Spring Game Marks Beginning For Emerging Players
April 26, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The Green-White game marked the end of spring practice at Michigan State. It also served as "the beginning" for players as a crowd of 35,000 and thousands more via the Big Ten Network got to see really for the first time.
Darian Hicks introduced himself as a leading contender to replace All-American Darqueze Dennard at cornerback with a game-ending interception that preserved a 20-13 victory for the White Saturday afternoon in Spartan Stadium.
Damion Terry, who captivated the imagination of fans early last season as a true freshman quarterback despite the conspicuous absence of any publicly displayed visual evidence whatsoever, said hello with a 23-yard touchdown run that put the White ahead 7-0 in the first quarter.
Oft-mentioned Green safety Demetrious Cox validated some of the coach-talk that has swirled around him the past two seasons by picking off a pass thrown by No. 1 quarterback Connor Cook in the second quarter and Demetrius Cooper, a White defensive end, continued to "flash," according to head coach Mark Dantonio.
They are among the names of the future that will come for them as early as next fall when the Spartans begin the defense of their Big Ten Championship, and they will be counted on to contribute to the cause one way or another.
"We play a lot of players," Dantonio said. "That's the one thing we do with this program here, we play our guys and we have a lot of football players moving forward, whether with special teams or offense-defense."
Hicks has been obscured by the shadow cast by the Jim Thorpe Award trophy won last season by Dennard as the nation's top defensive back. But Dennard was once in a similar place going into his sophomore season.
"I think I showed the coaches what I can do out there," said Hicks, who came back from an injury that sidelined him for the first three weeks of spring practice to lead the White with six tackles. "I think today was a productive day for me. The coaches put me there because they think I'm a guy who can fill that spot. But you've always got to make sure you don't have any drop-offs and stay consistent.
"The plan is to get the Jim Thorpe Award back to East Lansing, so that's what we're trying to do here."
A relative unknown to fans, red-shirt freshman Jalyn Powell raised eyebrows on Wednesday when he was the first safety selected in the senior-run draft used by Dantonio to fill the Green and White rosters.
The physical Powell is vying to fill the void created by the departure of hard-hitting All-Big Ten strong safety Isaiah Lewis.
"My teammates were in my ear to come out, play hard and hit people," said Powell, who with five tackles did just that. "I think it should be a nice battle going into fall camp and may the best man win. I just try to hit people hard every time. I think I showed the crowd I can come down and make a lot of tackles and make a play whenever it comes to me."
The much-anticipated unveiling of Terry didn't disappoint, though the crowd gasped when he came up from a blindside sack by Cooper favoring his left (non-throwing) shoulder. He did return, wearing a red jersey making him off-limits to tacklers the rest of the game, and finished with 32 yards on three carries and completed 2-of-5 passes for 30 yards while taking snaps with both teams.
Dantonio hinted that there will be a dual-threat role for Terry in MSU's offense.
"We see certain people using two-quarterback systems," Dantonio said. "We experimented a little bit with those things and have a little package together with different things we do. Damion's a guy who can make plays. He had a couple nice throws that were dropped or a nice defensive play if a hand gets in there.
"You saw what he can do with that first run. He's got great running ability for a guy that's 230 pounds and 6-foot-3. He has to operate, aside from what we call that little package, the quarterback position and a lot of times that takes experience. He has to grow in his decision-making, not so much with where he goes with the ball but getting in and out of certain plays and basic reads. He's a young player. Those 15 practices really helped him."
While Cook (11 of 21, 159 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) is entrenched as the starter for 2014, Terry and Tyler O'Connor, who completed 12-of-23 passes for 138 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions while also showing good mobility with Green-leading 24 yards on three carries, are competing for the No. 2 spot.
"He had some picks, but he made some plays, too," Dantonio said of O'Connor. "I thought he played solid in there. He's very functional and can make plays. I think Tyler played better than his three interceptions would indicate."
Cooper, a red-shirt freshman who hasn't played much organized football since his sophomore season at Chicago Julian High School four years ago due to a knee injury, has retained his lightning-quick reflexes despite increasing his weight by 47 pounds, to 245, since last summer.
He had a sack and quarterback hurry and "is a guy who is very athletic," Dantonio said. "He's gotten bigger, but again, he's got to sustain it play in and play out. There's no question he can flash like Shilique (Calhoun) did when he was a true freshman."
Then there's Lawrence Thomas, a name fans have come to know as he switched from linebacker to fullback in 2012, who has found a home at defensive end. An off-season back injury kept Thomas off the field nearly all last season.
"This is the first time he's been able to go through every practice," Dantonio said. "He's got tremendous athletic ability and size. He's got to play more consistently. There's no question he can make plays for us inside (at tackle) or out."
With Jeremy Langford (18 yards, 11 carries) and Nick Hill (69 yards, 10 carries) returning for their senior season, the tailback situation is sorted for the time being. But, Gerald Holmes picked up 20 yards on four carries, including a long-gainer of 11 for the White and Nick Tompkins surfaced for 2 yards on one carry for the Green. Meantime, Delton Williams is the 232-poundbanger who sat out the game on "injured reserve."
"Nick Hill's had a great (spring)," Dantonio said. "We've got guys back there and some of those guys are probably going to have different positions as we move forward. There's no question about that because they're going to get stacked in there. We need young players to continue to come here and become great tailbacks."
Other names that may pass often over fans' lips in the coming months include: cornerback Ezra Robinson (Green-high six tackles), receiver Monty Madaris (two catches, 37 yards), tight end Jamal Lyles (one catch, 12 yards) and receiver DeAnthony Arnett (one catch, 10 yards).
And then, there was the random name Dantonio dropped before it becomes the household variety.
"A lot of guys we know about already, but (red-shirt sophomore offensive guard) Kodi Kieler is a guy that sticks out in my mind and has really played well," he said.
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