Spartan Football Opens Spring Practice
March 25, 2005
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State third-year head coach John L. Smith sent his team through a two-hour workout in the Duffy Daugherty Football Building Friday, March 25, as the Spartans opened spring drills. Ninety-four players - wearing shorts, jerseys and helmets - participated in the first of 15 allotted practices.
Smith welcomed back 39 lettermen for spring practice, including 14 starters, from last year's 5-7 team. The Spartans lost four games in 2004 by a combined total of 23 points.
"2004 was a season of missed opportunities," Smith said. "It was disappointing to lose so many close games because we weren't mentally tough enough to finish. Throughout the winter conditioning program and throughout this spring, we're going to concentrate on helping our players learn how to finish, finish hard. The players must become conditioned to making a play when the game is on the line."
The Spartans kicked off spring practice Friday by taking another step in the right direction.
"From a mental standpoint, this team is light years ahead of where it was a year ago," Smith said. "They're more familiar with the material, so they can execute with more confidence. The guys were sharp today, so it was a very productive first practice."
Michigan State will build its 2005 offense around junior quarterback Drew Stanton (6-3, 228), who accounted for 2,288 total yards and 14 touchdowns last season. The 2004 team MVP ranked among the Big Ten leaders in total offense (third at 228.8 yards per game), passing efficiency (fourth with 131.8 rating), rushing (eighth at 68.7 ypg.) and passing (10th at 160.1 ypg.). His 2,288 total yards represent the fifth-best single-season mark in Spartan history. Stanton completed 141-of-220 throws (.641) for 1,601 yards, eight TDs and six interceptions. He also ranked third on the team in rushing with 687 yards on 96 carries and five TDs.
"Everybody came to the practice field with a really positive attitude," Stanton said. "We had an upbeat tempo because everyone was excited about being back on the field. We made progress as a team today because only a few mental mistakes were made.
"My main goal is to improve my accuracy in throwing the deep ball because I really believe we have the personnel to hurt teams with our vertical game. I also need to learn how to play smarter with my body. I must learn to know when it's important for me to put my head down and fight for the extra yard.
"I know that we have some big shoes to fill on the right side of the offensive line, but I trust everyone of our linemen. They understand what it takes to compete at this level. I thought some of our young guys - (right tackle) Mike Gyetvai, (right guard) Roland Martin and (right guard) Pete Clifford - really improved today. All of these guys have the right approach to learning the game."
With a proven commodity in Stanton returning at quarterback, Smith says the coaching staff will focus on identifying a capable backup.
"Without a doubt, a top priority this spring is to develop depth at the quarterback position," Smith said. "Drew Stanton needs to take 10-15 snaps per scrimmage to simply stay fresh. Drew doesn't need a ton of snaps, but those younger guys do. We need to see somebody step up and emerge as the No. 2 quarterback.
"I was pleased with what I saw from Brian Hoyer (6-2, 208, R-Fr.) and Domenic Natale (6-1, 181, Fr.) today. Hoyer made some good decisions and got the ball out quickly. Natale struggled some with the material, but I was impressed with how he handled himself especially when you consider that he's only been on campus for three months."
The biggest challenge on defense is identifying the playmakers. In 2004, the Spartans ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in sacks (21) and takeaways (14).
In an effort to get his best 11 defenders on the field, Coach Smith has moved Eric Smith (6-1, 193, Sr.), a two-year starter at strong safety, to the bandit position. Smith ranked second on the team in tackles last season, recording a career-best 115 stops.
"Eric Smith gives us exactly what we're looking for at that spot," the head coach said. "Eric has tremendous intelligence, great football knowledge and the natural instincts to make all of the proper adjustments in the secondary. We really believe that Eric can be a great player at the bandit position."
"I played a little bandit last year, so the transition should be pretty smooth," Eric said. "I already know most of the defensive calls, but we're also putting in some new stuff this spring.
"At the bandit, I'll drop into some zone coverage but there are more man-to-man responsibilities. I will be provided more opportunities to blitz at this position. I will miss the safety position some because I like running around and making plays on both sides of the field. At safety, I also always had to defend against the cutback.
"I'm looking forward to assuming a greater leadership role. I'll be expected to communicate more on the field. The linebackers will set the defensive front and then I'll be responsible for setting everything else. My biggest challenge will be becoming more talkative off the field, especially in the locker room and weight room."
Like previous springs, Smith plans to experiment with several position changes, including Greg Cooper (5-11, 187, Jr.), who is pulling double duty at free safety and cornerback, and former wide receiver Irving Campbell (5-11, 184, So.), who lined up at cornerback Friday.
"Greg Cooper saw playing time at both safety and cornerback today, and I really like the way he communicated when he was in there," Smith said. "We also took a long look at Irving Campbell at cornerback today. Irving did some good things, especially when you consider the amount of material that we've thrown at him in a short period of time."
Friday also marked the first practice for three new assistant coaches: Chuck Driesbach (secondary), Lucious Selmon (defensive line) and Ben Sirmans (running backs).
"This spring will be an important transition period for the players at those positions because they're getting accustomed to different individual drills and different coaching personalities," Smith said. "I really like the way the guys are competing in practice because they all want to impress their new position coach."
The Spartans continue spring drills Saturday, March 26. The team will practice in full pads for the first time this spring on Tuesday, March 29.
Fans are invited to attend the Saturday, April 16 practice, scheduled for 1 p.m. EDT in Spartan Stadium, weather permitting. Prior to the open practice, MSU's coaching staff and players will conduct a youth football clinic from 10-11:30 a.m. for children, ages 8-12.
Michigan State concludes spring practice on Friday, April 22.
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