April 25, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It's as close as Michigan State could come to lining the players up against the playground fence and having the ostensible top two take turns picking teammates for a game of tackle football.
"You don't want to be the last one picked," said senior outside linebacker Chris Norman, who spearheaded the White team effort during the annual MSU Spring Game Draft held Wednesday at the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center auditorium.
Such a stigma is less of a concern for the Spartans because everyone can play or they wouldn't be on the team in the first place. In fact, the outcome of Saturday's 1 p.m. intra-squad scrimmage in Spartan Stadium could come down to how well the second- and third-team players perform.
Mark Dantonio has concluded spring drills with what amounts to a sandlot bowl since taking over as head coach in 2007. The selection process is carried out by the seniors, who were divided into draft committees. The two newest members of the coaching staff, Brad Salem (running backs) and Terrence Samuel (receivers) were named the respective head coaches of the Green and the White teams.
The format isn't conducive to previewing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's talent-laden and experienced unit, or providing a gauge for how Dan Roushar's offense will perform with a new starting quarterback for the first time in four seasons.
However, aside from extending the suspense until the Aug. 31 opener against Boise State, the MSU's Green-White Game is a real competition for the players.
There isn't the risk associated with turning the first units loose against each other, the outcome isn't predetermined as is usually the case when the first teams play the best of the rest and there's a fun factor that's missing when teams conclude spring drills with a situational scrimmage because it doesn't have enough players to field two squads.
"The good thing is we have enough bodies to do it and we're going to get some young guys experience," Salem said. "There will be different mismatches here and there, but it's really about just playing a game."
The split coaching staffs also will get one last dress rehearsal for game-day operations before the team reconvenes in preseason camp. While fans may not be able to judge the first offensive and defensive units as wholes, they will be able to give players the eyeball test.
"You've got a `one' playing next to a `two' or maybe a `three', just depending (on the circumstances), so part of it is watching individuals and getting a chance to see guys showcase their abilities," Salem said.
Some modifications will be in place. For example, new No. 1 quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who backed up Kirk Cousins the last two seasons, won't get a chance to provide even a glimpse of what he can do because of a sprained knee. However, that means red-shirt freshman Connor Cook will get extended time under center in his debut as a Spartan quarterback because he'll be directing both offenses.
Green tight end Denzel Drone could also see playing time at defensive end, the position he played last season. Micajah Reynolds, who switched to defensive front late last season, could also help out with the White offensive line.
"Of course, there are going to be rhythm issues, but the scheme is what it is and the guys have to go out and execute," Samuel said. "They're still proving to us that they can execute this offense or this defense. As a coach, we'll take any reps these kids can get to get better."
There's also a team-building component to playing the game in such away, especially for Samuel's receiving corps, which said goodbye to 171 catches, 2,435 yards and 19 touchdowns due to the departure of B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.
"I may be an older guy who was playing with the `ones' but I'm right next to a guy who might be a potential `three,'" Samuel said. "I need talk to this guy to make sure he's on the same page - `You know what routes you're running?' And we confirm it and we run the right routes.
"So, there's going to be more chatter out there that should help get everybody on the same page. I think these kids are starting to understand that we go as far as the weak link goes. Everybody has to pull their weight. That individual who might have been working with the `threes' all spring has got to bring his game up. That makes the whole team stronger."
Norman, who has been sidelined all spring with an injury, said he drafted the White team with one objective in mind - winning.
"When you're doing this, you really can't play heart games," he said when asked if he was worried about anyone's feelings. "You have to go with who you think is going to get the job done. This is a lot better way to do it because ultimately, a player wants to perform well for his teammates and this is a good way for the guys to relate to the team.
"I think this makes them want to perform better and it also brings us closer together. It's lot more exciting than a bland `ones' against `twos.' When you can shake things up and be strategic, it's a lot more fun."
SPARTANOTES: After choosing Green and White teams, the Spartans got down to some even more important work out of camera and microphone range. They took part in an annual rite of spring under Dantonio by venturing out into the community to lend a hand or cheer up those less fortunate than themselves.
The defensive linemen, for example, helped serve dinner at the Volunteers of America Community Kitchen in Lansing. Quarterbacks and tight ends moved into the Ronald McDonald House for gravely ill children for a couple hours. Linebackers pitched in at the Capital Area Humane Society while the offensive linemen took part in activities at Advent House Ministries.
Wide receivers performed tasks for the Flood Plain Farms Community Development Association, and running backs delivered good cheer to the folks at the Burcham Hills Retirement Center.
Secondary coach and service liaison Harlon Barnett and his defensive backs paid a visit to sick children at Sparrow Hospital and punters and kickers are scheduled to interact at Ellie's Place, a healing center for grieving children, on Friday.
"They have their own cars, or they hop in a coach's car, and we all get there," Barnett said. "This is all about giving back, and not taking anything for granted - you're privileged in a lot of ways. This is something we've always done since (Dantonio) has been a head coach."
In many cases, the players get more out of the experience than the recipients.
"I'm never disappointed," Barnett said. "The players always do a pretty decent job because they know why we're doing it. Even if they're naturally shy, this brings it out of all of them. Some of the guys even surprise you because you think they're introverts but they come out and work with people and do whatever they need to do.
"Coach D does this in some ways to let them know they've got it pretty good right now, so don't just assume life is horrible for you even though we're practicing long hours and banging heads. It's an eye-opening event for some of them if they've never experienced anything like this, but some guys come from tough backgrounds and they feel even more obligated to do things for others. It's the real world."
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As far as the receivers go, MSU is working with a blank canvas. Transfer DeAnthony Arnett caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns last season as a Tennessee freshman, but he's still waiting for the NCAA's decision on his request for a residence waiver, based on family hardship, exempting him from the rule requiring him to sit out a year.
"I want to see how (true freshman) Kyle Kerrick does, first time being in of fans in our stadium and getting a chance to make some plays," Samuel said. "Is he going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? I'm excited to see how he responds, right along with (red-shirt freshman) Andre Sims, because these are guys who haven't played.
"DeAnthony is another one, but he's played in the SEC, so this shouldn't be uncomfortable for him. It's about his interpretation of the offense. He needs to make sure he shows us he understands the offense."