March 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Spring practice will be a major success for Michigan State if the Spartans find 13 more points, and probably as many inches, by the time the final whistle sounds in the Green-White game on April 20.
Thirteen points were the difference between MSU finishing the regular season with a 6-6 record and playing the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and going 11-1, playing in a second consecutive Big Ten championship game and possibly making it to a BCS game for the first time in school history.
Five games turned in Michigan State's opponents' favor when a receiver's hand was slightly out of place before dropping a critical pass, when a tackler's pursuit angle was off by a fraction, when an outstretched finger needed to be a mere centimeter longer to accomplish a successful deflection.
Coach Mark Dantonio opened his seventh spring camp Tuesday determined to conceptually reverse what had been a troubling trend in 2012.
The theme of spring practice is "finishing and finding the inches," said middle linebacker Max Bullough. "We lost a couple games by a few inches last year, we won a couple games by the same, so it's just finding those inches and finding a way to make up for those in the offseason. We can't necessarily play the games tomorrow, but we can do something today to make sure we're in better position next year."
However, practicing a concept until it produces the desired results is different than addressing poor tackling by putting defenders through exhaustive tackling drills.
"You're absolutely right and that's the thing that's hard about it," Bullough said. "You've got to really just come out here and I believe you've got to believe in what you're doing.
"You've got to wholeheartedly believe in what coach D is doing, what (strength and conditioning coach Ken) Mannie's doing, what (defensive coordinator Pat) Narduzzi's doing. If you dive into that and you have the ability to really believe in what you're doing, and do it to the best of your ability, good things are gonna happen. Other than that, there's no secret formula to winning."
Plenty of structural, schematic and strategic adjustments will also be made over the next five weeks, to be sure. New co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has already introduced some new drills and blocking tactics.
Fou Fonoti, fully recovered from the injury that caused him to sit out most of last season as a medical redshirt, is not only getting ready for his final season at left offensive tackle, but he's working at center as well.
Travis Jackson, who started last season as the first-string center before sustaining a season-ending injury, is also back to full speed, but with his replacement, Jack Allen, still mending from off-season shoulder surgery, Fonoti is being prepped to step in just in case.
"I was definitely surprised by it when they asked me and thought it was a joke, but whatever the coaches tell me to do, whatever the team needs, I'm willing to do it," Fonoti said. "It's going to take time, slowly but surely."
Repetition is a much a key to perfecting a mechanical function like snapping the ball as it is for a mental process that has the Spartans completing their tasks as intended.
"It just pretty much just provides us with a mindset of finishing," Fonoti said. "We've seen how close we were last season and what being that much better can mean. So we're using that as an edge out here. When the ball's (snapped), just run. As O-linemen, come back to the huddle and be aggressive to the line and that gets us to be more eager and getting out there quicker."
Dantonio and his staff can revamp play-calling, skew alignments and add as many new wrinkles as they want, but success will ultimately depend on how committed the players are to doing things the right way in good times and in bad.
"I think the key thing is what do we change, what do we keep the same, how do our players grasp what we do change, how do we implement it and are our players able to make that change?" Dantonio said. "When you lose five games by 13 points, I think of the things that really are just minute details.
"We (attempted) 32 field goals last year and made 23. So missing those nine field goals I think is obviously an aspect that we've got to be a little bit better in, but maybe more importantly than that, we need to score touchdowns in the red zone."
The Spartans salvaged the 2012 season by making it to an unprecedented sixth consecutive bowl and winning back-to-back postseason games since 1989-90. It will continue to pay dividends if lessons that come from losing five games by 13 points continue to be learned.
"I think the most important thing is we've got to gain confidence from our experiences, both our successes and our failures," Dantonio said. "You need to bank those and then take those experiences and make them positive ones. The fact that you don't have success in front of 100,000 people and a national (TV) audience should count for something, and that's what we're banking on.
"Beyond that, what we do in practice is try and simulate those situations. It's very, very difficult to do that unless you're competing for the position knowing that if you don't perform you go down the depth chart. I think those type of things will happen."