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EAST LANSING, Mich. - Under sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s, the Michigan State football team officially began the 2014 season with its first practice on Saturday. The Spartans worked out for two-and-a-half hours in helmets, jerseys and shorts.
Following practice, MSU head coach Mark Dantonio addressed the media to talk about the first day and what he wants to accomplish early in preseason camp.
"It was a good practice, but we'll find out a little bit more about our football team as we move forward," said Dantonio. "Like I said to our football team last night - it starts here, and it's a new beginning. I think everybody across the country that starts today is probably feeling the same thing.
"Our guys have always been enthusiastic (about the start of training camp). We haven't hit the dog days yet, but everyone comes out here (ready to go). I thought our meetings were great yesterday, there was a lot of enthusiasm. We don't have a large senior class, but we have a very large junior class that are fourth-year juniors. They provide a lot of leadership for us, guys like (Connor ) Cook, Shilique (Calhoun) and Trae Waynes."
Although the team is coming off a record-breaking season, Dantonio said preseason camp is all about getting back to your roots and starting over. Even after winning the Rose Bowl and Big Ten Championship, Dantonio is still keeping the tradition of having every coach, player and staff member wear their name written on a piece of tape across their body or helmet.
"I think everyone has to take a step back a little bit," the eighth-year head coach remarked, with DANTONIO written in all caps taped to his gray Michigan State T-shirt. "You have to reaffirm what you're trying to do. Even the smallest things, whether you're a senior, or you're a coach here for eight years, or you're a true freshman, you all have to sort of bleed together a little bit, so that's what we have to do.
"What we talk about is what's the next step for this program. The next step is fall camp. It's a long period of time. We have to get through it, train through it, not have injuries, play at a high level, tackle in space, catch the ball, all the different things. So that's where our focus has to be right now."
Although there's a new postseason format beginning this season with the College Football Playoff, Dantonio said the team's main goal is reaching the Big Ten Championship Game, then letting everything else fall where it may.
"We're always trying to accomplish one aspect here - get to the (Big Ten) Championship Game," he said. "Since it's been split in divisions, we try and get to the championship game. That is still our goal. If we can get there, then the next goal becomes win the Big Ten Championship. It's a long road to get there. If you can win the Big Ten Championship, then you can move on from there and think bigger possibilities.
"I know there's a lot of high expectations, but at the same time, you have to start fresh every year. You have to start fresh and sort of go backwards and reaffirm yourself. There are no givens - everyone is working extremely hard, every program has a lot of aspirations, a lot of dreams, and a lot of high hopes. So don't get ahead of yourself, that's what we've tried to figure out here."
NEWS AND NOTES
Dantonio said that junior defensive tackle Damon Knox is out indefinitely with an injury and will have surgery, but did not give any further specifics on a timetable for his return. Knox played in all 14 games last season, including two starts, and collected 22 tackles with 2.5 for losses.
The Spartans feature a heralded group of incoming freshmen, especially along the defensive line, as six players (David Beedle, Robert Bowers, Craig Evans, Malik McDowell, Enoch Smith Jr. and Montez Sweat) will compete for playing time in preseason camp. Although it's early, Dantonio was impressed with the group after just one day.
"It's hard, because you haven't watched the film yet," he said, "but the initial impressions (of some freshmen) would be: Montae Nicholson, very balanced, big-framed guy, can really run; Malik McDowell, very quick, athletic; Enoch Smith, very athletic. All those defensive linemen are really athletic guys. I'm sort of looking at the freshmen to see, can they catch up? There's a lot going through their mind right now, there's a lot going through their legs. So it's going to take a special guy...On the offensive side of the ball, (Madre) London looks like a great player as well, but there's a lot to learn.
"Our defensive line guys are going to have opportunities. We graduated two (Tyler Hoover, Micajah Reynolds), we lost (Mark) Scarpinato as well to early graduation. If you know one thing about our shorts practice, you can see that it's the most talented group, top to bottom, and it's the deepest group, top to bottom, that we've recruited here."
The team held its annual conditioning test on Thursday with a near 100-percent success rate, and the remaining players finished the test on time before practice on Saturday. Players must pass the test before they can practice.
"I think you have an idea (about what's going on during the summer), and they changed some of the rules so some of the coaches can come out and watch our guys and correspond with them a little bit to see how they're feeling," said Dantonio. "And then our strength coaches give us some indication of that. You always get an indication when our players come in and they run the test. It's a difficult test."
Michigan State returns for its second preseason practice on Sunday. On Monday, the team will practice in shells in the morning before the annual media day begins in the afternoon.