MSU Spring Football Preview
March 24, 2009
COACH DANTONIO: First off, I just want to congratulate our men's and women's basketball teams, what they're about to encounter and accomplish in the postseason this year. I think that's an outstanding message that is sent to our players every day.
I talk to our players all the time that you don't have to look too far to look for championships around here. When you look at our men's basketball team, the things they've been able to do as a program, which dates back quite some time now, you see established winning in progress, you win close games, the things I've talked about before basically, you see at a constant. I just want to congratulate them.
Spring practice is about goals. I think anytime you start to look back at things, you look back at when we first came here, some of the things we talked about that very first time we went through spring practice. Now as I sit back in my office, I'm looking at 2007, 2008 spring practices, looking at things we did at Cincinnati, things I've done at Ohio State back in spring practice, you get a sense of how long it's been.
But when you look at things, it always starts with a mission statement I think. Our mission statement will always be to develop a love and respect for each other within our team, to play with great effort, great toughness, and to know what to do. When you can do those things, you're going to be pretty good. That's what we expect to be again.
With that said, specifically our objectives for the spring will always be, just as my college coaches always told me, get 2 percent better every practice. If we can do that as a group, we're going to improve. That's what I think spring practice is all about, it's about improving. Going 15 for-15 as a young college player, in other words making the 15 practices, being able to go through each practice not being sidelined, you have a chance to get better.
Goal number two is to take the next step. I also said that last year. You never know whether you're going to take a step up or a step back, but it's important that we continue to move forward. From my perspective, I think right now it's about, very simply put, winning your last football game. I think that's something we have not done here in the past two years.
I think anytime you look at things, you try to get better at things; you want a point of emphasis. If we can just win our last football game, whether it was the Georgia game in the Capital One Bowl, whether it was our last regular season game, you build on what you've been able to do. It will start with that.
From there, we'll try to solidify our team in terms of our depth. We'll look for the experienced players to step forward. Certainly, we have to develop some experience. For example, our offensive line, whatever position you look at, there is no better teacher than experience. I think those are the things we have to look for as we move forward. You're developing depth and techniques. We want to identify our strengths and our weaknesses, as we always do. When you find out your weaknesses, you want to minimize those, maximize your strengths and always play to your strengths. We'll continue to do those things.
We will continue to develop things conceptually. We've been together as a staff for quite some time. When you look at our defensive staff, this will be year number six together. When you look at our offensive staff, basically you have probably about everybody in there for at least four years or so. So we've been able to continue to develop in those different areas. I think it's important we try and move forward. Certainly in special teams, it would be much the same.
Finally, objective number six would be to develop our leaders. The reason we've been successful the last two years, when I say 'successful' I guess moderate success to maybe good success this last year, is because we've had great senior leadership. When you have that, things begin to take shape. It will all fall back on our seniors again.
We have 20 seniors this year. We have quite a few players back with starting experience. Those guys haven't been in a position of leadership as much as others, but the same could be said last year. They haven't gone through some of the hard times that have happened in the past. So it will be interesting to see how they develop.
But that's always I think a key to any good football team, is how you're going to be able to stand in the tough times and you have to stand behind your seniors. With those things being said, we'll continue to look back at every year and say it's a process, and the process moves forward.
Specifically speaking, I guess what we've lost is star power when we lose Javon Ringer, lose an experienced quarterback like Brian Hoyer, and a defensive playmaker like Otis Wiley. Those guys were very, very good players for us and played a lot of football for us. When you lose guys like Brandon Long, who probably had his greatest year as a football player; Ryan Allison; you lose a couple offensive linemen starting around here, those are significant losses. We've got to take care of those things.
But we'll find out whether we've lost the edge or not. By 'the edge' I mean that ability to finish games and play at a high level.
Our strengths, we'll again be strong on defense. We developed depth last year out of necessity. But I think that now becomes a very big positive for us.
I think we have a lot of experience coming back at the tight end and wide receiver positions. And I like our quarterback position. (Kirk) Cousins has played some, and (Keith) Nichol has shown some outstanding things in practice. Last year, we only had two guys eligible (quarterbacks) to play in games. This year, with adding Andrew Maxwell into the mix in the fall, we've got three guys that can play and they're physically very, very good quarterbacks. I like where we're at in terms of depth at that position.
Our system, our coaching staff I've talked about. Anytime you have a system in place, the longer it's in place, the more you critique. You're not starting over every single year. You're working with the same terminology, those types of things. The fact that we've won and the expectations here have changed also becomes a strength.
When you look down through our position groups, I'll let you ask the questions there, but I think we can address every position group as we go if you'd like, but I figure you'll probably have some questions.
With that in mind, I'll just open it for questions here and we'll move forward.
Q. Would you talk about the different guys that give you different looks at different positions?
COACH DANTONIO: Antonio Jeremiah, we'll look at him as an offensive lineman during the early part of the spring. He's an outstanding athlete. He's got to go one place or the other because he's too good to sit. We're going to look at him on offense for at least two weeks, and then we'll try to make some decisions based on that. It's tough to learn the offensive line; however, he's an outstanding athlete with great size and athletic ability, so we'll look there.
We have two new freshmen coming in that will actually be on the field that will play - have an opportunity to play a couple positions. Patrick White will start as a defensive back, but he may see a little bit of time as a wide receiver. Donald Spencer will start as a wide receiver, and he may see a little time as a defensive back.
What I want to make sure we do with those two young men is that when the fall comes they will have a basis as to what they're going to play. We're always going to try to get our players on the field as early as possible. They may end up staying at their respective positions throughout the spring, but that could be a possible change.
Based on that, Ashton Henderson will move in and work a little bit at safety in the secondary. Our linebacker situation, pretty much stable, although we've taken a couple red-shirt freshman, Drew Stevens and David Rolf, and moved them to defensive end. Rolf, who played there a little bit at the tail end of last year, has a tremendous upside there.
We're set at quarterback, tailback and wide receiver positions. Andrew Pendy will move over from linebacker to fullback, work there some and add depth.
I think that's probably the end of the movement there. That's where we're at, but we'll continue to experiment this spring. Those are all the experiments in process, so we'll work from there.
Q. You have placed a great deal of emphasis on your senior leadership. Are you confident you can get senior leadership out of two sophomore quarterbacks?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I am. I think both those guys are mature. Both those guys have been in positions of leadership throughout their entire life. I think that sort of goes with the position. But both those guys do a great job I think in handling the other players in terms of how they handle themselves. They're two of our hardest workers on this football team. There are no egos involved with either one of those players. They're outstanding players and athletes. I'm very, very confident both those guys will be dynamic leaders for us.
I think it points to the future a little bit with those two guys, as well.
Q. How close are the quarterbacks going into the spring? I assume you don't plan to have a starter established by the end of spring ball. How do you look at the competition there?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I thought Kirk Cousins had an outstanding fall. Every time he had an opportunity to go in the game, he played very well. He's an extremely hard worker, both in the classroom setting and outside of it on the field. In Keith Nichol, you have a guy who did some amazing things on the scout team, emulating so many different quarterbacks we had to play. He's an outstanding athlete.
So as far as where they're at, it's tough to say going into spring practice, but I would say both of them are very competent moving this football team and I feel very comfortable with both those guys at this point in time.
I guess that's the question that has to be asked at the end of spring. They're both going to get a lot of reps, so you have a little bit of a feel coming out of spring practice. You'll go into August with the same idea. One guy may completely reverse that in August. I think in the season, you've got to get a feel for how they play on game day. Both will be given those opportunities.
I see using both quarterbacks until one clearly becomes the guy. Sometimes that's not until game time. But I'm in no hurry. The main thing is that I feel very good about that position. They have both demonstrated an ability to move the team. Keith did a nice job in the summer in camp and in scrimmage situations. Kirk also had his moments when given an opportunity to perform.
Q. What are your expectations for the impact of the incoming freshman class? Are there one or two players who maybe weren't as highlighted that you're expecting to make some sort of contribution?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, you know, I looked down at my highlighted notes and it says 'freshmen' under strengths, which I omitted. I think our freshmen are going to play. I think there are guys that are going to have an opportunity. They come in here at a time of need. We're a young football team. So that's the first thing you have to look at, is what kind of opportunities are our young players going to have. I think there are going to be certain positions open to that.
Yeah, I think some of those guys are going to play. I don't know who. I can't tell you who. I remember when I was here before in 1999, Cedric Henry was the last guy we took, and he was the guy who played. It depends on how mature they are when they come in, how they handle the work, how strong they are.
I like our freshmen thus far that are here on campus. If that's any indication, they're going to have opportunities.
Q. As you get into year three, do you have a blueprint that either worked here or at Ohio State or wherever you've been of where a program should be and what it should be aspiring to at this point in its development?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I have a blueprint in the fact that we play to win championships here. If it was any indication of where I've been in the past, about year three, at Michigan State the last time that would have been 1997. The team had a pretty good year, but we didn't quite get over the top. Year three at Ohio State, we were pretty good. Year three at Cincinnati was a year where we won eight football games.
I think we're right on target, I think we're ahead of the game in that respect in the fact that we went to a bowl game in year one when nobody thought we would. Then last year, I don't think anybody in this room would have bet their paycheck on us going to a New Year's Day bowl game.
It all depends on breaks sometimes, injuries, senior leadership. This game has become very, very close in many respects across the board. When you play in a conference like the Big Ten, you see teams every year that rise up and play well.
But I like where we're at. Our recruiting is on task. Our resources and our facilities are much improved and continue to be improved daily. I think our players that we're bringing in here are top of the line players.
Q. This being one of the most competitive springs this program has had in a long time, especially fall camp, summer, what kind of things have you been hearing in the off season from reports from strength guys, off season workouts that give you a sense for how bad these players want to go after these positions that are available?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think what you see are guys competing on the field. So whether it's winter workouts, we grade them. We've graded very well throughout winter workouts. You always have a couple guys that hold you back a little bit. That's the way football is. Some guys carry more weight than others in winter workouts.
But winter workouts really can't be confused with playing football. It gives you something to do to try and bring them along in terms of how they handle adversity and hopefully get them in the best shape they can be in. But it's not like contacting people, putting your hands on people, playing with power, catching the football, doing those types of things.
That separation is going to come in spring practice and again in the fall. We're a young football team. There's no doubt about that. When you look at 20 seniors, you might not say the 20 seniors present that much youth. But when you look at the next class, the 13 juniors, it's a relatively young football team. That's good and bad. We've got experience coming back at a lot of positions.
I guess if you look across our football team, we have quite a few starters back, quite a few guys back that have played as starters in crunch time, so that's a positive.
But with that said, you know, depth needs to be developed. I don't know if I'm answering your question, but . . . If I'm not, I'm getting better and better (laughter).
Q. The freshmen, what you're looking for, with them not being here right now, what are you looking for specifically at the running back position during the spring knowing that there will be some freshmen coming in who will likely compete for that spot?
COACH DANTONIO: Last year, I felt like tailback was a position of depth for us, a position of strength for us. We lose Javon (Ringer), and he had a lot of carries, as you all know. But I do think there was talent at that position. So you've got guys like Andre Anderson, Ashton Leggett and A.J. Jimmerson, they're going to have a lot of opportunities to carry the football this spring. Really, as much as anything, they need to get their confidence level where it should be in terms of just handling the football often. So when you go into scrimmages, you're going to see those guys get 20 carries plus. They're going to get their share of carries, so that will be a good thing. Then you've got other players coming in the fall.
I think at Michigan State, the way we've been able to run the football that will be and always be a position of strength because we're going to give people opportunities.
Q. When it comes to the quarterback position, as far as your philosophy goes, do you want to go into the season with one starter or would you feel comfortable playing both of those guys in some kind of a rotation?
COACH DANTONIO: I'm very comfortable with playing those guys in a rotation if they both prove that they have that ability to play at that level. So I'm not at all concerned about that.
Now, if you're saying throughout the entire year, I think that might be a different story. But I think early in the year you have to provide game experience for both these young men to see how they play at game time because I think we're going to see both can perform at a high level during camp, whether it's spring practice, spring game, August camp, I think both can do that. I think Kirk (Cousins) has certainly shown that ability to do that. I think Keith (Nichol) will show that ability as well.
That will be an interesting thing. I think that's a good problem to have. I'm sure one guy wants to be the guy above the other guy. That's just natural. The main thing I want to make sure we do is give people opportunities, be consistent in the way we evaluate people, be completely fair in the way we handle things, then also look at the total picture, what we do at the line of scrimmage, how they lead in the huddle, what kind of confidence they give an entire offense. So those are all intangibles, and it takes more than 15 practices to figure that out.
I really do like where we're at at that position.
Q. You said after the Capital One Bowl that you and your staff had to get better before spring. What did you do to get better?
COACH DANTONIO: I think what we constantly do look at each other as a staff. We refocus our ideas on what we've done, try and critique those things. We've looked back at the teams in depth, every team we've played in depth. We've looked forward at the teams we will play in depth. We try and assess where we're at and move it.
We'll try and work on different things, address the problems we've had that were structural. When we have a breakdown, whether it's defense or offense, we're going to look at it and say was that physical, a guy miss a tackle, drop a pass, whatever it was physically, or was it mental, maybe how we're teaching that, or was it structural, whether maybe that's a bad play for the defense or maybe that play isn't a good play to run, period. I don't know.
So structurally we look at ourselves in those areas and find out why we weren't successful. We were able to do that almost at every single level: special teams, offense, and defense. So we've worked very hard at doing that.
Again, because we don't have a lot of staff turnover, there's opportunity to do that. You're not sitting there saying, what are we going to call this? What kind of defense are we going to run? What are we going to do? You're not building your things conceptually; you're just analyzing them and critiquing them. I think that's how you get better.
Q. When you look at the linebackers and the defensive ends, they seem to be a little bit on the small side. Would you like to have the guys bigger or does it matter?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, they're younger players there right now. When you look at Trevor Anderson, he's a guy that's 260 pounds, benches 400 and runs 4.5 something. He's good to go. I want more guys like that. But you got Tyler Hoover, who we were able to redshirt last year after an injury. He's 270 pounds, 6-6 plus, so there's plenty of size there. The couple of guys we moved from linebacker, David Rolf and Drew Stevens, are both in the neighborhood of 230. Those guys are a little bit smaller at this point, but they're growing. They're in that first year in college where they're going to put on the weight and we've already seen that. So I expect them to be 240, 245 in the fall. They move very, very well, and their hands are very good.
Our defensive tackles, again, are guys that have played, whether it's Michael Jordan, Oren Wilson and Kevin Pickelman. Jerel Worthy is a guy that we were able to redshirt last year, and he's got a tremendous upside. I would think he's going to play a lot of football for us this year. He's 295, 300 pounds, very quick and powerful. We also have guys coming at those positions.
The thing we have to do is try to remain healthy and make sure our guys make 15-for-15 practices. We have some guys out for injuries; they won't practice at all because of surgeries in the off season. That's a given. But there will be other opportunities.
Q. Several players have talked about Kirk Cousins in the huddle, his presence, how he's a cheerleader, always positive. Talk about that, the importance of huddle presence.
COACH DANTONIO: I think the quarterback when he steps into the huddle becomes the coach on the field. He has to exude confidence. He has to give the other players that sense of composure, that it's okay and we're going to get things done in crunch time. I think it's very easy when everything is going very well for a player. But when the tough times come, they have to be able to rally things. That comes from the credibility that you have with your teammates, and that comes from how you feel internally. I think that he has that ability. I think Keith (Nichol) will, too.
But, you know, he's been in the huddle with our football team, and I think they feel that presence.
Q. With Javon (Ringer) gone, you lose a considerable amount of star power. He was the face of the program. It seems like some of that will fall maybe to Greg Jones. Is that something that's important or not important? Do you just let it happen? If it happens, great, or if not, no problem?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it naturally happens. I think Greg Jones, though, is the face of the program right now. He was an All-Big Ten player and the leading tackler for the last two years. His leadership is very strong in the huddle. You guys have watched practice. He practices just as hard as he plays. He's an extremely hard worker.
There will be other players that begin to fall into that area. That's what's so unique I think about college football, is that every year programs have this happen. So that's why it's important that you work on team unity, values, leadership things as you move through it, because two years from now our freshmen are going to be leading, so . . . It's important that the program continue to move forward.
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