Recently, we listed the 10 greatest Spartan football players of the 21st century. This time we are busting open the history books, blowing some dust off some of the names, giving them a bit of a spit-shine, and bringing them to the forefront.
To be fair to the names both on and off of this list, a couple of rules are being put in place, first, you have to have played your entire collegiate career at Michigan State University (no transfers), and you have to have been a part of the team for at least three years. With those rules in place, let’s first give credit to those who, while great Spartans, just missed the cut of the top ten.
- Drew Stanton (QB, 2003-06): Stanton was a hometown kid made good in Green and White. While taking over his sophomore year in East Lansing, Stanton completed over 64 percent of his passes for over 2000 yards a season, adding another 500 yards a season on the ground.
- Brad Van Pelt (LB, 1970-73): Van Pelt was a two-sport athlete at Michigan State, playing both football and basketball, but it was obvious that he would star in the former. Van Pelt won the Maxwell Award for Player of the Year in 1972, before becoming a second-round draft pick of the NY Giants. He went on to make five Pro Bowls in a 13-year career.
- Flozell Adams (OT, 1994-97): Flozell was the main reason Sedrick Irvin had himself a career at Michigan State. Running backs enjoyed rushing behind his offensive lines, breaking the 100-yard mark 21 of the 35 games he started. Adams was first-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten, and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year as a senior, going on to play 13 years in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors five times.
- Charles Rogers (WR, 2000-02): Two phenomenal years at East Lansing, Rogers broke Plaxico Burress’ records with 67 and 68 catches in his two years, and averaging 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns per season. If he stays one more year, he’s probably cracking the top 10.
- Darqueze Dennard (DB, 2010-13): Darqueze put together a decorated career, earning Unanimous first-team All-American, Jim Thorpe Award for Best Defensive Back, and 2-time first-team All-Big Ten honors. Dennard took over his sophomore year and planted the “No Fly Zone” flag, recording 10 interceptions, three multi-interception games, and 167 tackles in essentially three years.
- Plaxico Burress (WR, 1998-99) Plax was the record setter while starting at Michigan State. Literally, his 65 catches as a sophomore were a record, which he broke with 66 as a junior. As were his 1,142 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior. All of these records were broken by Charles Rogers just two years later. But Plax had the better curtain call by far, as he lit up Florida in the 2000 Citrus Bowl with 13 catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns. A special talent that just might be the greatest wide receiver in MSU history.
That’s a good group of players in their own respective rights. But this crop of 10 players stand out above the rest.
[Be sure to also check out our list of the top 10 greatest Michigan State players from this century.]
10. GREG JONES, LB (2007-10)
When you see your name next to George Webster and Bubba Smith, you know you have done something truly special. Greg Jones became the first Spartan since Smith and Webster in 1965-66 to earn back-to-back first-team All-American honors. Jones racked up 465 tackles, 46.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, and two interceptions in his four years at MSU.
He’s the seventh Spartan ever to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors three times while leading the team in tackles every single year, he finished his career third all-time in tackles, and second in tackles for loss.
9. ANDRE RISON, WR (1985-88)
When you talk about Rison’s numbers, you have to remember the time period of football, when you ran, ran, and ran some more. Now let’s look at Rison’s numbers: Ignoring his freshman year where he tallied 280 yards and two touchdowns, Rison averaged 900 yards and six touchdowns per year. As a junior he was responsible for 83 percent of the teams reception touchdowns (Five of the six they threw for, remember the times).
Rison led the Big Ten his senior year in yards (961), yards per reception (24.6), and touchdowns (8). He’s currently fifth all-time in the Big Ten in career yards per reception with 20.5. In his final game, Rison went off for 252 yards on 9 catches, and three touchdowns in a 34-27 loss to Geogria in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
8. PERCY SNOW, LB (1986-89)
A 2-time first-team All-American who started three out of his four years as a Spartan, Snow helped lead MSU to three bowl games (1988 Rose Bowl, 1989 Gator Bowl, and 1989 Aloha Bowl), leading the team in tackles all three of those years. He earned MVP in the ’88 Rose Bowl with 17 tackles, 15 of which were solo, and won the Butkus (nation’s top linebacker) and Lombardi (best college football linemen or linebacker) Awards in 1989.
Bottom line, when Snow started at Michigan State, they had the best run defense in the Big Ten all three years.
7. LE’VEON BELL, RB (2010-12)
Le’Veon Bell had a decent freshman year, with totals of 607 yards and eight touchdowns, and his sophomore year saw much improvement as he rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns, but Bell’s junior year is what helped turn him into one of the top NFL running backs.
Bell’s final year saw him lead the Big Ten in rushing and finish third in the nation. He racked up 1,793 yards as a junior, becoming the first Spartan since Tico Duckett in 1990 to lead the BigTen in rushing. His career numbers averaged over 1200 yards and 11 touchdowns per season. He finished his career sixth in rushing touchdowns, sixth in rushing attempts, seventh in yards, ninth in all-purpose yards, and eighth in 100-yard games.
6. CONNOR COOK, QB (2012-15)
Cook went 34-5 as a starter, making him MSU’s winningest quarterback. His 9,194 yards and 71 touchdown passes make him State’s leader in both those categories as well. He is tied for first all-time with 10 300-yard passing games and 26 200-yard passing games. He’s seventh all-time in Big Ten history for touchdown passes, he won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as well as Big Ten Quarterback of the Year.
Cook went 21-2 against conference opponents in the regular season, averaging 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns per season, had six fourth-quarter comebacks, and finished ninth in the 2015 Heisman race.
5. BUBBA SMITH, DL (1964-66)
At 6’7″, 280 pounds, Charles “Bubba” Smith just sort of stood out as a monster among giants. And if his size didn’t intimidate you, his play certainly did. Smith, along with teammate George Webster, demoralized Big Ten opponents, holding opposing rushing attacks to a ridiculous 34.6 yards per game.
Smith was a two-time All-American who helped Michigan State to a combined record of 19-1-1 in 1965 and 1966, including shares of both National Titles. He’s a 1988 inductee of the College Football Hall of Fame, and is one of six defensive ends on the Sports Illustrated All-Century team.
4. GEORGE WEBSTER, S/LB/DE (1964-66)
While Bubba Smith is the more famous name, many say George Webster was the better player. A swiss-army knife of defense, Webster would roam all over, going where he saw fit. In fact the position he played was called “Roverback,” a position created by then-head coach Duffy Daugherty to combine a defensive back and a linebacker. And where Webster saw fit was usually the spot where the stop was made.
The Spartans from 1964–66 were 23-6-1, including the infamous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame, and earned a share of the 1965 and ’66 national championships. Webster was the second Spartan to have his number retired, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, and was one of two safeties named to the Sports Illustrated All-Century team.
3. SHILIQUE CALHOUN DL (2012-15)
Shilique Calhoun was the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the year, a 3-time second-team All-American, and the first Spartan defensive lineman to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors three times. Shilique was also a semifinalist twice for both the Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year) and Lombardi Award (Lineman of the Year).
He played in a school record 54 games, racking up 44 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, and one interception that he returned 56 yards for a touchdown. He finished his career first in tackles-for-loss yardage, second in sacks, second in sack yardage, fourth in tackles for loss, and he is one of only three Spartans with three defensive touchdowns. Calhoun helped the Spartans to four straight bowl games (2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 2013 Rose Bowl, 2014 Cotton Bowl, and 2015 College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl) winning their bowl game in three of his four years.
2. KIRK COUSINS, QB (2008-11)
Captain Kirk went 27-12 at Michigan State, but more importantly 22-5 in his final two years. He was the first starting quarterback at MSU to defeat Michigan four times, and was a three-year starter that saw him become only the second MSU player to be named captain three years in a row (Robert McCurry 1946-48).
Cousins finished his career as State’s all-time leader in yards, touchdowns, completions, passer efficiency, and total offense. His back-to-back 11-win seasons as a junior and senior were the foundation on which Connor Cook and his teams built upon. Cook may have a bunch of Cousins’ records, but he will never be the unquestioned leader that Captain Kirk undoubtedly was.
1. LORENZO WHITE, RB (1984-87)
When it comes to Michigan State running backs, we can gush all we want at LeVeon Bell, or Jeremy Langford, or Javon Ringer, but the end-all be-all is Lorenzo White. With career totals of 1,082 carries for 4,887 yards, White’s career saw him finish fourth in Heisman voting, twice.
He was the first Big Ten running back to carry the ball over 400 times in a season, hitting that mark as a sophomore (419 carries), and almost again as a senior (357 carries). As a sophomore he led the NCAA in rushing attempts (419), yards (2,066), plays from scrimmage (425), and yards from scrimage (2,094). His senior season at MSU saw him rush for over 200 yards four times, lead State to a 9-2-1 record and a 20-17 victory over Southern California in the Rose Bowl.