July 26, 2012
CHICAGO - The annual Big Ten Football Kickoff began Thursday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. Sixth-year head coach Mark Dantonio, junior linebacker Max Bullough, junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and senior linebacker Chris Norman took part in several media interviews throughout the first day of the event.
Bullough, Maxwell and Norman began the day meeting with television crews from ESPN, CBS and BTN for one-on-one interviews. During the player interviews, Dantonio held a 15-minute press conference to preview the upcoming season before opening the floor to questions. The press conference was covered live by ESPNU and the Big Ten Network.
Among various topics, Dantonio talked about what Michigan State has to do to take the next step as a program, the challenges of filling a leadership void left by last year's seniors, and playing the season opener against Boise State.
"We've got unfinished business in terms of getting to the Rose Bowl," said Dantonio. "We've not been able to accomplish that yet. So that continues to be our goal. But we enter into the conversation when people talk about it right now. So we're on the cusp, and I think that's a positive thing as we move forward."
Following Dantonio's formal press conference, he met up with the three players and proceeded on to an hour-long session for television stations, rotating through five tables and taking questions from local reporters in other Big Ten media markets. Dantonio completed his day by also meeting with BTN, CBS and ESPN.
Day two of the kickoff continues Friday morning with roundtable interviews with newspaper reporters, followed by an hour-long autograph session with fans. The event concludes with the 41st-annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon at 12:30 p.m. ET.
A complete transcript of Dantonio's press conference is below:
COACH DANTONIO: Great to be here again. This always kicks off football for us as a family and as a program. We're very, very excited about the 2012 season. When you look back at Michigan State right now, we've been in five straight Bowl games since 2007. Two 11-win seasons these last two years, so we've sort of set things in place in terms of a foundation right now, and we're excited about the opportunity to compete further.
The opportunity to play in an inaugural championship game last year was a great experience for all of us. I think we grew from that experience as a team, and we look forward to more great things from that. But we are continuing to build a foundation.
I think one of the things we've been able to do is keep our staff continuity together, our staff together in terms of continuity. It's done nothing but add to our program and all of our coaches returned.
We returned 46 lettermen, I think 16 starters, 10 of which had been all-Big Ten in some capacity, some honor. And so we've got a lot of things going for us in terms of those different type products.
We've also got unfinished business in terms of getting to the Rose Bowl. We've not been able to accomplish that yet. So that continues to be our goal. But we enter into the conversation when people talk about it right now. So we're on the cusp, and I think that's a positive thing as we move forward.
Some of the things that I guess would be considered are our challenges this year would be our leadership. We have a void in the leadership in terms of who is left, in terms of Kirk Cousins, but with that said, I think we've got great chemistry on our team and established players who will assume that leadership responsibility. And probably that starts with guys like Max Bullough, Andrew Maxwell and Chris Norman, who are all here with us today, and you'll have an opportunity to spend with those guys.
But certainly our skill level at our wide receiver position is something that will be a challenge as we move forward. But, again, we have talent at that position and talent across the board on our football team.
Our schedule will pay dividends as we move forward. Our non-conference schedule will be opening with Boise State, playing Notre Dame that third game, both at home, playing Central Michigan second and Eastern Michigan the fourth game. So I think from that standpoint, our inexperienced players will be front and center right off the bat, so that's going to be a positive for them as well.
In reference to a couple of things, I do want to acknowledge that Steve Moore, our long snapper from last year in our bowl game, long snapper, suffered a neck injury, a very serious neck injury, and will be getting out of the hospital very soon. And our thoughts and our prayers are with him in that respect. And I wanted to acknowledge that situation.
When you look at our defense coming back, I guess we returned eight of 11 starters. More importantly probably than even that aspect is we returned 18 of our 22 top players on defense. We were able to redshirt every one of our freshmen players except for one. So a lot of those players are on the defensive side of the ball. And again, that will prove to be a positive for us as we move forward.
Defensive line-wise, obviously you know the names. I'm not going to go through all the names, but we bring back four guys with starting experience. The linebackers all returned. We don't graduate one linebacker. So all of those guys are returning with Max Bullough, Chris Norman here, and then Denicos Allen, a guy who had 11 sacks last year. Our secondary returns, with the exception of one, and so we're poised and ready to go on that side of the ball, and Coach Narduzzi and his defensive staff has done a great job in terms of implementing what we do and how fast we do it.
On the offensive side of the ball, our offensive line loses one player but we return six starters, guys with starting experience. So we should be pretty solid there. A lot of guys played a lot of different positions. Our running back situation is very solid. I've already talked about our quarterbacks and wide receivers, and both specialists return. So we're standing ready to go.
Q. Across the defense and offensive line, you've got a very deep line on both sides. When you came, you didn't have that. And you said that's what it would take to be champions. Would you just assess that as a unit.
COACH DANTONIO: I think a lot of times when you look at it as a football team, it's always going to start up front. We had good players when I came. I don't want to disrespect any of those players, but we did not have the depth that we have now.
One of the things that was sort of intriguing to me as we went into the spring game last year - this is without our incoming freshmen - we were able to field two full offensive and defensive lines with scholarship players. So when you look at that, you look at guys like Travis Jackson at center coming back for his second year as a starter, an outstanding player. Chris McDonald coming back for his fourth year as a starter. And Fou Fonoti, who is a junior college transfer coming back for his second year as starter. And left side, Blake Treadwell comes back. He was a starter going into last year and injured his knee. He comes back as a left guard. Left tackle Dan France returns. And then you've got Skyler Burkland who comes back and was a starter. And Jack Allen, Ethan Ruhland has playing experience. So we have eight guys with playing experience up front.
Across the defensive side of the ball, we have Will Gholston. You obviously know about Will. At 6'7", 285-pound defensive end, he is a force. There's no question. Marcus Rush was the Freshmen All-American at the other defensive end. And Anthony Rashad White returns at one defensive tackle. And Tyler Hoover, who's a guy who started, of course, at defensive end the previous year, but was out last year, returns to play inside at defensive tackle. He's now 310 pounds at about 6'6", 6'7".
So we've got guys and we've got guys behind them. And that's what makes it - I think that's what makes it - when people talk about Michigan State right now, we've got to enter the conversation in terms of what's going to happen at the end of the season.
But very competitive league, and it's tough to win. So it's a game of inches. We've always talked about that. But our guys have confidence and we'll be ready.
Q. Despite what you guys accomplished last year, the perception is that Michigan is still favored over you guys. Do you like your position in that sense?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, why do you guys bring that up on me? I would just say they've been favored pretty much the last four years. Competitive game. Big rival game. They do an outstanding job there. But it only matters: Are they favored or not in the locker room? And in our locker room, they won't be favored. So we'll start with that.
Q. Since you arrived as the head coach, you really turned this program around. The first year you made a bowl game. The next year you played New Year's Day. Won the Big Ten. Last year, you finally won a bowl game. Is the talk this year winning the Big Ten and getting to the Rose Bowl, or is it getting to the national title game?
COACH DANTONIO: It's always been our conversation in our locker room, to get to the Rose Bowl, whether it was 2007 or whatever year it's been. And that, to me, is our goal. And I think you have to make your goals and you have to climb a ladder when you get to your goals, to get to those goals. And the first thing that you have to do is you have to get to that championship game before you can go to the Rose Bowl. We were able to do that last year. If you're fortunate enough to get to the Rose Bowl, that's when the conversation of a national championship is going to come into play. And so we'll let things play out. But our focus will be to play one game at a time, just like that old adage, and get ready and conquer that goal and adjust and move forward. And if we can do those things, we're going to be successful.
But I think the key in everything is having great chemistry and maintaining your approach and your plan. So our plan will be always to be the very best that we can be and compete at the highest level we can, and to do it with a certain amount of effort, toughness, and knowledge. And that's been the plan since we've gotten there. That's how we'll continue to carry it.
But on a national stage, on a national picture, again, we enter conversation. So that's a positive thing for our program. And that points to the direction that we're going. It's so competitive, and the thing is tied together by strings, I think, in terms of winning and losing and all those different types of things. So we'll do the very best we can, and at the end of the day, that's good enough for me.
Q. How have you and your staff reacted to the sudden availability of the Penn State players?
COACH DANTONIO: What we've tried to do is first acknowledge the situation. I don't think there's any winners when you speak to that entire situation. But at the same time, acknowledge that we have a program that we have to run and try and get better. And so what we have done is if people have contacted us, a coach, a parent, we've followed through. And that's the extent of it. And if there's people that are receptive to that and come back with us, I understand that. I'm here to create opportunities, but we're not going to invest in going beyond that. I would want to do this with respect to Penn State in any way that I can with integrity. But at the same time, we have a job to do, and we do have relationships with some players that have gone there because we recruited them at an earlier time.
Q. Have any players contacted you about that? And when you look at your team returning, what are the things that a coach evaluates in terms of the chemistry, all the things that you've built in terms of bringing someone into your family this soon before the start of a season?
COACH DANTONIO: First of all, due respect to the players that would be involved. I'm not going to say who or how many approached us or their high school coach or those type of things. So we'll just leave that one alone.
But I do think that you have to know the individual, because there's two sides to this story. There's the team over here that may be losing players, but there's the team over here that has to - if they do bring players you have to bring the right type of people there to be involved in your family. So obviously, you have to have a little bit of knowledge from them in the past and who they are as people. And that's what we've tried to do. We just haven't gone off the deep end there in that respect.
Q. I want to ask about Boise State. Their reputation as a major college killer, taking out Oklahoma, Georgia, Virginia Tech, was there some trepidation about adding them to your schedule? And yet you get the opportunity of a showcase game on that Friday night, the only two teams probably playing, it should be quite an event.
COACH DANTONIO: It should be a great event. We've got new scoreboards, $10 million worth of scoreboard space, so hopefully we put something up there good. But I think that was 2009 or 2008 maybe when this decision was made (note: series contact was signed in 2010). And at that point in time and even now, if you want to be the best, that you have to compete. Boise is a team that's gained national respect, I think, in terms of who they've played and won against. Georgia last year, I think Virginia Tech the year before. Coach Peterson, 73 and 6. Not too many coaches around that's lost only six games in their career. So we have a deep amount of respect for them.
But at the same time, what we have to do and at this point in time, get our quarterback experience. Get our wide receivers experience, because we're young and we're inexperienced there. We're talented but we're inexperienced. The best way to do it is put them in the light, put them in the camera, put them in the media, put them on prime time, put them in a situation where there is something to gain by playing and winning and performing well. And that's what we've been able to do.
We follow that up with a night game two weeks later against Notre Dame when they come to town. So our out-of-conference schedule is formidable. But I think it's going to pay dividends later on. I still remember in '08 when we went to Cal for the first game, and I think we packed a toothbrush. I said get a toothbrush and come on, let's go. And that's what we did. And we had a chance to win the football game in the fourth quarter. We didn't win it, but we went 9 and 3 and it paid dividends later on, because we were in a situation where it was extremely competitive and on a national stage. You can only get better from these challenges. And I believe challenges give you every opportunity to rise to an occasion, and that's what our players will have to do. So that was - the thought process is, hey, if we're going to be as good as we want to be, then we've got to play whoever, whenever, wherever.
Q. You mentioned that about receivers, that you have a lot of young players coming in this year. One of those guys being DeAnthony Arnett who just transferred from Tennessee. What kind of impact do you think he'll have this year?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, all of our receivers - we knew that we were losing a lot of great players there. B.J. Cunningham, the all-time leading receiver, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, those guys were outstanding players. So the first thing we did was tried to address the concern through recruiting. So we brought five young wide receivers in, DeAnthony being one of those guys...Remembering he's still a true freshman last spring. We knew him as a player. We knew him as a person because we recruited him very hard through his high school career. So he's going to have an opportunity to be obviously a great football player for us, to be a guy that is someone that can do the things that Keshawn has done for us, be a star for us, I guess, I would say. But you've got to make plays, so he's going to have every opportunity. It's exciting to watch him out there perform. And he brings something to the table, there's no question.
Q. What's your opinion on how the bowl setup is? If the Big Ten does get two teams in BCS games, do you think it should be the two division winners?
COACH DANTONIO: Of course I would based on where I was sitting this year. If I was sitting in the opposite place spot, I would. So those are the decisions that other people make. All we can do is deal with what comes down the road with us and take then the next step. And that's what we've always tried to do.
Internally, you want to moan about things and say what if. But our main focus was whatever bowl game we went to, we needed to win, and we were able to do that against a great Georgia team, an outstanding football team, and a great environment in the Outback Bowl, and we had a great experience. So our players thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and I think Michigan State Spartans in general had a great time. So we'll look to the positive and say we had a great bowl experience and take the next step, and the next step is 2012.
Q. Everybody knows about the leadership you lost with Kirk, but Chris Norman is a guy that doesn't get a lot of recognition outside of the program, but in the locker room he certainly carries the respect of his teammates. Would you talk about Chris, please?
COACH DANTONIO: We had a big decision to make, who to bring to these things, who are our players we should bring. We brought two juniors in Maxwell and Max Bullough. And they're great representatives of our football team. And then the third guy, I felt pretty strong we should bring a defensive guy. I also felt pretty strong that it needed to be a senior.
Chris Norman started for us for four straight years. On and off his freshman year a little bit, he played a lot of football. And he's been a guy that's been on the defense that has been pretty good the last two years. So he's got a reputation on the field. He's got an outstanding reputation in the locker room in terms of who he is as a person, what dynamics he brings to our football team from a personality perspective. And I thought he was the perfect choice. He's not afraid to stand up and tell you what he believes whether it be his faith, whether it be what he thinks about a player or a situation. He's very candid. And I think he speaks well for our football team and I'm extremely proud to have him with us today.
He's an outstanding player. He's a 235-pound linebacker that verticals over 40 inches, benches about 400 pounds. So he'll be ready to go in the season, too. Outstanding football player. Sometimes gets a little bit overshadowed because Denicos had 11 sacks and Max led in defensive tackles, but he's an outstanding football player.
Q. Do you see a competitive imbalance between these divisions, not only this year, but maybe down the line? And is there any need to do anything about it?
COACH DANTONIO: I would say only in terms of sheer numbers. One team right now is dealing with four teams, having an opportunity to play for the championship. The other team has six. And but again, we're a week away from our players coming in, so I can't worry about that. But obviously, this is an emergency type situation which has happened. That's probably for other people to talk about.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.
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