Michigan State football: The 10 most valuable players from past decade
The past 10 years of Michigan State football have been full of incredible success and face-palming failure. There have been major bowl wins and an appearance in the College Football Playoff, but there have also been subpar seasons — namely 3-9 in 2016 — and radical change within the coaching staff.
Mark Dantonio vaulted Michigan State to national status. Mel Tucker, the only MSU coach to win his first 2 against Michigan, has the college football world buzzing due to his success on the recruiting trail. Players who would ordinarily choose another school have now made the Spartans a top priority. Recruiting has surged under Tucker, who has the No. 18-ranked 2023 class, which packs a trio of 4-stars from Texas — a state in which MSU didn’t typically hit too hard in the past because it couldn’t compete with the big dogs who routinely snag top talent from the high school football mecca.
It’s time to reflect on who has done what for the Spartans during the past decade.
Maybe they were stars during their entire career. Or maybe they made a program-defining play in a major bowl game. Or maybe they just came around at just the right time.
Here is the list, in no particular order.
He learned from the Captain (Kirk Cousins), so Connor Cook was certainly well-versed by time it was his turn to take over the Spartans offense. A Rose Bowl-winning QB and among the top in all major passing statistics at MSU, Cook is easily a top-3 all-time QB at Michigan State.
Cook’s 71 passing touchdowns remain a career record at MSU, and so do his 9,194 passing yards. The Spartans may never have another QB as prolific as Cook, who was known for 300-yard games and making plays when they mattered most.
The casual college fan might not know about former walk-on LB Kyler Elsworth. Hell, the casual or even somewhat-in-the-know MSU fan might not know about Elsworth, who came up with one of the biggest stops in Spartans history during the 2014 Rose Bowl vs. Stanford.
With a shade fewer than 2 minutes to play, Elsworth’s fourth-down stop on Cardinal H-back Ryan Hewitt clinched the Spartans’ 24-20 Rose Bowl victory — their first since the 1988 Rose Bowl vs. USC.
That play cast the Spartans into the national limelight and remains one of the most storied plays in school history.
With 26 career sacks, Shilique Calhoun ranks No. 2 in MSU history in the department, sealing his legacy in East Lansing with 10.5 sacks during his senior season of 2015. Throw in 44 career tackles for loss, and Calhoun doesn’t just deserve to be on a decade list, but an all-time list as well.
He had a respectable NFL career, starting with a three-year run with the Oakland Raiders before spending his two final seasons with the New England Patriots. During his stint in the NFL, he played in 51 games but only started once.
Calhoun will go down as one of the best pass rushers to ever come out of the Big Ten and, maybe, the best to ever come out of East Lansing.
Kenneth Walker III
The greatest portal star to date, Kenneth Walker III, formerly of Wake Forest, had everyone fixated on Spartans football every Saturday this past season. Whether you were a fan or casual observer, you probably took some time to watch The Walker Show. The No. 1-ranked rusher for most of the season, Walker was in the Heisman conversation before ending up with the Doak Walker Award.
Michigan State has had a lot of great running backs but none has ever come close to putting up Walker 2021 numbers: 1,636 yards, 18 rushing touchdowns (19 total from scrimmage).
No Fly Zone — Darqueze Dennard/Trae Waynes
The “No Fly Zone” showed the world what it meant to play DB for the Spartans, quickly becoming one of the top DB units in college football. Anchored by Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes, the “No Fly Zone” was one of the most-talked-about position groups during the 2014 season.
Today, Dennard and Waynes are still discussed in Big Ten circles.
Trouble with the snap!
Those words will forever live in infamy for Michigan fans and will forever sound sweet to those of the MSU ilk. All Blake O’Neil had to do was punt away the ball and Michigan would have won. Instead, the Wolverines’ punter had issues wrangling the snap and the rest is history. A bobbled ball that got loose ended up in the hands of Jalen Watts-Jackson, who scooped-and-scored as time expired in the 2015 matchup of this storied rivalry.
Let’s forget that he also suffered a broken hip while being dog-piled in the southwest corner of the end zone of Michigan Stadium. Watts-Jackson’s touchdown was one of the most important in Spartans history and one of college football’s best game-winning plays.
Watts-Jackson’s fumble-recover-for-TD continued the Spartans’ dominance over the Wolverines, who have just 3 series wins since 2013.
Remember Aaron Burbridge vs. Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis? That was must-see TV back in 2015 and remains one of the best 1-on-1 battles in the history of Michigan State vs. Michigan.
As a senior in 2015, Burbridge racked up 1,258 yards, good for the 7th-best single-season total at Michigan State. His 2,174 career receiving yards are also good for No. 7 all-time in program history.
Jeremy Langford’s career highlight reel at Michigan State is one to envy — so many up-the-middle, big-time runs and so many clutch gains to move the chains. With 40 career rushing touchdowns, Langford ranks No. 2 all-time in East Lansing.
In 2014, he scored a single-season record 22 rushing touchdowns, an honor he shares with former star Javon Ringer, who did the same in 2008.
Perhaps the greatest TE to ever play at Michigan State, Josiah Price was on the receiving end of some of the most iconic touchdowns by the Spartans during the past decade.
With 21 career receiving TDs, he has the 4th-most in program history. From 2013-1016, Price was one of the top TEs in all of college football, not just in the Big Ten.
Yeah, Michigan State’s success led to getting a highly-coveted 5-star and No. 31-ranked player of the 2015 class. However, McDowell’s career in East Lansing was clouded with discussion regarding his effort and commitment. He was a star on the field but not necessarily a “program guy.”
Nonetheless, he deserves a spot on this list because of recruiting optics; he was one of the first big-timers to choose Michigan State during the past decade, leading the way for others to follow.