Aug 28, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. ─ Coming from such a small high school, Jack Conklin might have been voted least likely to debunk the stereotype pertaining to offensive linemen at BCS programs.
It's supposed to take years for even blue-chip prospects to develop physically and master the intricacies of line play to the point they can even contribute.
But there the Pride of Plainwell will be Friday night, starting for the Big Ten team three counties over, well ahead of schedule when Michigan State opens the season against Western Michigan.
And although the 6-foot-3, 326-pound Conklin is only a red-shirt freshman, he could line up on the right side or even be entrusted to protect quarterback Andrew Maxwell's blind side by taking on the Broncos' best pass-rusher charging in from the left.
"We know we've got a young man in Conklin that can play either side and do it very, very well," offensive line coach Mark Staten said Wednesday. "He's just steady. He'll make a rookie mistake, and he won't make it again.
"That's the really nice thing about him. A lot of times, when you're a younger player, you make a rookie mistake and it comes back and gets you again, and maybe it gets you a third time and then finally you get it out of your system. But he's very attention-to-detail-oriented, he's a superb note-taker and he puts it to work."
Conklin's versatility provides Staten with great flexibility if projected starting right tackle, fifth-year senior Fou Fonoti, is held out to recover further from what's been described as a minor injury. Sophomore Donavon Clark, who's also listed as a starter, has a higher comfort level at left tackle, Staten said.
"That's the way it's been worked the last couple weeks," Staten said. "But (Fou) practiced yesterday full-go, so we'll see how it continues. He told me he'd be good to go and we'll prepare accordingly."
Conklin said he realized he could compete for a starting job during spring drills.
"It was just a matter of listening to what the coaches have to say and working as hard as I can," Conklin said. "Pass-blocking is the best part of my game right now. My wingspan is about 7-feet. I played a lot of basketball and having fast feet is the biggest thing."
Conklin's rapid development can be attributed in large part, Staten said, to the fact his father, Darren, was his coach at Plainwell High School.
"Two hours after the game I'd be at home watching tape with my dad, hearing what I did wrong and what I have to do better next time," Conklin said.
When asked how someone as good as Conklin could slip through the recruiting cracks, Staten responded, "Have you ever been to Plainwell? There's small towns everywhere that produce people, and when you recruit, you can't measure their heart."
GoG Notes & Quotes:
NARDUZZI, FLECK CONNECTION
Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's three-year stint as the linebackers coach at Northern Illinois overlapped first-year Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck's career as a highly productive Huskies wide receiver from 1999-2003.
The two coaches remain good friends, but the familiarity ends there.
"P.J.'s an emotional guy, an intense guy," Narduzzi said. "I would say he's kind of like me and I think that's why we've stayed in touch since he was a player and I was coach. He'll have his guys geeked up and ready for the game."
What Narduzzi can't anticipate is how Fleck, who has also coached at NIU, Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will line his offense up against MSU's defense.
"Not only is it a new regime, but P.J. has not really been an offensive coordinator," Narduzzi said. "He was a receivers coach at Tampa Bay and at Rutgers, so he's never really called the plays. Who knows who's calling the plays? So, it's tough.
"It's like a final exam, but you don't know what class you're taking the final exam in. You don't know if it's chemistry, math or English."
MSU has added a new term to the offensive line lexicon - Yackles - and it currently pertains to Michael Dennis, a 6-foot-7, 299-pound behemoth listed as a tight end.
"Tackles with privileges," Staten explained. "It suits Mike perfectly."
Dennis, a red-shirt junior, has been called upon to help fill the void created by Dion Sims' early departure to the NFL. Although he left Carey (Ohio) High School as its all-time leading scorer in basketball with more than 1,300 points and a letterwinner in track and field, he was recruited to be a blocker.
"I don't think I ever saw him as a tight end, per se - just athletic, knowledgeable, has the ability to move his feet," Staten said. "And, we rely on that tight end very, very heavily in our run game."
Note the emphasis on the word, "heavy."
"We played about 18 snaps with him last year as a jumbo tight end and did some really nice things with him there, so that was always kind of on the back-burner," Staten said. "With Jack Conklin rising up and doing good things, we wanted to still have Mike have a good role in this offense, so that's something we talked about all spring, all summer, and it was just, `Hey, this works.' He's been a big mauler."
Although Dennis is seen primarily as "the sixth blocker" in the running game, he also could provide an unexpected dimension to the passing attack. In a recent scrimmage, Dennis wowed his line-mates with a 48-yard pass reception.
"He caught it for about a 10-yard gain and went rumbling for the other 38," Staten said. "A couple of safeties bounced off him along the way. It was a lot of fun. All the O-linemen mugged him, both on and off the field. To us, he will always be an O-lineman, so they were pretty exited about that."
It looks like former Spartan coach George Perles' oft-stated dream of lining up with 300-pounders at tight end and fullback could finally come true.
MUMA'S NEW ROLE AS A SENIOR
"I knew I had it in me all along, and now to get the nod feels awesome," said Muma, who kicked and played quarterback for Troy High School. "But this is where the real work starts now. I can't get complacent."
His first, and only, career field goal was a 28-yarder in the victory against Florida Atlantic in 2011.
"I know field goals and kickoffs are very different, but the experience of having all the eyes in a stadium goes a long way," Muma said. "I've been at Ohio State with 100,000 people screaming at me, so it won't surprise me."
LANGFORD TO START AT RUNNING BACK
Jeremy Langford started preseason camp behind Riley Bullough in the running back derby, but will make his first career start against Western Michigan. He knows production will determine his playing time.
"It's going to be whoever has the hot hand," Langford said. "We've all got to work for it and do our best to help the team out."
Langford has always been known for his speed while also being tried at defensive back and wide receiver during his career. Learning to run hard has helped him finally settle into a role.
"It was mainly the physical aspect and getting the 4 yards," Langford said. "When I'd get the ball, it was get the 4 yards, get the 4 yards, because eventually it will pop. When I first came here, I liked playing running back. Then I started getting comfortable at receiver.
"I just knew I wanted to start somewhere before I left here."