EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State finished 7-6 this year with tailback Le’Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston. Now the Spartans will have to attempt to return to Big Ten championship contention without them.
Bell and Sims announced on Thursday that they were foregoing their senior seasons to enter the NFL Draft, and if you can read into the congratulatory tweets from teammates to Gholston, he’s doing likewise. The Spartan Nation website also reported that “multiple sources” confirmed that Gholston informed MSU coach Mark Dantonio he was leaving in an “emotional” meeting.
None of this is unexpected. Some draft analysts, however, believed Gholston would have been better off staying and upgrading his performance. Gholston, though, had perhaps his best game of the season in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU and appears to be as good as gone.
Q: Where does this leave the 2013 Spartans?
A: Looking for impact players.
MSU’s four best players last season were Bell, Sims, middle linebacker Max Bullough and Gholston. Only Bullough returns for his senior season.
Although, among the clutter of departure tweets from Spartans was one from lineman Tyler Hoover of Novi from his account, @TylerHoover91: “Officially have a sixth year. Excited to be a part of MSU’s Rose Bowl Year!”
Now, Dantonio surely will appreciate that enthusiasm. But the fact is that the Spartans now have plenty of holes to fill.
Hoover (6 feet 7, 310 pounds) bulked up to move from end to tackle last year, and he missed five games with a calf injury. Staying healthy has been a challenge for Hoover, who was granted a medical redshirt after playing just two games as a freshman in 2008 because of a shoulder injury. This redshirt comes for 2011, when he fractured a rib in the opener and didn’t play again.
Hoover did contribute significantly at left end in 2010 with nine starts, 36 tackles, three sacks and two pass break-ups. He could replace Gholston if Lawrence Thomas doesn’t. Joel Heath, Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun also are good possibilities for that opening.
Called “L.T.” by teammates, Thomas will be a key to MSU’s success next season. The blue-chip talent from Detroit Renaissance High was moved to fullback to get some playing time, but he shifted back to defense in bowl practices. Thomas was tutored by Gholston before going to offense, and he prefers defense.
Thomas is so versatile, however, that he could be the one to replace the athletic Sims as the starting tight end. That decision could depend on whether Paul Lang or former walk-on Andrew Gleichert of Ann Arbor Huron is ready.
The hardest to replace will be Bell, who had 382 carries for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns this past season. Nobody who will return next season has even 200 yards in career rushing.
It’s hard to imagine a freshman starting, but MSU has commitments from two talented ones: Gerald Holmes (6-0, 205) of Flint Carman-Ainsworth and R.J. Shelton (5-11, 185) of Beaver Dam, Wis. Both are three-star picks (on a scale of five stars) by Scout.com. I watched recruiting service videotape, and they appear to be everything you would want as a combination. Holmes picks holes well and has good strength. Shelton has the breakaway speed that Holmes lacks, but size could be a factor in his durability.
Former Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins told ESPN at the Nike Football Training Camp this summer of Holmes: “He reminds me of Le’Veon Bell.”
But remember that as good as Bell turned out to be after coming in as an unheralded recruit from Groveport (Ohio) Madison, he didn’t start and rushed for 605 yards as a freshman.
Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford, who played some at wide receiver and cornerback, are the lettermen returning at tailback.
“Although I’m leaving, Michigan State still has some capable running backs returning, in Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford,” Bell said in a tweet posted by MSU. “… Nick and Jeremy are both tough, talented athletes and their time is now.”
Still, neither commanded playing time this year with senior Larry Caper backing up Bell. Hill focused on returns and Langford on special teams.
“As a 20-year-old, Le’Veon faced an extremely difficult decision,” Dantonio said in a tweet released by MSU. “While I do believe there was both personal and program value in Le’Veon returning, I acknowledge the difficult choice he had to make.”
Bell continued in his release tweet: “This was the hardest decision of my life. It’s difficult to leave my teammates and coaches as well as Spartan Nation, but I couldn’t pass on pursuing my dream and the opportunity to change my mom’s life.”
Sims missed three games with an ankle injury, and he had 36 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns. He improved as a blocker.
Sims, from Orchard Lake St. Mary, had 36 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns. He tweeted from his account, @D_Sims80: “I want to thank #SpartanNation for 4 of the best years of my life! I’ll always bleed green & white!!!”
Dantonio said in a statement: “Despite missing nearly three full games, Dion Sims still earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, so that says something about his production. He’s a big target with great hands. With his combination of size and power, Dion is difficult to bring down, so he gains a lot of yards after the catch. He’s also a much improved run-blocker.
“Although we’ll miss Dion in our offense next season, he felt the timing was right and we wish him all the best in his future. Since returning to Michigan State, our offensive system has helped develop two tight ends that are currently playing in the NFL, in Kellen Davis (Chicago Bears) and Garrett Celek (San Francisco 49ers), so there’s a proven track record of our players having success at his position at the next level.”
Gholston had 59 tackles, 13 tackles for losses, three sacks, one safety and one interception.
Dantonio didn’t address Gholston in his statements. ESPN Scouts Inc. listed Bell the No. 2 running back in the draft and No. 81 overall prospect, while it had Sims the No. 4 tight end and No. 77 overall. NFLDraftScout.com had Gholston ranked 10th among defensive ends.
Sophomore outside linebacker Taiwan Jones summed up the day with a tweet: “Dangggg, everybody’s leavin…I’m workin to be right with you guys!”