Aug. 15, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Bennie Fowler couldn't be more ready for some Friday night football.
The Michigan State wideout is running on two healthy feet, battle-tested by as good a corps of defensive backs as he'll face all year, buoyed by sage advice on how to return from a surgically repaired stress fracture and armed with a slogan.
Despite accumulating just 16 career catches for 195 yards and one touchdown, Fowler heads into his red-shirt junior season as the Spartans' most experienced receiver. However, because of stress fractures in each foot - one wiped out his entire true freshman season in 2009 and the other limited him two catches and one rush in five games last season - the wear and tear on his body is negligible.
"Old? Yeah, this is my fourth camp and I've got experience with the offense," Fowler said. "So yeah, I'm the old guy in the receiver group right now. (But) I feel great. I don't feel old at all. Not being hurt is a great feeling right now.
"I can't wait to show people what I can do."
With Michigan State's inexperienced receiving corps standing out as the team's biggest question mark, neither can people starting with the Aug. 31 season opener against Boise State.
On Wednesday after practice, Fowler certified his feet as pain-free and 100-percent healed and his mental approach at the same level thanks partly to the conversations he had with a couple of former MSU basketball stars.
During Draymond "Day-Day" Green's NBA draft celebration on June 28, Mateen Cleaves reminded Fowler of how he overcame a stress-fracture surgery to help lift the Spartans to the 2000 national championship, and Green provided him with words to play by.
"I talk to Mo Cleaves all the time and we actually hung out at Draymond's draft party," Fowler said. "He's helped me out and they always keep me positive. Day-Day even gave me a quote: A minor setback for a major comeback.
"That's what I'm working with this year. I had a minor setback last year, so I'm ready to go."
Fowler provided a glimpse of his versatility when he made 12 catches for 146 yards in the final six games, including one start, of 2010. He also rushed for 62 yards on seven carries that season, had a team-high 22.4-yard average on 15 kickoff returns (336 yards) and piled up 161 all-purpose yards against Alabama in the Capitol One Bowl.
"It was a constant ache," Fowler said. "It was hard for me to run, hard for me to explode, hard for me to get in and out of breaks and things like that. It made it very painful to run."
"It's the best competition I'll probably see all year," Fowler said. "They're great corners, two of the top in the nation, and going against them every day is like a game in itself. They know our offense better than anybody we'll see all year and if you can beat those guys, you'll have a good chance in the game."
Fowler will silence the skeptics as he strings successes together, but offensive coordinator Dan Roushar has enjoyed interpreting his body language so far.
"He's been supremely quiet in the fact that he's gone out and put forth great effort every day, and then coming off the field is always focused on the next practice," Roushar said. "I think that's the thing we have to see from him. He's not been able to stay healthy over any period of time, so we're trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves. We're very optimistic he puts together quality work and that's what he's been doing.
"The one thing (that set him apart from MSU's young receivers) is you see a guy with a lot of confidence. He has confidence in his ability, and that is reflected through the group. He's the one guy that stands up and says, `Hey, I'm going to make this play, I'm going to run this route, get me the ball.' He has that type of attitude."
Michigan State's next-most experienced wideout, DeAnthony Arnett, said Fowler is the unit's unquestioned leader.
"He's been hyped up," said Arnett, whose 24 catches for 242 and two TDs came last season as a Tennessee true freshman. "He's ready and I don't blame him. He's been sitting out and he's ready to get back and do his thing."
Fowler and new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell have a chemistry developed during their years as backups, and he credits Cunningham, Martin and other former MSU receivers Mark Dell and Blair White for getting him ready for a breakout season.
While players and coaches frequently talk about taking it one day, one game and one practice at a time, Fowler is taking each step, cut and trot back to the huddle as they come, and looking forward no further than the next.
"I feel like I took it for granted," he said. "But as life is moving on and moving faster, I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm enjoying this play by play and establishing a great relationship with my teammates.
"(Being sidelined by injuries) changes you a lot because you've only got four years of eligibility to play. It helps you understand that life is short so enjoy it all, and that's what I'm doing right now."
Jairus Jones Having a Productive Camp:
Jairus Jones is another Spartan who has come back strong from injury. After sitting out the first eight games in 2011 with a torn Achilles tendon he suffered during spring practice, Jones has thrust himself into the four-man competition for the free safety spot vacated by Trenton Robinson.
"Right now I think he has six picks on the camp so far in 12 practices not including today," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said after Wednesday's morning session. "I don't think he got one today."
To which Jones responded a few minutes later, "The day's not over yet. We still have another practice (in the evening)."
A red-shirt junior with 28 career tackles, including 16 solos and no interceptions as a backup strong safety, Jones is taking advantage of his familiarity with the defense. His chief competition for the starting job is coming from sophomore Kurtis Drummond, red-shirt freshman RJ Williamson and freshman Demetrious Cox.
"I don't think I've been forgotten," Jones said. "Those guys have just stepped up, so they're noticed. I'm as hungry as I've always been so it's not going to get much less or more. But there is more of a sense of urgency with me because I only have two years left."
Said Narduzzi, "He's always been in the mix. There was a day, maybe two weeks before camp started, when I looked at him in the weight room and said, `Jairus, you lose some weight?'
"He only lost two or three pounds, but on the first couple days of practice the guy's running so much better than he ran for the last three years he's been here. He's running well enough we can play him to the field, too, and he's really smart, and he's got the experience. He knows what to do out there."