March 24, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State isn't in completely uncharted football territory.
However, much of it is unfamiliar to Mark Dantonio's program even as he begins his eighth spring practice, and there a lot of new features.
Cell phones, for example, were the size of a loaf of bread with a long antenna sticking out of it in 1988, the last time the Spartans were coming off a Rose Bowl Championship.
The college football landscape has also changed dramatically since then, from having the major bowls with conference affiliations help determine mythical National Champions to the now-defunct BCS to the limited four-team playoff that goes into effect in 2014.
The good news is, according free safety Kurtis Drummond, nearly all of the cultural obstacles that have prevented MSU programs of the recent past from reaching the next level have been eliminated. If coming back from deficits to beat No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and defeating No. 7 Stanford in the Rose Bowl haven't officially put the same-old-Spartans lament officially to rest, nothing will.
The next major challenge facing Michigan State, ranked fifth nationally in some pre-spring polls, is withstanding the test of time, and the way to do that is by "remaining humble and hungry," Drummond said. "Those are the two biggest things (defensive backfield coach Harlon) Barnett harps on greatly."
The Spartans have adopted an attitude that if they don't outwork the teams that are chasing them, they will be caught.
"Once you get complacent and think it's OK where you're at and you're satisfied, that's when other people pass you up," Drummond said. "If you're always are looking at something you can improve on, and just remain humble and hungry and never forget where you came from, it's going to always push you to go after whatever you want to achieve."
Michigan State must find replacements for several highly accomplished players, most of whom completed their eligibility by saying they have returned the Spartans to elite status.
However, avoiding the drop-offs that followed championships in 1966, 1978, 1987, 1990 and even 2010-11 under Dantonio, has become the responsibility of the returning players.
"Winning tastes good, but we also got a taste of losing, too," Drummond said. "To be able to see both of them makes you realize what you have to do and you keep that in your mind every day. Nobody's forgotten about going to Arizona and playing that (2012 Buffalo Wild Wings) bowl game, so it's a new year and we're working to achieve more good things.
"You can't be satisfied from one good year. In the past, Michigan State has been up-and-down, a good season here a bad season there, and I think Coach D is doing a great job of changing that culture. It's just a mentality. It's about being consistent now."
The Spartans have gone about rooting out any thoughts of entitlement by participating in a series of winter conditioning workouts that began at 5:30 a.m.
The current players have departed All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard and fellow All-Big Ten selections Max Bullough (middle linebacker), Denicos Allen (outside linebacker), Isaiah Lewis (strong safety) and Blake Treadwell (offensive guard), among others, to thank - and they do - for their ordeal in the morning darkness.
"We definitely don't want to let those guys down because they made much great strides for this program, so we want to keep it up," said defensive end Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. "There's no pressure, but it is a motivational tool to go far this year.
"To have those guys here leading us early on and showing us what we can do, and the accomplishments we can get to, helps us and motivates us to keep going. I want to be that leader this year who takes us this far or that far."
Despite hefty losses on the defensive side the ball, Michigan State appears to be in the best position to sustain success it's been in for years, if not decades.
The quarterback position, a major question mark a year ago at this time, is a strength as it heads into spring with Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl Offensive MVP Connor Cook and talented backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry.
In August, Dantonio hoped he could get 1,000 yards out of a committee of tailbacks. Today, he's welcoming back Jeremy Langford, who with 1,422 yards and 19 touchdowns is the Big Ten's leading returning scorer. The receiving corps must replace Bennie Fowler but otherwise returns largely intact and the offensive line, thanks to an eight-man rotation last season, will replace Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti with established veterans.
Even the hits coordinator Pat Narduzzi's No. 2-ranked defense in the nation will be absorbed by a well-stocked feeder system while game-tested punter Mike Sadler and kicker Michael Geiger also return.
There's plenty to feel good about, just not too good, according to Cook.
"I would really just say the main difference is how hard the coaches are pushing us," he said. "I think this is the hardest offseason program I've been around and this is my third year.
"I like the position we are in right now, just because we have established our identity and we know what we have and we know we have proved to everyone what we can do on offense. And that's exciting as a quarterback, especially only losing one receiver and three offensive linemen and with guys that can step up and fill right in. So really the sky is the limit for us as an offense and it's very exciting."
What hasn't been lost on left guard Travis Jackson is the high level MSU will be able to practice at this spring as opposed to previous years.
"I'm so excited to come back with so many guys with playing experience because game experience to practice experience is so different," Jackson said. "We've had really tough winter conditioning, which has been awesome and the guys are really stepping up to it. I think we can really build on last season.
"They say it's easy to win one championship, but it's hard to stay up there, but that's our goal. We want to go back. We're kind of on square one right now. We're laying the first brick."
And indication of how significantly the landscape has changed for MSU, which almost certainly would have been one of the final four teams in the National Championship playoff had it been staged last season, is the 2012 season is now being depicted, Dantonio mused.
"From what I've seen written out there..., it's gone from being 7-6 to dismal," he said. "Every Michigan State team that we've had has to come in and earn their identity and they have to understand it's not going to be given to them. Understand where we came from, never forget that, and take one step at a time to elevate our play, establish our leadership, establish who we are again, and sort of do it the old-fashioned way. And, that's what we have done here.
"We can't feel like we are entitled. Saying you're the No. 5 team in the country, we can't just hang our hat on that and say, that's going to happen. We have to make it happen and we have to be mature enough to be able to handle success and that's part of it. You can slip back real quickly, but you know, the fact remains that we'll get what we earn."