Spartan Football Spring Preview, Pt. 3

March 12, 2008

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COACH DANTONIO: We're into the next phase of football. It's a little bit unusual for most jobs, is that you go from a season to recruiting to critiquing things, now into spring ball, then spring recruiting, then reassess again and then start all over again.

Our phase right now is spring football. It's exciting for us to be there. I think what we have to do is take another step forward. Our message to our football team throughout has been that we did take I think two steps forward with this last year's program. Our seniors did an outstanding job as I said many times. It's important now to take another step forward. So it begins really with this.

What we have been doing thus far is critiquing really what we've done this past year, whether it's in recruiting, whether it's how we run our meetings, whether it's what we did during the season, what we did in special teams, et cetera. I think that's the norm for most places right now. We continue to ask ourselves: Is there a better way to do things?

Winter workouts really concluded Monday. We have Pro Day today, which I think will be exciting for a lot of people. Hopefully, you'll be able to come over and see some of our guys work out. I think we had four guys participate in the NFL Combine: Jehuu Caulcrick, Nehemiah Warrick, Devin Thomas and Kellen Davis. We've also got other guys over there running that I think will have an opportunity to play at the next level as well.



I would anticipate, from what I understand, probably about 50 NFL scouts and coaches and probably some various head coaches over there as well, as I do think there are a couple guys that will go early in the draft. That's exciting I think for the whole program. Got March Madness around the corner, the Big Ten (men's basketball) tourney this week. Want to wish our basketball team well. It's an exciting time for Michigan State athletics right now, and we're enthused to be a part of all that.

Our goals basically as a spring program, as a football program, which we enter the 2008 spring, really is to, again, develop a foundation of who we are. I think much like high school football that changes every year, we have to adapt to who we have as players, adapt our system a little bit, concentrate on our strengths, feature certain players, find out who those players are going to be that we need to feature, fill in the gaps, the holes where we've lost players.

I think the second thing we have to do is develop senior leadership. Again, that was as key as anything last year to the amount of success we did have. This year's seniors - Otis Wiley, Justin Kershaw, Brian Hoyer and Jesse Miller - are a couple of guys that I've had an opportunity to meet with, but everybody will have an opportunity to lead. So it's important we identify those people and allow them to move through the process to form that leadership.

I also think spring is about providing opportunities for young players or older players who might not have found their way into the starting rotation right now.

If you look back at last year, you have a guy like Devin Thomas, who really well could be a first or second round (NFL) pick. Here is a guy who caught six passes the year before, didn't play as much maybe. All of a sudden he has an outstanding season; he's vaulted into a position where he can do some things for himself and his family. That could not have happened last year without a great spring. So you have players like that that are going to have an opportunity.

There will be position experiments, experiments in what we need him to do. It's sort of a feeling out period for everybody involved. I think it's a huge spring for our freshmen group, those guys that played some as true freshmen: Mark Dell, Aaron Bates, Antonio Jeremiah, Greg Jones and Oren Wilson. But also the guys who have not played and that were redshirted last year, I think it's a big opportunity for them to see where they're at in the big scheme of things and to really get their feet in pretty deep in terms of what we're doing out on the football field.

We want to critique and master what we do fundamentally, whether it's defensive back or offensive tackle. We want to get better fundamentally. The game is played I think at a ground roots level. The game is played from the ground up with bent knees, power positions, catching the ball, blocking and tackling. We need to continue to work towards this and mastering those fundamentals.

Had a coach when I played at South Carolina who used to always say, you need to try to get two percent better every spring practice. If you use that little formula, you have a chance to get 30% better over the course of time. I think that can happen. I've seen that happen with players. So we'll work to try to do that. That will be a message we send to our players. It's been a message I've tried to send, whether it's the defensive backs, whether it was a unit when I was a coordinator or a team when I was a head coach. We want to continue to try to emphasize that.

We'll grade our players daily, give them a graph at the end of spring showing how they did throughout the year, throughout the spring, have meetings with them, go to the Nth degree to try to let them know exactly where they're at in the program. But there will be an opportunity for everybody.

I think the spring practice will provide excitement. From the inside, it's an exciting time for our players. They get to go out there, put on a helmet, put on pads, play football, which is what you do. You do the weights, you run, you lift, and you do all these different things in order for a chance to play the game. So they have an opportunity now to go out and play again. And I think that's exciting for them.

I also think it brings excitement outside the program, whether it's to the fans or to the administration or just the student out on the street. So it's a little bit of that. It will end with our spring game, our Green and White game, which I want to make mention of George Webster for that game. I think we want to make that a memorial tribute to him. It will still be known as the Green and White game, but it will be special in that regard because we do want to remember him and what he gave to this program.

Position by position, I would say right now that basically if you look at our football team, our offensive line, we have a nucleus back, three guys, some other guys who played, but we have three starters back. We'll look to Jesse Miller, Roland Martin and Joel Nitchman, so we'll fill in around them. We have some very good players, Brendon Moss, Rocco Cironi, other guys that will meet the needs in there.

Tight end, we'll work Michael Jordan in there as an experiment. We have two young tight ends (Garrett Celek and David Duran), but Charlie Gantt has got to make his way to the top of the depth chart, as well. We have four guys that will be working at that position.

At wide receiver, we have a couple guys back that played significant amount of football last season, in Mark Dell and Deon Curry. We've got to look at some of the other guys, including BJ Cunningham. We have some outstanding freshmen coming this fall, but guys like Chris D. Rucker and David Williams will have an opportunity out there this spring.

You look at quarterback, last year quarterback was a little bit of a who, what, where, who is the backup. We basically had two quarterbacks on scholarship in the spring, Connor Dixon and Brian Hoyer. Connor was a bit injured. This year we'll bring three into spring. Connor will not participate in spring drills because of a shoulder injury. We'll have Hoyer, Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins. We'll look to see how Cousins and Foles have raised their game.

Running back continues to be a position of strength for us. You know Javon Ringer is back. He'll probably have limited contact this spring due to some (shoulder) surgery, but he will participate towards the end of spring. And you have some good young freshmen there as well as A.J. Jimmerson, who will provide obviously depth at this position.

Defensively, our defensive line, we lost a couple good defensive ends (Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin). We'll continue to work towards solidifying those positions. Trevor Anderson (a transfer from Cincinnati) will be playing for the first time. He's an outstanding player. You'll get an opportunity to watch him. Our defensive tackle position is pretty solid. Our young players - Oren Oren Wilson, Antonio Jeremiah and Ryan Wheat - need to be involved in that playing rotation.

We played eight linebackers last year and we lost three. We have five returning guys with playing experience. It's the same in the secondary. We lose two guys, but we actually played nine guys in the secondary last year. We have a lot of experience back in those areas.

Our kicker (Brett Swenson) and punter (Aaron Bates) are back as well as our kickoff guy (Todd Boleski).

We have a nucleus back. We'll look to improve in those areas and fill in the voids and then, again, do the same thing in the fall.

Again, practice calendar will change. We'll start on Tuesday (March 18), rather than on Monday (March 17). I just feel like from a meeting standpoint and from a class schedule standpoint, we need to make sure that everybody - that we have a 100 percent participation in it. We were going to have certain guys miss that initial practice due to class, so we needed to make that change.

With that I'll sort of open it up to questions or go to the roundtable.

Q: I know you can't talk specifically, but could you address the start you've had so far for the 2009 class in recruiting?

COACH DANTONIO: I think recruiting is something we work on daily. We're not going to take anything for granted, whether it's in this state or outside of this state.

I think we've got a great start. It shows we're doing some things right around here in terms of how we're handling ourselves as people and then also the progress that the program is making.

But we're very, very excited about it. We'll continue to fill out that class as we go.

Q: Could you talk a bit about Pro Day, what it offers, with the players being able to be at their school?

COACH DANTONIO: I think there's got to be a little bit - you're going to be more comfortable in your home environment. You have an opportunity, again, to show what you can do, if you messed up on a little thing (at the NFL Combine), they have questions on this, and they can get those things ironed out.

For some of the guys, they probably had excellent combines and maybe they'll have limited work here. But it's just another opportunity I really think to interact with people at the next level. Some guys will do certain workouts, maybe run a 40, other guys won't because they've been tested well already. It provides everybody an opportunity.

I think it's an exciting time for everybody's program when that happens. Everybody aspires to play at the next level. Certain Michigan State has had many, many players go on and play in the NFL. This is just another example of really the tradition that's here, the past. Just further provides opportunities for players down the road. It shows that you if come here, you're going to have an opportunity to play in the NFL.

FastScripts by ASAP Sports

Addition comments from Coach Dantonio during the media roundtable session . . .

Q: On the freshmen that were redshirted during the 2007 season who could contribute in 2008 . . .

COACH DANTONIO: At wide receiver, we have two guys. B.J. Cunningham is an outstanding jumper. He only played two years in high school and also one in college. He's a big-bodied wide receiver that can really go up and get the football. Chris D. Rucker is another guy who redshirted. He's a 10.5 100-meter guy and can play a variety of positions for us.

On the offensive line, Joel Foreman is a guy that you'll see playing and getting involved, as well as Jared McGaha. With the quarterback situation, Kirk Cousins added 20-25 pounds to his frame. Nick Foles is a 245-pound guy. They both move very well. We were able to redshirt Nick so both of those guys will be red-shirt freshmen next season. It's going to be interesting to see how they progress. Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett are two guys who will have an opportunity this spring to show what they've got at tailback. They've showed sparks of some very good things.

On the defensive side of the ball, we really didn't redshirt hardly anybody. We didn't have too many, and we played them. Ryan Wheat redshirted, as well as Kevin Pickelman. Kevin is going to be a very good football player. Ryan has a tremendous upside as well. Those are the two guys we really redshirted over there on defense.

Q: On the momentum he's building with the program after posting a winning record and going to a bowl in his first year . . .

COACH DANTONIO: It's been positive - the fact that we went to a bowl game and we played hard, I think that's been the biggest compliment I can give to our football team, that we came out focused and played hard every game. We fought through some tough times. We bounced back and came back in some games. We never quit. Those type of things. I think that sends a message to our football team. It also sends a message that we lost some close games and that winning and losing can be attributed to very, very small things, so I hope our players understand that. I hope that gives us momentum as well.

I think the new facility, the fact that we went to a bowl game, the fact that we've got relationships built with players that we've been able to recruit thus far because we've worked with those relationships in summer camps; they've been to our games already and those types of things. Those relationships that have been established are as big a reason as any for maybe the early success in recruiting. It's exciting, but we can't stand there . . . we're not where we need to be. As I said earlier, we need to take a step forward. I hope our players understand that.

Q: On players earning positions during spring ball . . .

COACH DANTONIO: I think you go in saying that experience is the No. 1 factor, that it's as important as anything. If they've played well, I'm not saying a player has a position wrapped up, but they certainly have entrenched themselves and need to be beaten out. But it happens. We're always going to play the best players, let them play on the field and separate themselves.

Q: On Roland Martin being listed as a left guard on the depth chart after starting last two years as a right guard . . .

COACH DANTONIO: Those are things we're going to experiment with, whether he's at left (guard) or right. We're going to experiment all things relative to the offensive line, and play the best. With our offensive line, last year we had questions going into the spring as well. Coach (Dan) Roushar does an excellent job establishing toughness and attitude in that meeting room as well as Coach (Mark) Staten. We'll find a way. So we've got some players at that position. Last year, we had some guys that were injured there. (Mike) Gyetvai didn't play last spring, and Kenny Shane had limited reps. (Joel) Nitchman played very well early but then was hurt. We have to continue to improve at all positions. Our offensive line has to be retooled because we lost four pretty good players (Gyetvai, Shane, John Masters, Pete Clifford). But we have some other guys that can play. (Rocco) Cironi has played a lot in the past - he didn't play a lot last year, but he played as a freshman, so we expect good things from him.

Q: On freshman defensive end Tyler Hoover, who enrolled in January and will participate in spring drills . . .

COACH DANTONIO: Tyler Hoover is going to have immediate playing time. He's a guy that's going to step on the field and become a part of what we do on a regular basis right off the bat. Brandon Long, Tyler Hoover and Trevor Anderson, those are probably are three defensive ends heading into spring ball. I think Tyler is every bit as conditioned and physically developed as the others, so we'll see, because he's still a freshman. Physically, and as far as enthusiasm and work ethic, he's there, he's to that level.

Q: On what Kellen Davis and Devin Thomas can bring to a pro team . . .

COACH DANTONIO: I think both of those guys have big-play abilities. Devin had over 1,000 yards in kickoff returns for us last year. When you look at Devin, he's a 2,000-yard guy. He also had over 1,000 yards receiving and added a couple hundred more running the football on reverses. He brings those aspects. He is a guy like (former Spartan) Muhsin Muhammad. He's a big-bodied receiver who can gain yards after the catch.

I think Kellen is a premier tight end. He played in our run-oriented scheme, so he's used to blocking. He's not just a one-dimensional guy. He's not a guy that you just flex out and throw to all the time. But he does have that ability, and he has shown that. He has caught the ball very well. I think he has a tremendous upside.

Q: On how Devin Thomas' emergence affects all of the other players . . .

COACH DANTONIO: It does (have an affect). I was telling our administration the other day, I don't think there is a person on our campus that thought that was going to happen. But he's earned that, and he's legitimate. It just proves that given the opportunity, if you continue to work, there are chances to rise to the top.

Q: How high-profile draft picks can affect recruiting . . .

COACH DANTONIO: First of all, Michigan State has been a place where great receivers have been coming out: Charles Rogers, Muhsin Muhammad, Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason. Those are just some guys that were here when I was an assistant coach here. You can go back even further. When I first came here, we wanted to be able to tell any wide receiver that if he can catch `X' number of passes, he can gain 1,000 yards. And that is a huge deal for a receiver. Quarterbacks want to throw for 2,000 and running backs want to run for 1,000. (During the 2007 regular season, MSU became the first team in the NCAA to boast a 2,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver.) Last season, we had a team that did each of those things. If you look at our team, we led the Big Ten in total offense, scoring and red zone offense. We had two running backs each get 200 carries. We can spread our offense out and get the ball into many different players' hands.

Q: On what kind of impact Trevor Anderson can have . . .

COACH DANTONIO: Trevor is a good enough player to have an impact at Michigan State. He started for us at Cincinnati. He's about 255 pounds and he is very strong and explosive. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. Had he been eligible last year (after transferring), he would have been on the field for us on a regular basis. He's a very good player, and he will bring a certain amount of intensity to our defense. He knows the system, and that is a huge thing. He has been coached by Ted Gill for two years. He figures to be a great player for us.

Q: On A.J. Jimmerson and Andre Anderson's role in the backfield . . .

COACH DANTONIO: I think that we need to have two backs. In this day in age, you need to have two backs that can carry the load. If you look at our tailback position last year, they carried the load. I don't think one person can do that...If you look at Ohio State or anywhere around the conference, it's basically a two-back system. We're looking for a guy to move with Javon (Ringer) in that direction.