season record in all-purpose yards with 3,496.

It was an unusual situation for Mayfield. The Texas Tech transfer was announced as the new starting Sooners quarterback after sitting out the 2014 season due to transfer rules. Faster than the blink of an eye, the Texas native surfaced into the college football spotlight with his dominant play. He racked up 3,700 passing yards along with a superb 36:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Kizer came in relief for starter Malik Zaire after suffering a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 and threw the game-clinching touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds remaining to beat upset-minded Virginia, 34-27. Kizer proved to be the unforeseen hero of the 2015 campaign, as he tossed for 2,884 yards and 31 total touchdowns (10 rushing touchdowns).

Let’s find out which Michigan State players are dark horse candidates who are likely to break out of their shells and establish themselves as stars.

Offense: Delton Williams (Senior, FB)

In 2013, true freshman Delton Williams broke off various long scoring runs late in Spartan blowouts. Whether he was ripping off a 42-yard touchdown scamper against Illinois or his supreme 80-yard touchdown run facing Eastern Michigan, Spartan Nation was dazzled by his incredible potential.

The positive thoughts quickly turned into doubts, however, as he was arrested on Michigan State’s campus due to a road rage incident in the spring of 2015. Williams faced immediate suspension, and he was stripped of his scholarship and ruled ineligible until he was reinstated in the program during the late summer.

Head coach Mark Dantonio made it very clear to Williams that he needed to restore the trust of teammates and coaches through hard work and dedication to earn his way back on the depth chart. The senior took his coach’s advice to heart, as he surmounted the adversity by developing into a better person on and off the field.

Trevon Pendleton graduated, which means there are big shoes to fill at the fullback position. I would not label Williams’ maneuver to fullback as a conversion, but rather a promotion. This opportunity presents nothing but upside for the Pennsylvanian. He will receive more playing time by contributing towards a cultivating offense. After being a reserve for his entire career, he will get the chance to line up in heavy goalline and jumbo personnel packages in order for the ground game to break through.

With uncertainty in the passing game and run blocking, Williams will be relied on to pick up the slack alongside veterans offensive guard Brian Allen and center Kodi Kieler. The senior will pride himself in opening running lanes and creases for MSU’s top three running backs in LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London. When the vocal Williams isn’t trucking over defenders, he will come in handy in pass protection.

The starting spot is no guarantee, however, as Williams will be competing against SMU graduate transfer Prescott Line. Don’t be surprised to see co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner utilizing both guys to lead the charge for “the three-headed monster” in a hefty run-oriented offense.

Defense: Demetrius Cooper (Junior, DE)

It might take a while for new guys like Josh King and Raequan Williams to get settled into the system, but the upswing of Demetrius Cooper can guide them through the process. Cooper is one of the most undervalued players for the Spartans, as he’s the returning sacks leader with five.

The Chicagoan is poised to have a breakout year thanks to his experience. He has learned from the best of the best in three-time All-American defensive end Shilique Calhoun as well as two All-Americans on the other side of the ball in offensive tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, who have really brought out the best in him.

Cooper has and will continue to use his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame to wreak havoc in the opposing backfield. The junior is a sneaky fast player for a guy his size, and he will use his physicality to give him the edge over his counterparts. He even notched one sack against an NFL-caliber Alabama offensive line.

Unlike last year, Cooper will not be overshadowed. Rather, he will make his presence known early and often by being labeled as budding superstar Malik McDowell’s effective sidekick. Cooper can help out in more ways than one, as he can draw double teams with his relentless pressure as well as wear and tear the opposing offensive line. It just goes to show that any player can have a major impact even if they do not have eye candy individual stats.

After embracing a behind-the-scenes role for the past couple of years, Cooper is ready to boost his game to the next level on the big stage.

Special Teams: Michael Geiger (Senior, K)

Michael Geiger has had an up and down career thus far in East Lansing. In 2013, the true freshman struck 94 percent of his attempted field goals (15-of-16). He had a sophomore slump in 2014, booting a subpar 64 percent through the upright (14-of-22). His junior season played out very similarly in terms of stats as he made 63 percent of his kicks (12-of-19). Unlike the year before, Geiger ended the 2015 season on a high note.

After missing his first attempt in the contest, Geiger redeemed himself by drilling a 41-yard game-winning field goal to prevail 17-14 over No. 2 Ohio State.

Fast forward a few weeks to the Big Ten Championship Game against No. 4 Iowa in Indianapolis. Geiger struggled early on, missing back-to-back 50-yard field goals to close out the first half. But once again, he found a way to recuperate himself as he struck two clutch field goals in the second half. The Spartans later pulled out a 16-13 victory, catapulting MSU to the College Football Playoff.

There is no doubt that Geiger possesses the power to knock through 50-yard field goals, but he needs to improve on his accuracy. Most of his misses have been very narrow, and they will occasionally even hit the crossbar.

The Toledo native has a lot riding on his shoulders (or his legs) this year because of the youthful and maturing offense. MSU special teams coach Mark Snyder will depend on Geiger to nail field goals on a consistent basis. Geiger’s short game shines while his medium to deep range game needs improvement (8-of-14 from 30 or more yards in 2015).

Points may be hard to come by this upcoming season, as the Spartans will be facing several stingy defenses like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State. With Michigan State having a strong overall defense as well, special teams could very well be the deciding factor in the outcomes of these top-tier matches, which is why Geiger’s performance is absolutely critical. He needs to find his groove early and sustain it for the rest of the year. The offense can ease the pressure if they are able to make their way into the red zone, which is his comfort zone.

Unlike in previous years, Geiger has zero room for error in 2016. The majority of the Spartans’ points may come from the kicking game, especially in the first half of the season. If Geiger misses even one easy field goal, that very well may cost MSU the season. He needs to have a huge rebound year if Michigan State wants a shot to repeat as Big Ten champions and advance to the College Football Playoff for the second straight year.