March 12, 2008
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Mark Dantonio knows Michigan State football is a work in progress. His rebuilding effort has a firm foundation but no proof where the ceiling might be.
A 7-6 start with a new head coach gave the Spartans a taste of success but not nearly enough to satisfy their appetites. And that hunger could help in 2008.
"Last year was all about earning respect," Dantonio said Wednesday, five days before spring practice begins. "This year is about finishing."
Michigan State finished second in total offense and fourth in total defense in the Big Ten but wound up tied for seventh, ahead of just one team in the league standings.
"The biggest compliment I can give our team is that we played hard in every game and fought through some tough times," Dantonio said. "We never quit. That sends a message to our football team. It also sends a message that we lost some close games. So we're not where we need to be. We need to take a step forward."
If a 35-31 comeback win over Penn State was a giant stride, a 24-21 giveaway loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl was an important reality check.
"It's something I've used as motivation," senior quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "It was probably the worst performance of my career in any sport. I have to learn from those mistakes. Every game we lost was by seven points or less."
Hoyer couldn't bear to watch the bowl game for a few weeks but has seen every game on tape enough now to know how good the Spartans can be, even without star receiver Devin Thomas, an early-entry NFL prospect.
"Devin is proof to everyone what hard work can do," Hoyer said. "He really turned his career around at about this time last year. If someone would've said then that he'd be drafted in the first round this year, everyone would've laughed."
The player with "future first-rounder" written all over his helmet is senior running back Javon Ringer, ranked No. 1 at his position by pro football analysts. For Michigan State to make a major leap, Ringer will have to stay healthy and be an impact player in every game.
"Honestly, I'd like to have a lot of carries," Ringer said of life without power-running complement Jehuu Caulcrick. "If they throw another running back in there, that's fine. But I never mind having the ball in my hands. The only thing I don't have is an arm. I'll leave that to Hoyer."
A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett are the top candidates for carries when Ringer is on the sideline. And Mark Dell, Deon Curry, B.J. Cunningham, Chris D. Rucker and David Williams will all get chances to be the go-to receiver, with prized recruit Fred Smith still in high school.
"You go in saying experience is the No. 1 factor," Dantonio said. "I'm not going to say a player has a position wrapped up, but they've entrenched themselves and have to be beaten out. That happens sometimes. We're always going to play the best players."
The big news on defense is the arrival of end Trevor Anderson, a transfer who starred for Dantonio at Cincinnati. Free safety Otis Wiley will be tried at strong safety and wide receiver-safety Ryan Allison will get a shot at strongside linebacker as seniors.
Michigan State should have many more answers by the Green and White Game on April 19 in Spartan Stadium, 19 weeks before the season begins on Aug. 30 at California.