August 12, 1998
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State fourth-year head football coach Nick Saban sent his team through two two-hour practices in full pads Wednesday on the grass fields behind the Duffy Daugherty Building.
"We've really had nine good practices since preseason camp opened," Coach Saban said. "Today marked the first day in full pads and as usual, the guys were a little sluggish at first with carrying around the extra weight. I was really pleased with the way the guys responded and pushed themselves through it."
The Spartans are ranked No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches preseason poll thanks in a large part to a veteran defensive unit. Saban admits there are a lot of question marks on the offensive side of the football but thus far, this August camp has produced a lot of reasons for optimism.
"We have a lot of talented guys on offense," Saban said. "A key to our success will be developing an offensive scheme to feature our best skill players.
"Sedrick Irvin looks better than he ever has in a Spartan uniform. Bill Burke has been a pleasant surprise. Bill has accepted his role as the starting quarterback and he's shown the leadership ability to accept the responsibility that goes along with playing that position. He has a good understanding of our offensive system and executes it without a lot of mistakes. We just hope and pray that he stays healthy.
"Ryan Van Dyke has shown the ability to make plays," he said. "Like any young quarterback, he's struggling to learn the system but he certainly has the talent to get the job done. Ryan simply has to go through the process and develop at his own pace.
"Herb Haygood is still learning the wide receiver position but he's beginning to catch the ball consistently. He made a big play last night against the first-team defense. Herb definitely adds some big-play ability to the offense when he's in the lineup. We also think the two freshmen - Broderick Nelson and Aaron Cochran - will contribute at wide receiver this year.
"Little John Flowers has shown some promise at tailback," he said. "He has displayed a lot of maturity in his ability to learn the system."
With the absence of left guard Shawn Murphy, Saban has again reshuffled the offensive line.
"The offensive line is coming together," Saban said. "We moved Shaun Mason back inside, from right tackle to right guard. We're set at center with Jason Strayhorn, Mike Schutz at left guard and Dave Sucura at left tackle. Right now, Matt Bonito is fighting Greg Robinson-Randall for the starting job at right tackle. The offensive lineman who has made the most significant jump is Josh Smith, who has had an outstanding preseason camp."
Saban also noted that as an experiment red-shirt freshman Nick Myers has switched from defensive end to offensive guard.
Several newcomers on the defensive side of the football have caught Saban's attention.
"Cedric Henry will help us in the secondary at cornerback," Saban said. "Henry's play has allowed us to move Richard Newsome from cornerback to safety which puts more speed on the field with our second unit.
"We're a little thin at linebacker, but Josh Thornhill and Julian Peterson will make an immediate impact at this position. Josh is still learning the system but he's a smart guy who has displayed good leadership ability. He has a chance to play a lot because he can play either the MIKE (middle) or WILL (outside) positions.
"Julian is the fastest linebacker we've had here in a long time. He has shown the speed and attitude of Ike Reese. And he hasn't gotten frustrated with the transition to a new position (from defensive end), which is important.
"Josh Shaw is another good freshman, who can help on the defensive line."
Perhaps the most important signs Saban has seen in preseason camp have been the emergence of a defensive team leader and the development of team chemistry.
"Mike Austin is really developing into a leader," Saban said. "We have good unity on defense and last night, the intensity and enthusiasm spread throughout the squad. The offense has responded to this competitive situation, so it appears that the unity on defense has helped the offense come together and gel."
The kicking game has received more emphasis in the practice plan this week and so far, Saban likes what he sees from the specialists.
"We'll find a capable punter between David Schaefer and Craig Jarrett," Saban said. "Obviously, Craig has a much stronger leg. The ball really pops off his foot like the golf ball does off Tiger Woods' driver. Craig is working on developing his consistency so I don't see a problem here.
"Paul Edinger kicked under duress for the first time last night, and he didn't miss any field goals. His timing and consistency were good."
The Spartans have two-a-days scheduled through Tuesday, Aug. 18.
Michigan State opens the 1998 season in the Black Coaches Association Football Classic Aug. 29 against Colorado State at 4 p.m. in Spartan Stadium.