Aug. 26, 2008
COACH DANTONIO: First game excitement, I think that's natural everywhere in America this coming weekend. We're very excited about going out to Cal. It's a great opportunity.
I think what's unique about this road game, even though it's on the West Coast against a Pac 10 team, I think somewhere near 10,000 Spartan fans will be in attendance there from what I've heard. That's got to be exciting to our players. I think that sends a message that it's not just about what's going on in the Midwest here for us as a University, that this great University is nationwide. So we're excited about playing in front of those people.
It's a new team. Last year, we had questions going into the season certainly and had some of those answers, needed to have other questions answered, as well. But this team is new, it's 2008, we've got a young football team with only 13 seniors. We'll look for great leadership there. I think I've said that numerous times.
A lot of red shirt freshmen coming (on this trip), a lot of guys that have never played in a game. So I think it's very important for us to get our feet wet with those guys and see where they're at. And it should be very exciting for them, as well, because it's an opportunity for a lot of players.
As an opponent, Cal is an excellent football team. They lose a lot of players, as well, especially at the skill positions. You know, there are some unknowns there with exactly who they're going to feature, unknowns there in terms of exactly what type of defense they'll play. It's probably a 3 4, but whether they'll be in some four man, I'm not sure, so just a little bit of an unknown situation there. Cal is a very, very well coached football team and a great opponent for us. They've won, I believe, 22 of their last 26 home games, so it'll be a great challenge.
But this is what we play for. The winter workouts, the fourth quarter programs that we call it, the spring practices, the bottom line program, all the summer work, the fall camp, this is what we play for. As Coach (George) Perles used to say, they all count one, and this will be a tremendous challenge for us and allow us to focus really on the entire season.
We're not in a position where we have a game where you would play a so called - I don't like to call them warm up games, I don't think anybody calls them that, but a game where you tier up. We go right into a tough opponent, away, five hour trip, so there are a lot of challenges for us, and I think it's going to be a unique situation to find out where we're at as a football team just in terms of maturity, how we handle these things, and I think it'll have a lot to do with giving us experience to go into different environments throughout the year. So that will be exciting.
We'll travel out there on Friday. We won't go out on Thursday. I think it's important that we not try and change to Pacific Time really. We need to play on Eastern Time, and our bodies need to be adjusted for that. I don't think we have a week to spend out there to be adjusted. There may be some heat, but we plan on playing a lot of players.
With that, I'll just open it up for questions. I do want to say one thing, though. I got this little football here from a guy who used to be a manager here. This was given by Duffy Daugherty to Biggie Munn after Duffy won the championship in '65. I wanted to bring it today because it sort of took me back to a place where it made it seem very, very special to me in terms of where I'm at, where we're at, where we're all at in this program. This program has a very, very rich tradition. I got this when we dedicated the building over there last week, and I just appreciate the gift. I'm very humbled to have that responsibility that goes along with it. That's why I brought it.
Q. If you can get a victory in this opening game, what would that mean to the team and the program? I know you don't want to put a lot of pressure on the team, but you're playing a very good Pac 10 team.
COACH DANTONIO: As I said earlier, it's one game. We still have to come back and play Eastern Michigan the next week and then go on through the schedule. But it proves we can play away from home, should we come out of there a winner. It proves that we can go into a tough environment and play against a very good football team. So I think it sends a maturity message to our players that maybe we have some maturity on this football team that we can handle adverse environments.
But it's not only just the adverse environment that we're facing out there, but it's the travel. It's the first game away from home rather than having it at home. There are new players playing. So all of those things, I think, are factored in, and that's maturity. That's experience. That's what experience gives you, so we'll have that experience under our belt regardless of what happens and we'll learn from that experience.
Q. You talked about Javon Ringer possibly returning kicks. Have you ruled that out as a possibility now?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I think that's going to be a game time decision for us. We may put him back there. We'll just sort of look at that as we go through this week of practice and work towards our special teams. We want to make sure he handles the situations properly and all those type of things.
He's going to get his share of work that day. It's just a matter of how we want to use him in those situations, as well.
Q. As you've been going through the workouts and you get down to game time for Cal, has there been any pleasant surprises for you from this group, maybe a specific unit or their attitude, anything in that area that you've been able to walk off the practice field and have a little smile about?
COACH DANTONIO: Oh, yeah, I smile a lot walking off that practice field. We have a lot of young guys, so a lot of times they're experiencing things for the first time. With that said, it's a little bit of a different type team because we do have 10 of 11 guys back on defense who have started games for us. I think I counted eight or nine offensive starters who have started games for us. But we have so many young guys in positions of playing, whether it's on special teams or whatever, that I think that they bring a sense of excitement to us.
As far as how we've prepared, I've been very impressed in terms of our attitude throughout summer camp. We've come to work; have not had issues with people staying out or dorm checks or those types of issues. We've come to work and I've been impressed with that. They've put forth a great effort, and I've been very impressed with our seniors thus far, too, in terms of how they've led.
Q. Obviously the quarterback, it's dissected, whatever the quarterback does, criticized; a number of things can go on with whatever a quarterback does. Knowing Brian Hoyer just the little amount that you have, how does that guy respond to challenges, especially going into this season given what happened in the bowl game?
COACH DANTONIO: I think the bowl game was just one facet of who he was last year. That was one out of 13 games. But you know, with another year's experience, with his preparation going through another spring and then another fall camp, he's almost like a coach on the field. He has a very good hold on what we do and a very good understanding in terms of what we do offensively from his position at the line of scrimmage, making checks and those types of things, to running a huddle. I've been in the huddle with him and listened to - been near the huddle and listened to how he leads in the huddle. He's very good in that respect.
We're looking forward to a great year. He has a lot of confidence, and he was voted captain by his teammates, by his peers, and I think that makes a statement, as well. They believe in him.
Q. Bobby (Williams) asked Charles Rogers on a couple of occasions if he would return punts, and he said no. When you make a decision whether to start a player, do you give them a say or do you listen to their input?
COACH DANTONIO: I do listen to their input, but if they have the ability to play on special teams, they're going to play. I'll listen to their input, but if they want to rest, they can rest on first, second or third down. That's my take on all special teams' players. Regardless of whom you are - Greg Jones runs down on kickoffs. Regardless of whom you are, special teams have to be a part of our football team that takes everybody and blends it together.
Q. With their quarterback change, what does that do to your game planning considering (Kevin) Riley is more mobile?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, we prepared for both. We didn't really know who would play, so both those guys are very good quarterbacks, both those guys have had great success there this past year. They've got good touch on the ball. I don't think from what I've seen their play calling is that much different. I'm sure they have certain things they like to use. He is a little bit more mobile in the pocket, so we have to contain him a little bit more in that respect. They're both very good players, and I don't see their offense really changing that much. It's not they're going to all of a sudden go to an option attack because he's in there or a quarterback-run type of thing as much. As a matter of fact, I was just watching cutups last night and (Nate) Longshore was running the option on third-and-short down near the goal line or something, and you would think the other guy would do that.
I think that they're equally capable at quarterback.
Q. As you head into year two here, evaluate where you think your program is at right now. Are you happy with it? Do you think it's further along than you thought it might be coming into this point?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I just try and look at things and try and move the process forward. I don't really look and say in year two, we need to be here at this point. I've always tried to address issues with our staff, and we've always tried to say, okay, we need to try and get this fixed, we need to play these people, we need to try and get this player in here, we need to do this better, so we try to always look just in terms of sort of where we're at in the not too distant future.
With that being said, we went to a bowl game last year. I said last year I fully expected to go to a bowl game. I wasn't coming in here and going, geez, guys, I hope we win five games, I hope we win four games. My mindset is still the game. Every football game that we play, our intention is to win that game, and our confidence is going to be to play and win. That's what our mindset will be. And this will be no different. We'll expect to go out there and play well. I think if you play fast, you usually play pretty well, and that will be the key for us, can we play fast. Do we know what to do and how to adjust to all their formations, do we know what to do on offense and how to adjust to their defensive fronts and their multiple things that they do, and how do we play and execute on special teams.
Obviously, I think in first games, across the nation, special teams will have a huge, huge impact on the game in terms of who makes mistakes. Turnovers will have a huge part in every game, and then I think after that it comes down to speed of the game and execution. So we'll go there looking to do those things and feel confident about doing it.
Q. Back to the special teams, punt returns had been kind of a missing element of special teams in the last few years. What do (Otis) Wiley and (Mark) Dell bring to the position, and is that something that will still kind of be a work in progress as the season goes on?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think what you've seen is the game transitioned to different kind of punt alignments to cover the field more effectively. Our goal as a punt team will always be to, number one, get the ball back. We did that last year every time. No fakes, no penalties. And then if we can average some yards with that, which is one of the things we need to improve on, that's a great thing. We need to have a guy there that can electrify people back there. We did a nice job catching - number one thing is catching the ball and retaining possession. We want to make sure that we do those things, but at the same time, we do need to improve the yards per return. But I think that will come. We had no fakes and we're going to continue to try to work towards that. We're going to make sure that we get the ball back.
Q. What has it meant for you guys to have a guy like Arthur Ray back on campus enrolled in classes? I think one of the first things he did was hit the film room, and he's been around the building.
COACH DANTONIO: Arthur is back on campus. He's still on crutches and will be for probably another month or so. I'm not positive. He came back last Wednesday, and we were having a team meeting. I think a lot of our players identify with him in terms of struggles and see his struggle just to be on campus and have an opportunity to play football again. They got to know him the previous spring, so he got a standing ovation and got a lot of hugs when he came back, as did his parents. They're great people. You know, he'll succeed with his life.
Q. You gave Dwayne Holmes an opportunity at a new position. I'd be interested to get your comments on how he's responded. Obviously he's in the mix to play on Saturday. That's a good story, too, I'm sure.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, he's going to play. He's the guy that's the senior that is sort of a little bit of a journeyman. Last year, we had some people like that, as well. Dwayne played a little bit of fullback, played a little bit of tight end, in and out of the lineup, moved to defensive line last year, and really spent the majority of the year sort of learning it. But he's 289 pounds and he moves pretty well, and he's a very, very powerful young man.
He gives us a rock out there, and he'll play. Whether he starts or not will depend on his week of practice, but he will play on Saturday, so it'll be exciting for him. I think he'll be motivated.
Q. When you watch Cal's bowl game and some of the late season games, they did a lot of formation shifts at the line of scrimmage. How do you practice that to simulate Brian's (Hoyer) audibilizing?
COACH DANTONIO: You mean for defensive fronts?
Q. Yeah, so that he gets used to audibilizing.
COACH DANTONIO: That's a little bit of an unknown because they went to a different defense. So what we do is we look at the entire season; just like on both sides of special teams, we'll look at the entire season of what they've done. It's always best guess scenarios, but I think as the game starts to unfold, the thing that we're able to do pretty effectively as coaches is make that transition from what we've been practicing to what we're seeing and get that information to our football team.
And I think if you've ever been to a scrimmage here, one of the things that we do that I think is a little bit unique is after every series of a scrimmage, whether it's eight play, 10 play, 12 play drive, we'll put our team on the sidelines for two and a half minutes and have our coaches go over that series, what they're seeing, where they made mistakes and those type of things. I think that's helped our players in terms of our off the field sideline preparation.
What I think the public doesn't see a lot of times are what goes on on the sideline between series because that's where adjustments are being made. That's where things are being sort of leveled out in terms of this is what you see, this is what we do, this is the mistake we made. I think he'll be very good at that, though. He's got a very good handle on offense.
Q. Devin Thomas, (Jonal) Saint Dic, (Jehuu) Caulcrick, these guys are all big playmakers, and obviously, (Javon) Ringer is back from that group, but you're going to need to have some guys that make different plays. Can you talk about guys who may step forward this year?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, it's interesting you say that because last year no one would have asked me about Devin Thomas before the first game, nor would they have asked me about Saint Dic, nor would they have asked me about Caulcrick. They all wanted to know about Ringer, they wanted to know about Hoyer, they wanted to know about Mark Dell. They wanted to know about all those people, and yet those three people that you talked about had an outstanding year.
Somebody is going to elevate their play on this football team, and we're going to find out who it is. In reality, if you look at our wide receiver position, we're a much stronger at the position than we were last year coming into the season. We have more depth, we have more experience. Now, how it unfolds, I can't tell you that.
Same thing with the defensive end position. Jonal was a guy who was a part time starter in '06, I believe, came in, had a great year, and led the country in caused fumbles. He had a knack (for creating fumbles) and we found a way to use him, and more importantly, he got confidence in himself and really played up.
And Jehuu did the same thing and had an outstanding senior season. If you're going to have a great football team, and I'm not saying we were great but we were successful and went to a bowl game, that your seniors better have their best year, and those guys did. Obviously, Devin was only a junior.
Q. You talk about having to rely on a lot of freshmen, about traveling to California, all these kind of external factors. On the field, what's the one thing that concerns you most about your team right now?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, just the same thing that concerns everybody right now is how you're going to react in your first game, whether there are going to be the first game mistakes, how are we going to play when adverse situations hit, who's going to rise up, all those things, unforced errors, are we going to jump offsides. We've worked extremely hard on not doing certain things. But all those first game things.
There are things that happen to a football team when they're trying to find out who they really are. We have an idea of who we are, but there are a lot of unknowns. There's a lot to find out, I think, in your first game as a football team. It's tough to stand up here and talk about it. It would be a little bit easier to tell you after the game, maybe. Maybe not. Usually not.
Q. (Javon) Ringer has been on the cover of, I think, your ticket package brochure. I just saw him on an ad for DirecTV and the Big Ten Network. He's kind of become the face of the program. Is he comfortable with that role and do you like him being the representative of the team in that regard?
COACH DANTONIO: First of all, I think he's a great representative for Michigan State. He's an outstanding person, not just player. And he is extremely humble person and giving. I'm very comfortable with that.
And secondly, I think he's the feature guy. He's the guy that's done it, not just for one year but for probably the two previous years as well. And you're going to usually take somebody and market those people, and I think that's what we've done. So I'm good with it.
Q. How do you view your offensive line going into this first game? What is your comfort level at this point?
COACH DANTONIO: We had some guys nicked up the last week, but they're all back. We return three starters, and we return two other guys that have played in the past. (Rocco) Cironi played as a red shirt freshman quite a lot and then Bacon was in and out (of the lineup) last year a lot, so we have some experience there. But that's an area that we're going to have to grow and develop over the course of the season.
We weren't real deep there last year, but somehow, we managed to find pieces and move people around. I think Brendon Moss is going to have to be a guy that plays, I think Joel Foreman is going to be a guy that plays. You'll see him playing on Saturday, as well, and that's for sure. And he's another red shirt freshman, so it'll be an exciting day for him.
These guys are all going to grow up, and they're all going to be great players. Jared McGaha is going to be a great player for us. He's a red shirt freshman backing up a right guard. You think that's sort of a norm; when you're a great football team, those are the things that you see, those red shirt freshmen in there playing for their first time or having an opportunity. They're usually at positions of depth. We have a true freshman in David Rolf backing up at linebacker who will be an outstanding player for us, but he's a true freshman.
We've got a couple red shirt (freshman) tailbacks in there that will see their first opportunities. They're very good players, but it's their first game. B.J. Cunningham, red shirt freshman, but he can make plays. So we've got a lot of these guys that are going to be playing for the first time.
Really when you look at Cal, they've got a lot of the same thing going. They're playing a true freshman or a red shirt freshman or a guy coming back from a hip injury. Some of those things exist there, too. So it'll be interesting to see how these things play out. But they're good football players on both sides, and I'm sure that there's going to be plays made on the Cal side and on the Michigan State side. Let's just hope a couple more by Michigan State.
Q. How did you settle into the decision to put Greg Jones at SAM and Decker at MIKE, and then in general what type of leadership does Greg bring to the defensive unit as a whole as just a sophomore?
COACH DANTONIO: He's a very emotional guy. He plays at a high level of intensity and has leadership skills, and because we are a young football team, he's a young leader. And I think that sort of helps in that area.
As far as SAM, MIKE, he can play either, and probably will throughout the game, because I think the other guys have proved that they're sort of in the mix, as well. One thing we did last year was play a lot of people and that's helped. That helped us in terms of the late season and in terms of the bowl game. So we'll continue to do those types of things.
So we're just going to play our best three, and I think Adam Decker probably has a little bit more knowledge of the entire package right now, but it doesn't mean that Greg won't play there. Greg will probably see opportunities at MIKE, as well.
Q. You've really embraced the history of this program. There have been other coaches that at least didn't appear to do that as much here. Knowing what you know about the program and the history, obviously there's visible changes that reflect the appreciation for the history now here on campus. How has that shaped your philosophy in doing what you need to do here to move the program forward?
COACH DANTONIO: I've sort of always thought as a football coach that things go in cycles. I remember Nick Saban actually saying it, that history is the best indicator of the future. I've always sort of thought that if we've done it here before, we've had great football teams before, you can come back.
It's the same thing that happened when Saban went to LSU; they were able to return. And I think those things can happen here at Michigan State. We have unbelievable facilities, we have a good recruiting area in the Midwest, and we're a nationally known team. We have a respect from throughout the Big Ten Conference and throughout the nation.
When you walk in with something like this, the block S or the Spartan right here, you've got instant credibility; people want to talk to you. Now, are you going to get that kid when it comes down to the last two or three, I don't know, but you can get in front of him and you can at least have an audience.
So I think that we've been successful in Florida recruiting. I think that's something that we can build on. I think that's important for the people that have been here in the past to recognize that everything that they've done is appreciated, but I would be saying that whether I was at the University of Cincinnati right now. I talked about the tradition that we had there. Whatever place you're at, I do think that there's some place along the line that there's tradition. Just a philosophy I have.
Q. Opening at Cal isn't a picnic. I suppose if you had your druthers, it would be the second or third game, but it is what it is. With so many freshmen and sophomores, who the last time they played under the spotlight it might have been on Friday night in front of six other people, how do you simulate that? How do you get them ready? How do you tell them what that's going to be like Saturday night?
COACH DANTONIO: You keep talking to them, you keep telling them, but I don't know that you can - it's something that - when the lights go on out there, it's going to be exciting for them. What I've always tried to talk to them about is these are the reasons you come to Michigan State, to play in these type of games, to go across the country and play in a game like this, to have all the alumni people from the West Coast and all the people coming from here on a Labor Day weekend come and watch you play. And these are the things that you talk to your grandchildren about. And that's what living is about. It's exciting for them.
So they'll be motivated. I know they'll be motivated to play. There's going to be adversity there. There's going to be times when they question themselves; that's natural. But we've got to try to pull them through that, and our senior leadership has to do that. The guys on the field have to do that. The coaches have to help, but we're not on the field; we're on the sidelines.
With that said, it's the three things or four things that I talked about that are going to be important for us, but those things that get done on the football field. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and when you're youthful, you're usually pretty enthusiastic, so I'm sure we'll be excited to play.
Q. I was wondering, is Deon Curry going to be play to play Saturday, and is anyone else in danger of not being able to play?
COACH DANTONIO: Deon is ready to play. He's back practicing, so we'll see where he's at come game time. He is back practicing. For the most part, we're healthy. We probably have one guy, (Jon) Misch, out with a stress fracture in his foot. We'll try and get him back here in maybe four weeks or so. But that's really the only guy.
We're relatively healthy. Nicks and bumps and everything like that, you know how a game can be, and you never know what's going to happen in the game. But we're not walking around here with a bunch of guys on crutches.
Q. Assuming that this game is close in the fourth quarter, you've talked about a young, inexperienced team, but you do have a senior quarterback, a senior running back. How confident and how prepared do you think you guys are for Saturday?
COACH DANTONIO: Are you talking about overall or are you talking about the end of the game? Assuming the end of the game, I think that we've been in those situations enough last year that from a coaching standpoint we should have a history there a little bit in terms of what to call and what to do. And from a player standpoint, our leaders on the field, whether it's Hoyer or whether it's Otis Wiley at safety or whether it's a couple of guys who are older players, Justin Kershaw on defense, that we've got guys in position that have been in that situation before.
At some point, you can't over think the situation, either. You've got to just play and have confidence that you're going to do your best and push it and be aggressive about what's going to happen. So I think that's as much as anything just the no fear factor, play it out.
Q. For the four guys that were chosen as team captains, would those have been your predictions, also? I know the team voted on that.
COACH DANTONIO: We have a unity council, too, in addition to the captains. So there's a group of people that we select as coaches that are on that. My message to our football team right now is everybody has a leadership role, whether you're a guy on the scout team as a freshman or whether you're the quarterback on the scout team or whether you're the defensive back, whatever. Everybody has a role to lead on this football team.
So I don't really care whose captain. It's important, though, that everybody takes that lead and understands that they're part of it. Those guys were picked as captains; we all had a vote. It's the general consensus of our football team that that's who we picked as captains, that they'll do the best job. We also have another group of seniors and we also have leaders throughout the entire team that do a good job.
Q. Can you talk about Kendell Davis Clark and whether you think he's prepared to play (free) safety on Saturday?
COACH DANTONIO: I hope he is. First of all, Kendell is a very physical player, explosive. He's a good tackler, got excellent ball skills. He's been working that position for about two and a half weeks. He played that position in high school, so it's a little different, but I think that he's up to speed and will continue working this week.
Danny Fortener is a guy that was bothered by a hamstring early on, but he's got game experience, he's very dependable, and he's had a great spring camp and he really had a great fall camp, too, once he got back from his hamstring. So we're comfortable there. So we feel good about it.
Q. Folks from Cal have told us that they're expecting probably 15,000-16,000 Spartan fans. It's not traditionally a loud stadium. How do you use that in recruiting?
COACH DANTONIO: Like I said earlier, when you see that kind of atmosphere 4,000 miles from home, you're at a program that is a nationwide, nationally respected program, whether we go to Florida and play in front of 30,000 people there that come, or whether we play in Texas, there will probably be 10,000 there, or whether we play in the Midwest with 70,000, 80,000. Michigan State University is a nationally recognized University with alumni across the entire nation. And that's what makes this place special.
I think as a recruit who's trying to decide whether to come to school here or not, I think that sends a message, that there are job opportunities, there are people throughout that will help them, and they will be known throughout the country.
Q. Going into the first game, is there any way that you can tell what are the potential strengths of the California team? We know they've got an All America center, but what do you view as the strength of that team?
COACH DANTONIO: Their offensive line is very good; they have an outstanding tailback that played some last year, Jahvid Best. He's very explosive, a lot like Ringer in a lot of ways, and Cal is very well coached. Coach Tedford has always done a great job there. Linebacker wise they have good linebackers, thought of nationally, probably a highly ranked linebacker group in the country. Defensive line is solid. Secondary, they've got guys who started back there, they lose a couple full time starters, but they've got guys who have played. But I guess the strength would probably be their offensive line. The center (Alex Mack) is outstanding, as you've said, and they'll always have skill players.
But they're retooling a little bit, as well. Who they're going to feature at the wide receiver position remains a little bit of an unknown until we get into the game. And even then you're probably not going to even recognize that fact until after the game.
Q. You talked about watching (Brian) Hoyer in the huddle and seeing how he carries himself. Obviously, that's a position that involves a lot of nuances and doing a number of things. Is he doing anything differently? Does he sound differently? Is he carrying himself differently from what you can tell?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I think he's always had great confidence in himself and always been positive. He's never gone into the huddle thinking he wasn't going to be able to make a play. As I said earlier, if a guy is coming off the season last year - when you have a guy that's thrown for 2,800 yards and 22 touchdowns and spread the ball around a little bit going into the bowl game and thrown five interceptions, I believe. So I feel like he's ready to take the next step.
But with that being said, this is a team game. He needs to be protected. We need to run the right routes. We need to get the ball in scoring opportunities for him. So it's an entire game. You don't want to put too much pressure on the quarterback. I think that goes with the position, but he's got to be protected, and we've got to make sure he has time to throw it.
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