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Revolving Door at Wide Receiver Fuels Michigan State’s Offense

Photo: Khris Hale/Icon Sportswire

During the past nine years, the length of Mark Dantonio’s tenure, the Michigan State Spartans have continually produced an effective line of wide receivers.

It took some time to develop, but the seeds planted back in 2007 have yielded major returns during the past three seasons.

Steady hands of past receivers helped pave the way for past successes, and the same steady hands–just hands of different guys–helped do the same in 2015 for No. 5-ranked Michigan State (11-1, 7-1), which faces No. 4-ranked Iowa (12-0, 8-0) during Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

A spot in the four-team College Football Playoff awaits the winner.

“Our wide receiver position group, and Terrence Samuel’s coached those guys (since 2011), has been tremendous (since) really 2013, ’14 and ’15,” Dantonio said during Sunday’s conference call. “And really, what’s happened is, we’ve created, you know, almost a six-man wide receiver rotation in ’13 and ’14. Those guys are really older now, and they’re very comfortable, consistent and confident in their abilities.

If you look at what Aaron Burbridge has been able to do, and really MacGarrett Kings and R.J. Shelton, they’ve been–those guys have been tremendous assets out there on the football field for us. Put our tight ends in that environment, to catch the ball, and we’ve got guys who can make plays down the field.”

Six men? All ready to go whenever? Sound familiar?

Before Connor Cook starred under center, Kirk Cousins threw touchdowns to Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Like Cook, Cousins had enough star power to thrive, but he also had a few up-and-comers to utilize when needed.

Just like Cook has had over the years.

Different guys, but pretty close results.

“Yeah, I do see similarities there, you know,” Dantonio said. “Those guys were outstanding players, and in 2011, they made a ton of plays. Whether it’s comparing those guys or comparing Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Bennie Fowler–those guys, with the guys we have here–were three of the six that I just talked about. The other three. So, there’s just been a continuity to them…”

Dantonio might as well refer to the rotation as a revolving door. Players enter and leave at different times, but they’re all part of the same thing.

“Really, you know, I think players come in cycles, you know,” Dantonio said. “These guys, two of them are seniors (Aaron Burbridge/MacGarrett Kings), we had two seniors last year and a senior before that–so, all these guys play their way out and are all playing at a high level in the NFL now, really.”

With 218 catches, Cunningham remains No. 1 on Michigan State’s career-best list. Burbridge is No. 2 with 155 receptions. Meanwhile, Lippett (149) and Dell (133) remain in the top 10 in that department. Four of the program’s most productive wideouts have played within the past handful of years–and five if Martin, who is No. 13 on the catch list, is included in the count.

Teams everywhere envy that sort of depth, preparation and talent.

Recognized as one of the best in the country, Burbridge finished with 1,158 receiving yards–the 13th-most among FBS receivers. He also scored a team-high (WR) seven touchdowns. He has a future in the NFL, just like his predecessors.

Kings ended the regular season with 462 receiving yards and a career-high five touchdowns. Another speedster, Shelton checked in with a career-high 450 yards and four touchdowns.

Each of them contributed to the No. 3-ranked total offense in the Big Ten. Each of them aided the Spartans’ No. 6-ranked total offense and No. 4-ranked passing offense. Once again, receivers proved to be a major part of success for Michigan State, which has won at least 11 games in five of the six past seasons partly because of threats on the outside, in the slot and at tight end.

It’s all about familiarity.

Michigan State has that, especially at the receiver/TE spot.

“We just have hard workers here, and I think the only thing that you can do with a wideout and a quarterback to develop chemistry is to just throw, I mean that’s really all it takes,” said Cook, who’s thrown a school-record 71 touchdowns. “And me and Tony, and Bennie Fowler, back when they were here, in the offseason, all we would do is throw. We’d throw, throw, throw, throw–you know, after lifts, before lifts, you know, just five times during the week… four times. Whatever it was that we needed to to go out there and get better and to work on timing.”

Cook doesn’t mind repeating the process. It’s worth the investment.

“It’s the same thing with the guys we’ve got now–with Kings, Burb(ridge), you know, (A.J.) Troup, R.J. Shelton–all those guys, I mean, they put in so much time and effort,” he said. “Just the amount of routes that we ran over the summer, over the spring and in the offseason, just goes to show the success that we have.

“It’s all about the work you put in, the time and effort and they’ve been willing to do that ever since the beginning. It’s just a testament to their work ethic and their desire to be great.”

Smart. Engaged. Experienced.

Burbridge, Shelton, Kings and Troup, along with tight ends Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles, have proven themselves as reliable options. There’s a certain luxury afforded to Spartans quarterbacks, one that Cook has enjoyed during his illustrious four-year career in East Lansing.

“Anytime a guy goes down and someone needs to step in and go out there and make some plays, we know that we got that, and that we can count anyone,” said Cook, who has a school-record 9,018 yards of total offense and 33-4 record as a starter.

“And not just the guys who are the starters and the guys making the plays the majority of the time.”

Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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