March 26, 2014
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Eighth-year Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio sent his team through a 2 1/2-hour workout in helmets, jerseys and shorts inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building on Tuesday, March 25, as the Spartans completed the first of 15 allotted spring practices.
"It was the first day of spring practice and I thought the effort and energy levels were good," Dantonio said. "In the spring, the most important thing is not to get anybody hurt. The main point of emphasis today was to get the players moving around and accustomed to carrying a helmet and playing football again. It's a change of direction game, so we're going to be working the hamstrings and bending the knees. The guys are going to be sore after these first few days.
"The retention was good. When you look at (quarterback) Connor Cook, you could tell that he's played a lot of football for us. I thought he was sharp and the receivers caught the ball very well. The guys looked quick and athletic. We did a lot of work in the passing game against air because we didn't script many team periods today.
"We had a great Fourth Quarter conditioning program, with great team chemistry and a lot of enthusiasm. Our guys worked extremely hard during the winter and there was definitely some carryover into the first spring practice."
Michigan State returns 20 lettermen, including five starters, from the Big Ten's top-ranked defense in 2013. The Spartans led the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense for 13 straight weeks before finishing second overall, allowing just 252.2 yards per game. MSU also ranked among the NCAA FBS leaders in rushing defense (second at 86.6 yards per game), scoring defense (third at 13.2 points per game) and pass defense (165.6 ypg.).
Gone is three-year starter and two-time first-team All-Big Ten middle linebacker Max Bullough. The top candidate to replace Bullough is senior Taiwan Jones (6-3, 252), who has 17 career starts under his belt at Star (weakside) linebacker.
"It's not a bad transition for me because I prefer playing in the box anyway," Jones said. "I feel more comfortable there. I know my responsibilities, so there was no panicking.
"I learned a lot from playing alongside Max Bullough. He's a great leader and a great player. Simply watching him made me a much better football player.
"We want to prove everybody wrong that says we can't be the No. 1 defense in the nation since we lost six guys (from the starting lineup). We're going to come out hungry at every practice and every game and show everybody that we're the same defense."
Also missing from the linebacker corps is three-year starter Denicos Allen, who led the team in tackles (career-high 98 stops) and tackles for loss (16.5 for 58 yards) in 2013. Junior Darien Harris (6-0, 228), who played behind Jones last season, opened spring practice listed No. 1 on the depth chart at Star linebacker.
"It feels great to be back on the practice field," Harris said. "They brought me in to play as a Star, so I feel comfortable at the position. It's exciting to be out there battling it out with the ones.
"When watching Denicos Allen, you learn the importance of playing with a consistent motor. His motor never stopped. Every play, he found a way to get involved even if the play was designed to go away from him. We watched film clips of effort plays and most of those were made by Denicos. That's how he made his living ... effort plays.
"It's an exciting opportunity and I'm blessed to have it. There are definitely high expectations (for our defense), but we talk about those every day and we're ready to live up to them. It's our time. We've been out there in high-pressure games, like the Rose Bowl and Big Ten Championship Game, so we know what it takes."
In the secondary, junior Trae Waynes, who started all 14 games at field corner in 2013, switches to boundary corner to fill the void created by the departure of consensus All-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard. Sophomore Darian Hicks (5-10, 181), who served as Waynes' backup a year ago, now moves into the starting lineup at field corner.
"It felt really comfortable (being with the first team)," Hicks said. "I looked at the depth chart and saw I was the first guy to go, so that means that the coaches trust me and it's time for me to step up.
"I learned a lot last year from Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard. If I had a question, I knew I could go to either one of them. Since Darqueze had the most experience, I often went to him and he would walk me through things and let me know what I was doing wrong.
"With only 15 spring practices, you can't afford to take time off. So you have to keep working hard and keep grinding through the pain. That's just how it goes in the spring."
On the offensive side of the ball, the Spartans welcome back 24 lettermen, including seven starters. The biggest challenge will be retooling an offensive line that loses three starters. Former walk-on Connor Kruse, who played all five offensive line positions as well as tight end in 2013, has emerged as the leading candidate to take over the starting role at right guard.
"Being able to see my name up at the starting spot and to come out here and compete is a huge opportunity for me," Kruse said. "I thank God every day for this opportunity along with my fellow offensive linemen. If it wasn't for guys like Travis Jackson, Dan France and older guys like Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, I wouldn't have this opportunity. Being a walk-on is tough, but they pushed me through it. I'm going to work my tail off to keep it (the starting job).
"It's a little bit of a comfort knowing that I'm playing right guard, but at the same time, I'm willing to help anywhere that I'm needed. I liked studying all of the line positions last year. If the left tackles comes up and needs help, I'll talk to him about whatever is going on. If I know his position, I'm going to know my position better. So I want to know his position just as much as my own position. There's definitely a comfort level knowing that I don't have to switch from tight end to guard to center during the course of a game.
"Obviously as an offensive lineman, I'm not out there when the guys are doing 7-on-7 drills, so today was the first time I got to see Connor (Cook) throw. Even in the huddle, he's way more confident with his speaking and in how he's delivering the play to us. He's not questioning himself; he's not studying his arm (play) card. He glances at the card, tells us the play and we head to the line (of scrimmage). Connor looked really good today and made some great throws."
The Spartans will practice again in shells (helmets, jerseys and shorts) on Thursday before wearing full pads for the first time on Saturday.
"We'll continue to install things and put some base things in, but early on this spring, the focus is on movement," Dantonio said.
Michigan State concludes its 15 spring practices with the Green-White intrasquad game on Saturday, April 26 at 2 p.m. in Spartan Stadium. The spring game will be televised live by BTN.