The ever-evolving learning process of a young team is hard to see develop in the midst of the day-to-day grind of preseason camp.
But somewhere lost in the “Groundhog Days” – as head coach Mark Dantonio likes to call them – an identity of a team begins to take shape. And that hidden identity, which forms the soul of a team, will ultimately reveal itself during the course of the season.
For Michigan State in 2017, the program is undoubtedly relying on a youth movement. The mix of the team features 75 underclassmen, including 35 true freshmen, 16 redshirt freshmen and 24 sophomores, along with 24 juniors and just 13 seniors. But with youth – especially when it’s this talented – there’s opportunity for just about anything to happen. Most importantly, it’s about how all the pieces fit together.
“We had a great camp,” Dantonio said in an interview with Spartan Athletics Director Mark Hollis last Friday on WJR. “There’s a lot of energy on our football team. It’s a young football team, and I think that’s geared toward new beginnings and a lot of optimism.
“As you step back and look over the course of our tenure here, you look at the different teams, and every team has an identity. Every team going into it has a lot of optimism and then faces a lot of challenges and adversity. And really, it’s how you handle those things that are going to define you. Right now, I think our football team understands our challenges, and they’re excited about the opportunity to meet those challenges. I think we have great leadership right now.”
There was a feeling early on, even before camp started, that this team – albeit young – was coming together.
“It's a different feel,” said co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett at media day in early August. “I can't describe it, but it is a different feel out on the field and when we're in meetings and things like that and it's a good feeling. The chemistry seems to be there.”
And so far, through four grueling weeks of preseason practice that began on the last day of July, it appears to have strengthened even more.
The youth has not only brought a renewed sense of energy, but optimism throughout the entire football building. Whether it’s bowling, a Euchre tournament, a team movie, or just hanging out in their position meeting rooms, there have been plenty of opportunities for the Spartans to bond together off the field this past month.
That sense of camaraderie was also picked up on by Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who visited East Lansing in the middle of camp on the BTN’s annual bus tour of all 14 Big Ten schools.
“My impression was that this looked like one of Mark Dantonio's (earlier) teams as they were building toward that Alabama national semifinal game,” DiNardo commented. “Young teams are always fun to coach. They just have this innocent climb about themselves, that not much is expected of them and every day is a good day because they're getting better.”
With the new NCAA rules taking effect this year enforcing a mandatory day off during the week and no two-a-day practices, camp essentially was a week longer this year. It might have been just the perfect time for the new regulations to kick in for the Spartans, as the day off reinvigorated the team week after week while also getting young players additional reps to learn the rigors of Big Ten football.
“We've got a lot of young players in the mix,” said Dantonio. “So every play that they make, every rep that they take is a rep of learning and a rep of execution. But I've been very, very impressed with that group.”
It’s easy to begin a month-long journey with energy and anticipation, but that feeling has continued throughout camp. Just watch the smiles and laughter on the “Spartan Family” social media series on Twitter (@msu_football) and Instagram (@msu_spartans), profiling the players after practice, to see how genuine the excitement is for the upcoming season.
You can’t hide a good feeling.
— Spartan Football (@MSU_Football) August 22, 2017
“They've both been four-year players for us,” explained Dantonio. “They've both been a part of Cotton Bowl teams, playoff teams, as well as a team last year that struggled. They've seen all different levels of it; they've seen exhilaration at a high level as well as disappointment at a high level. I think that brings a sense of power to their message.”
Those two captains will be joined by 10 other Eagles on the team’s leadership council – sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie, junior linebacker Byron Bullough, junior linebacker Andrew Dowell, senior running back Gerald Holmes, sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke, junior safety Grayson Miller, junior safety Matt Morrissey, junior tight end Matt Sokol, sophomore defensive lineman Raequan Williams and junior safety Khari Willis – with two more to be voted on next week. That diverse group of positions and classes is a true representative of the team.
“It is an extremely young football team,” said Dantonio on the final day of preseason camp last Thursday. “That youth needs to be represented. So there are some younger guys on that leadership council that I think will be an important factor in this season such as Brian Lewerke and Joe Bachie; but they will have an opportunity to lead as well as will our older players. That's the rationale behind it.”
“Our Eagle Council is really strong this year,” Allen proclaimed. “I'm happy with how tight we are and how everyone has been keeping everyone in check and accountable. I think if anything, guys are just going to continue to step up more.
“We're just going to play hard. We're going to play together. We're going to be a better team this year. It doesn't matter if there's a mistake or something like that. We're going to stay together and we're going to grow together and just keep working through.”
Frey concurred with his fellow captain.
“We're back,” he said. “Last year isn't who we are. It was a phase that we're past and we're ready to get back to winning games and to be in contention of winning the Big Ten Championship.”
With just one final week before kickoff, a few things are certain. The team is ready. Spartan fans are ready. And yes, the band is ready. The Spartans made sure of it with their annual visit to see the band last Wednesday night inside Demonstration Hall, as the band taught the Eagles how to “kick step,” and the Eagles led the freshmen in singing the MSU Fight Song.
Because the sound of football’s oncoming arrival in the fall doesn’t just originate with pads popping on a practice field under blistering sunshine during a hot, muggy August day.
It also comes from a different practice field across the street, bouncing off ivy-covered walls and filling up the campus with the soundtrack of a cool autumn afternoon, all in the final month of summer.
Soon, that pulsating rhythm of the drumline, combined with the other 300 members of the Spartan Marching Band, will proudly play the MSU Fight Song – now officially known as “Victory for MSU” – in front of 75,000 Green and White fans while the team runs out from the tunnel and on to the perfectly manicured turf of Spartan Stadium.
Welcome to Kickoff Week 2017. It’s going to be a fun, exciting team to watch this fall.