Let’s be real here, as a fan of Michigan State, the 21st century has been pretty good to us. We’ve got countless Final Fours and a National Championship on the basketball court, and on the football field, we’ve seen numerous winning seasons, a couple BigTen titles and even a College Football Playoff spot. So it is time to celebrate the select few that were the best of the best on the gridiron.
Let’s begin with noting some names who just missed the cut. Basically, if you played before 2007 and had a great career, you’re in the honorable mentions list.
- T.J. Duckett (1999-2001): The product of Loy Norrix High School out in Kalamazoo had himself a very good three years in green and white, racking up over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns in his latter two years at MSU (3,379 career yards in three seasons).
- Charles Rogers (2001-02): Perhaps the best wide receiver in MSU history, Rogers was phenomenal for two years, hauling in 27 touchdowns and gaining over 2,800 yards.
- SirDarean Adams (2005-07): Probably the first great defensive back MSU had in its run of great DBs and despite picking off opposing quarterbacks seven times, Adams falls short of the list.
- Javon Ringer (2005-08): Ringer totaled nearly 4,400 yards on the ground in his career, more than 3,000 of that coming in his final two seasons, which helped guide MSU to consecutive bowl games.
- Jack Conklin (2013-15): The former walk-on from Plainwell, MI became the first Spartan offensive lineman to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since Tony Mandarich in 1989.
All of them had great careers and have arguments to be on the top-10 list, but tough decisions had to be made, and for one reason or another they were left wanting. [SPOILER: There’s 11 listed below. It got too difficult to leave someone off. #SorryNotSorry]
[Be sure to also check out our list of the top 10 greatest Michigan State players of all-time.]
11. JOHNNY ADAMS | CB (2008-12)
Adams earned All-Big Ten honors in each of the three years he started for MSU. Between the tackling ability and ball-hawking skills, Adams wreaked havoc in the defensive backfield, finishing his career fifth in passes defended and 10th in interceptions.
10. MAX BULLOUGH | LB (2009-13)
The Bullough family are Spartan Royalty. Between Max’s grandfather playing for MSU in the 50’s, to his dad and uncle both playing in the 80’s, Max knew he had a lot to live up to.
With career totals of 299 tackles, eight sacks, and three interceptions, the Bullough name is definitely far from smeared. Add in the fact that he was a two-time captain as well as a two-time All-Big Ten First Team member, and Max may have just raised the bar for the family name.
9. JACK ALLEN | C (2012-15)
Jack Allen started 47 of his 48 career games tallying 284 knockdowns as the centerpiece to the Spartans offensive line. Accolades for the elder Allen brother include being a 2-time finalist for the Rimington Trophy (nation’s top center) as well being a 2-time first-team All-American, becoming just the third Spartan offensive lineman to do so.
8. JEREMY LANGFORD | RB (2011-14)
Langford began his career as a defensive back before moving to the offensive side of the ball as a sophomore. But it wasn’t until his junior year that the world took notice of his talent. In just two years as the lead rusher, the John Glenn High School product (Westland, MI) racked up RECORDS.
He is third all time with 18 100-yard games, second all-time with 40 touchdowns, eighth all-time in yards, and those 40 touchdowns are the most in a two-year span in MSU history. He rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 consecutive BigTen regular season games, which is both a school record as well as an FBS record for any running back in any conference.
7. DENICOS ALLEN | LB (2010-13)
Denicos Allen was an absolute beast when it came to tackling in the offensive backfield. Of his 278 tackles, 46 of them were for a loss, big ones at that… very big… 198 yards of big. That’s over four yards of loss per tackle, which was good enough for fifth all-time in MSU history, along with third all-time in tackles for loss, and sixth all-time in sacks with 19 1/2.
He is tied for the school record of games played with 54, and he was a 3-time All-Big Ten selection.
6. KURTIS DRUMMOND | S (2011-14)
While Drummond’s defensive backfield teammate, Darqueze Dennard, may get the nod in most peoples minds, in my opinion, Drummond did more. While both of them were named Big Ten DB of the Year, both 2-time first-team All-Big Ten selections, and first-team All-Americans, Drummond had a few numbers in his favor over Dennard.
Yes, Darqueze won the Jim Thorpe Award for the country’s best defensive back, but Drummond had two more interceptions, 60 more tackles, more tackles for loss, and went 4-0 in his four bowl games. Advantage Drummond.
5. LE’VEON BELL | RB (2010-12)
Yes I know I’m cheating, but these next five I could not leave off this list, including the man who might become the best Spartan Pro we’ve seen maybe ever. Bell played in 40 games in his three years at MSU. In that time, he averaged over 1200 yards and 11 touchdowns per season. His final year saw him rack up almost 2,000 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns.
He finished his shortened career sixth in rushing touchdowns, sixth in rushing attempts, seventh in yards, ninth in all-purpose yards, and eighth in 100-yard games. Just imagine what he would have done if he was the slimmed-down version Pittsburgh has right now. Oh, and if he hadn’t skipped his senior year.
4. GREG JONES | LB (2007-10)
Greg Jones was EVERYTHING to the Michigan State defense. He racked up 465 tackles, 46.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, and two interceptions in his four years at MSU. He was the first Spartan since Bubba Smith and George Webster in 1965-66 to earn back-to-back first-team All-American honors. He’s the seventh Spartan ever to earn First-Team All-BigTen honors three times, and while leading the team in tackles every single year, he finished his career third all-time in tackles, and second in tackles for loss.
3. CONNOR COOK | QB (2012-15)
Cook has an argument to be the No. 1 Spartan of the 21st century, but the fact that his own team never named him a Captain drops him on this list. Despite that slight, Cook did everything he could to propel the Spartans to victory.
His overall record of 34-5 makes 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’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, had six fourth-quarter comebacks, and finished ninth in the 2015 Heisman race.
2. SHILIQUE CALHOUN | DE (2012-15)
Calhoun was on every team’s scouting report every week they played MSU, and for good reason. He 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 three times.
He played in a school record 54 games (tied with Denicos Allen), 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.
1. KIRK COUSINS | QB (2007-11)
The greatest 21st century Spartan is Captain Kirk. 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.
Yes, Cook took a lot of those records away, but Cousins got Cook beat in passer efficiency, completion percentage, and belief from his teammates (three-time captain vs. no-time captain).
So there you have it Spartans fans, your 10 best for the 21st Century. Let the debating begin…