Aug. 9, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. - During the early portion of preseason camp, most are curious as to which freshmen have the potential to contribute immediately.
The reality is that just one true freshman - linebacker Taiwan Jones - played on either offense or defense last season for the Spartans.
The biggest source of new contributions will likely come from the talented red-shirt freshman class, who had to wait their turn in 2011. And sitting on the sidelines is not something they're accustomed to.
This fall, they're out to prove they can make a difference on the field. The potential is there for several to make an impact, and the track record in the Spartan program proves the benefits of an extra year of practice.
Two key players who had to redshirt during the Big Ten Championship season in 2010 ended up starting last season. Defensive end Marcus Rush was named the Big Ten Freshman Defensive MVP by ESPN.com and earned Freshman All-America honors, while center Travis Jackson started 11 games and garnered Freshman All-Big Ten accolades.
The name that surfaces the most in the class as a possible starter is Jack Allen. A versatile offensive lineman who can play either guard or center, he's currently competing for a position at left guard, along with Blake Treadwell.
"I feel like (Jack) is a starter for us," said head coach Mark Dantonio. "I've always felt like that (beginning in spring practice). Through the spring, I think we have about seven guys that really can start for us."
"It's exciting," said Allen. "I'm just coming out here and working hard every single day, and trying to make an impact. It's hard (breaking into the lineup with so many veterans), but it's nice having them too. Every play you're taking mental reps and learning what you have to do, because they're doing it spot on. They help you out."
"He's a very smart football player," said offensive line coach Mark Staten of Allen. "He's tough, and he was a state champ wrestler (out of Illinois), so I like that. He has a great base. You can expect to see a lot of Jack Allen this year."
Although quarterback Andrew Maxwell is the undisputed starter, Connor Cook gained valuable experience in the spring when Maxwell sat out the last half of the spring with sprained knee injury. Cook's maturity as a quarterback in just one year has already been noticed by Dantonio.
"(Connor) is much more established this summer camp than certainly he was last year as a freshman," Dantonio said. "He's got more of a command in the huddle and always throws the ball great, and he's moving very well. I think he's grown a lot over the course of spring and summer."
"I'm working to be the best that I can be," said Cook. "I come into practice and I just want to push the other quarterbacks to be better and myself to be better."
With eight starters back defensively, there is less room for a coveted starting spot than on offense. But there's no shortage of talent that will somehow, someway, find its way into the playing rotation.
Along the defensive front, Shilique Calhoun served notice right away last fall by being named Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week a team-high three times. After the first day in pads on Wednesday, Calhoun was one of the few players highlighted by defensive line coach Ted Gill who stood out on the line. Dantonio also sees Calhoun being able to make an impact.
"You can see that Shilique's been in the system for a year," said Dantonio. "He's a little farther ahead in terms of knowing what to do because he's played defensive end for a year. He's going to play a lot for us."
Another imposing defensive end is Joel Heath, a 6-foot-6, 266-pound Cincinnati product who is learning from one of the best in the nation in William Gholston. After watching the Spartan defense rank first in the Big Ten last season, Heath is ready to do what he can to make it even better in 2012.
"I definitely want to contribute to the pass rush," said Heath. "I want to be able to fill in and help my teammates as much as possible. Will is definitely mentoring me and teaching me the assignments to go through each play."
The state's top recruit for the 2011 class, Detroit native Lawrence Thomas had to sit out preseason camp as a freshman and also spring practice with a shoulder injury. After coming in as a linebacker, Thomas is making the change to defensive end in camp and is excited about being healthy going into the season.
"I'm real happy and trying to improve myself," said Thomas. "I'm just showing how physical I am and how mobile I am. Everything will play out and work out day by day."
"He's athletic enough to play linebacker, but he missed time last spring and he missed summer camp his freshman year too," remarked Dantonio on Thomas. "Without those two things, it's tough to put him in there. He can play elements of our defense at linebacker, but right now we have to try and figure out how he's going to get on the field on defensive end, and some other areas on the field, including nickel situations as things...He's active, he can run, and he's 290-plus pounds. He has a huge future ahead of him as young as he is."
Linebacker Darien Harris, cornerback Trae Waynes and free safety RJ Williamson are three others in the class that the coaching staff has mentioned on several occasions that will certainly see playing time.
And it's not just the coaches that have taken note.
"Coming into this year, there are guys behind me that are great players that are nipping at my heels all the time," said junior linebacker Max Bullough.
Senior linebacker Chris Norman agreed.
"They are doing a really good job, not only on what they are doing, but also on pushing the older players to do what we can do as well," said Norman. "They just naturally have a lot of physical talent. They are picking up the schemes really well and I think they are going to do some really good things in the future."
For a star athlete out of high school, a red-shirt year at first can be a big slice of humble pie. But over time, the taste is likely to sweeten.
"Every day I look around and thank God for just the opportunity to be here," said Calhoun. "To be a part of this team - even though I'm from 12 hours away in New Jersey - I still feel like I made the right decision every day I come out here. I love being a part of this defense. I love being a part of this school."