September 19, 2011

Burkland out three months, what's next?

EAST LANSING - Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said during an interview with WJR on Monday that redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland is out for the year with a broken bone near his ankle.

Burkland went down an injury in the second half of Saturday's loss at Notre Dame.

Burkland was replaced by junior Fou Fonoti.

Jared McGaha, who began the season as the starting left tackle and was demoted to second-string right tackle for week two, was unavailable at Notre Dame due to injury, as well. There is no word on the severity of McGaha's injury. He was hurt during practice last week.

Due to injuries on the offensive line, Dantonio said sophomore Micajah Reynolds will e moving from defensive tackle to offensive line. Reynolds showed promise as a second-string offensive guard last year, but moved to defensive line in the spring.

Dantonio will be available for interviews on Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

MY TAKE: First of all, I like Reynolds' move back to offensive guard. He looked excellent at times last year as a redshirt freshman in mop-up duty at that position, especially with his ability to pull and get out front on 'power' and fold blocks.

The big questions are:

How quickly can Fonoti come along?

How soon can McGaha come back and offer depth or competition at that position?

Is there any chance that junior right guard Chris McDonald could move out to right tackle?

McDonald (6-5, 300, Jr., Sterling Heights) is regarded as an athletic offensive guard, with good straight-line quickness. He repped at offensive tackle at the end of spring practice. It's unknown whether McDonald showed the type of lateral quickness and agility necessary to play offensive tackle. Coaches were somewhat hush-hush about the experiment.

Two-thirds of the way through August camp, I asked McDonald if he had repped at right tackle in preseason practice. At that point, he said that he had not, and I have no reason to believe that he took reps at right tackle at all in August. But now, I suppose that could get revisited, although Sept. 19 is late to begin patchwork measures.

For now, MSU needs Fonoti (6-4, 300, Jr., Lakewood, Calif.) to develop as rapidly as possible. He saw action at both left and right tackle in the first two games in a back-up role, with mixed results. He has shown an increased comfort level in each of his three games.

Fonoti's slope of improvement to this point has been encouraging. In week one, he struggled with basic things such as how to zone block on the move without getting pushed backward, and when to release a d-lineman in order to climb out to the linebacker level for a double-team. Errors in both resulted in negative yardage plays for the Spartans in week one. He was more secure in week two and three.

"Those things just come down to experience," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar told me after the season opener.

Fonoti is learning the basics of the offense from square one, having enrolled at MSU at mid-summer and not having the luxury of working with the Spartans during spring practice. He had to finish math classes at Cerritos Community College during spring semester in order to acquire the credits necessary to meet Michigan State and Big Ten admission standards.

MSU's has had junior college transfers start at offensive tackle in their first season with the Spartans, in the distant past.

In 1998, Greg Robinson-Randall became a starter at right tackle in week three, and went on to become a two-year star and NFL Draft pick.

In 1999, Tupe Peko started at left tackle as part of MSU's 10-2 Citrus Bowl team.

Both junior college transfer offensive tackles had good initial success at Michigan State, but both players had the luxury of working within the Spartan offense during spring practice. Fonoti had to miss out on those 15 valuable practices last spring, and an off-season of knowledge to go with it.

Fonoti has more work to do than Robinson-Randall and Peko, Fonoti's cousin. But Fonoti has unquestioned talent and potential. How quickly that talent can be chiseled into proper functionality is one of the main questions MSU must answer positively heading into the Big Ten portion of the schedule at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, at left tackle, sophomore Dan France is off to a rocky start as the first-stringer. France was a third-string defensive tackle last year who moved to offensive line in the spring.

The fact that MSU is now relying on a pair of starting offensive tackles who were not in the MSU offensive line meeting room last November is indicative of the growing crisis the Spartans have on the edge of their offensive line.

Burkland is the fourth highly-regarded offensive tackle prospect to go down with a major injury in the last two years at Michigan State. In August, Zach Hueter and former national Top 100 recruit David Barrent announced their retirements due to career-ending injuries.

Henry Conway went down with a broken neck in spring practice of 2010. He was the leading candidate at the time to win the starting right tackle job for the 2010 season.

Conway's injury was considered career-threatening for more than a year. After sitting out nearly 18 months, he returned to the practice field last month and is now listed as a back-up right tackle.

Conway saw mop-up duty in Michigan State's first two games, and is making progress in his comeback.

When I asked MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten in August what can be expected of Conway this season, Staten answered flatly, "Nothing. We are going to take our time in bringing him along. We are not expecting anything. We just want him to maintain good health and come along slowly."

Conway appears to be ahead of where coaches expected, but he still has plenty of rust to overcome, after sitting out more than a year. Coaches are going to be patient with him.

Redshirt freshman [/db]Michael Dennis[/db] began the season as a third-stringer. He may be in position to get a look on the second string, but it's doubtful that he would be ready to perform at a functional level in the near term. In the Green-White Game last spring, he looked like ... a freshman. Nothing against him. It takes time to develop at that position, more so than any other on the field. But the fact that Michigan State is now relying on several inexperienced, unproven players at offensive tackle is indicative of the sudden issues the Spartans are encountering at the position.

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