EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his weekly press conference Tuesday inside the Izzo Family Media Center at the Spartan Stadium North End Zone Complex to review the Spartans’ win over Western Michigan last Saturday. MSU has a bye week before taking on Notre Dame on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. in Spartan Stadium.
The following is a complete transcript from Tuesday’s press conference:
COACH DANTONIO: Real quick, opportunity to go into the bye week 2-0, which that was the goal all along, so I thought we did a great job doing that.
Again, took a big step forward I think. Started out with BG (Bowling Green) and then played a good Western Michigan game who had come off a tough game versus Southern Cal. I thought we handled adversity in the game, so that was a positive. Pretty much what I said the other night, so that was a positive.
I think you have to learn how to do that. Too many times last year maybe we did not do that. That has been something I think we’ve been able to hang our hat on a little bit here, so it’s good to see that happening.
Played a lot of players. By my count, we played 24 on defense alone, 24 players on defense, and we didn’t substitute at the end of the game. So those are guys who are playing throughout the entire game and then 24 on the offensive side of the ball and that did not include special teams.
Took the redshirt off Connor Heyward, who I think will be an outstanding player for us. You’ll see him showing up in other special teams in other areas, as well.
And now we go into the bye week, and again, the bye week, our focus will be on working on the field, off the field, as well, academically, make sure we’re doing a little bit of recruiting. We’ll practice three times this week, and then we need to stay fresh and healthy. That’s probably as big a focus as anything. Right now we’re a healthy football team and we need to stay that way and start to prepare for Notre Dame.
So I’ll just take some questions.
Q. The bye week this early, I know Mark (Hollis) reconfigured some things to get to you this point. Is it a good or a bad thing and I guess what are the positives and what are the negatives for having it this early why?
COACH DANTONIO: We’ve had them all over the place in the past 10 years. One year where we had a bye the next to last game and I was fretting about that, but we had a chance to play for a championship that time, and so we had an extra week to prepare.
You know, lat year, I think we had a bye after one game, prior to the Notre Dame game, played very well. We’ve had it midyear. I think most people would rather have them midyear, but hey, we had a long camp this year, longer camp than usual. So we’ve been seven weeks straight with football. So I do think it’s advantageous for our guys to step away. But you know, there’s maybe, it’s probably best said, how do you play after your bye week and that will define itself.
I think the main thing we want to do is stay conditioned, stay healthy, stay football conditioned, allow us to catch up maybe a little bit at the beginning of the academic year academically and just sort of do some things, ground ourselves.
I’m going to sit and talk to all of our freshmen players one at a time this week and just sort of catch up with them. I think that will be a positive for them because some of those guys are getting redshirted and some of them are playing. They are all in different things, different levels there. So we’ll try and do that. So we’ve got a lot of things to do. Our coaches will recruit but I don’t know that there’s any perfect time and I don’t know that there’s any bad time, I guess I’d say. So we’ll just take it as it comes.
Q. With Brian (Lewerke) in the read option, it looked like he made a lot of really good decisions as far as keeping the ball or handing it off on Saturday. How difficult is it for a young quarterback to make the right decision and what kind of progress have you seen from him?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, he’s always been able to do that. I think that’s something that he was able to do in high school, so he’s sort of gifted in that way, and he’s not afraid to -- he’s got great ball handling skills, you know, rides out, fakes well, things of that nature. I think it’s been a positive. Big part of it, you know, I think when you have a quarterback that can run, you have a different dynamic, so I think that’s been a positive for us. Got to take care of the football, no question about that. But that is a positive for us.
Q. Can you just take a moment to talk about the rivalry with Notre Dame and just look ahead and how special that is for you and the players?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, what I came here in 1995, we started playing Notre Dame I think in ‘97. We started playing them back again. Then when I came back as a head football coach, I learned a little bit more about the game, the rivalry, the understanding that Notre Dame had a big impact on Michigan State getting into the Big Ten, way back, and all the things that they really did. They were the first major team that started playing Michigan State home and away and I think that prompted others to do the same.
So there’s a lot of history there with Notre Dame. There have been some great football games. It’s a great program. A lot of respect for Brian Kelly and for Notre Dame in general and I think it’s one of the classic football games in America. So every year, you know, the Notre Dame/Michigan State, probably because of the ‘66 game itself, probably takes on a whole new level of interest, of national interest, I think.
Q. Can you talk about taking the bye week before Notre Dame? Does it help your team refocus against, going into that game as a nationally-televised game?
COACH DANTONIO: Like I said earlier does it help or not; maybe you get a head start on them, but maybe you disrupt what we have going. There’s a little bit of both ends of that spectrum I think. We’ll just take advantage of whatever time we have, whichever way it goes and we’ll be ready to play.
I think, you know, as far as the game itself this next time, I think it’s an 8 o’clock national TV game in Spartan Stadium against Notre Dame; that’s why you come here. You come here for these type of opportunities, to play in these marquee games like this, and I think it will be exciting for everybody involved.
Q. After looking at footage from the game on Saturday, can you talk about what you liked and what you didn’t like about the running rotation and if there’s any changes that could be made?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, what I liked about the running rotation, I think first of all, Gerald Holmes got the start. I think that was warranted. I think Holmes and (Madre) London and (LJ) Scott all ran hard, ran effectively. LJ has the big run on fourth-and-one. Other than that, they are probably pretty even. There was some consistency to how they played. All of them had some nice runs, but you know, he had the big one. Where it goes from there, really depends on how -- we’re early in the season. We’ll continue to play our three guys and to me it’s a luxury and it’s an advantage, and I don’t -- one guy is not running it well enough; we’ll put the other guy in, or if he’s running it really well, we’ll keep it going.
I think we have a system and a thought process to this; it’s not random. We’re trying to give everybody touches to allow them to prove themselves and I think right now, LJ maybe has 33 touches and maybe the other guys about 20 each. So it’s relatively, I think relatively close but we’ll do our best.
What I liked about the game, obviously if you get off the field 14 out of 15 times on third down, you know, good things happen on defense. If you convert seven or eight of 16, good things happen. You run the ball for 255 (yards) and hold them to 91, good things happen.
Statistically, offense/defense, I thought we were pretty dominant. Where we need to be better is on special teams. We need to continue to work, and then also, you know, ball security, which, hey, I can’t refute guys trying to make plays with effort. Guys making plays with effort and the ball comes out -- and that’s what’s happened a little bit. But you need to be, I guess, extra -- we just need to continue working and emphasizing and we’ll do some different things maybe that promotes that emphasis.
Q. When preseason camp started you guys talked a lot about being now finally being able to focus on football and how that was good for camp. Now two games into it, there’s got to be a confidence, I would imagine, with this team. Can you sense that as maybe a little different than years past; that this team, they are just kind of built on how they are feeling after two games, I guess.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, you know, we’ve always had confidence here. Even last year, I felt like we had confidence to win every game and we came out in every football game and were ahead. You can’t do that if you don’t have confidence in yourself.
Every team I think every year takes on its own identity. At the end of the year, you know what that identity is and you get stamped. So the ‘13 team, played with great emotion and sort of just kept going like that all the way up to 13-1.
So 2-0, we’re 2-0 and that’s the only thing that’s important now but we are way too early to start saying this team has a common thread. I just think that right now, we just need to take one thing at a time, concentrate and focus on the present. We’re an extremely young football team.
I was looking at our guys yesterday. You know, we have three seniors playing on defense. You know, not very many seniors offensively or defensively and that’s a good thing for the future.
But we need to keep that in context and understand we have some very big games down the stretch here as we start after this bye week. We start Notre Dame, Iowa, Michigan; that’s just the beginning. We need to stay focused on the present.
Q. You brought up the defensive side of the ball. The job on third down, how much is related to the pressure you’ve generated thus far and what have you seen on third downs from that three-man attack that you guys put up front?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, I think we’ve changed some things up there schematically a little bit but I think we also are pretty fresh. We’re playing a lot of people. I think we have some special guys on the edge a little bit. We’ve done some different things, and you know, remains to be seen how we play the next opportunities we have.
Right now, I think opponents are like 11 percent on third down. I don’t know what it is, three out of (28) or something like that. Right now, we’re playing very well.
But right now, we’re playing very well at that, but every game is a new challenge. Every game you have different people you have to defend, whether it’s the quarterback, the running back or the wide outs. So challenging.
Q. When guys make position changes, it’s very rare to go from running back to defensive tackle but Gerald (Owens) has and his speed has benefited him. Will you talk about his emergence? Your players and coaches are talking about how well he’s playing.
COACH DANTONIO: He’s playing well. He was a guy that was about 240 pounds when we recruited him at tailback, and he was a very good tailback out of Jersey. And then I think he got here, he was 260, and then he went to 268 at the end of summer camp and he slowly started eating his way to defensive line. (laughing) He eventually got there pretty quickly but he had to learn it. He played defensive tackle in high school but it’s not the same. He had to learn it and he had to learn to play with a motor, but you can see the athletic ability. You talk about now he’s starting to understand that, playing with his hands much better and I think he’s playing well thus far. Again, new challenges are coming.
Q. With Jake Hartbarger, I know for a couple of years whether he caught the ball was a question for you, has he transitioned to the point where he is a weapon for you?
COACH DANTONIO: I think Jake is an excellent punter. I’ve always talked to him about -- you know what do I know about hunting. I think I did punt in little league maybe.
To me, you have to become so confident, it’s like going to the fair. You go to the fair and you shoot the three, or you are pitching coins or whatever you’re doing. That’s the approach you have to be able to take. It’s my turn to go out and show people what I can do, show people what I can do. I think that he’s gotten to that point now where it’s just, this is what I do. I think he enjoys going out there and he can boom them.
I think he had sort of a down day this past weekend compared to what he can do and what he’s usually done. I think you saw it. He had four 50-yard punts maybe the week before.
Q. So even last week with the ones that were out-of-bounds, was he effective with those?
COACH DANTONIO: They were effective. We needed to do that. They were effective and we asked him to do that. I think he’s got an outstanding leg and I think he’s very confident right now, which I think you have to -- in those -- you’ve got one-and-done. You’re one-and-done. Just figure you’ve got to go out there and make a chip shot or hit a driver, and 11 people are rushing you, or 10, and 80,000 people are watching you.
So, you know, there’s some nerves with that, and I think you have to get used to that and I think he’s done a great job with that, and he’s to that point now.
Q. You have a handful of guys from Florida on your roster. How are they holding up after this past weekend, and is this a good time for the bye especially for them?
COACH DANTONIO: They are doing well. Their families are all doing well. I talked to Lashawn Paulino-Bell. I said, ‘Are they leaving?’
“No, they are going to ride it out.” You know, they are about 30 minutes from the coast.
But everybody, T.J. Harrell’s family, everybody’s family, I think we have four guys with Laress Nelson, Devyn Salmon, everybody’s family’s okay. I think they probably are without power, some of them, but they seem to be doing okay. We’ve checked on all of them.
Q. Along those same lines, I you know you said at the end of the Western game, you wanted it to be under the radar. Can you give a statement or shed any light on players that volunteered to go to Houston? Were they all able to make it and are those efforts going on there for them?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, we have a group going down to Houston. As usual, that group goes from one -- you first ask people these things, you know, we’ve got 30 guys going and it sort of trickles down, but there’s a sufficient number of people going down there.
But I think -- it’s for aid. I’m not going to sit here and talk about who is going or all these different things. I just think it’s a good thing, it’s a good cause and our guys are going down for the right reason. So just leave it with that.
Q. Going back to the defensive interior, what have you seen from Raequan Williams these first two weeks and how he’s grown, and does he remind you of any other interior guys you’ve had in the past?
COACH DANTONIO: I think all four guys playing in there are playing well. (Mike) Panasiuk, a big stop on fourth down this week.
Raequan is playing very well. He’s very athletic, extremely athletic. It’s a guy played high school maybe two, three years. He’s sort of coming into his own. He’s a big 6-4, 6-5, 310-pound guy. We talked about Gerald (Owens) and, I think Naquan Jones is playing extremely well.
But again, new challenges are coming. So they need to continue to be consistent.
Q. Laress (Nelson) got a couple opportunities to return punts on Saturday, and had a nice move on one of them. What have you seen from him as a true freshman to get the chance to be on the field for that, and do you plan to continue to rotate him with Darrell (Stewart)?
COACH DANTONIO: He played a little bit the first week. Don’t really like putting a guy in there to return punts without having touched the field prior to that in that particular game, but he’s very confident, very sure-handed. He’s demonstrated what he can do in practice over and over. We’ll see where he’s at this next week. But he’s gifted. He’s gifted. He’s very quick and he can get north.
Q. Can you talk a little about what Joe Bachie has done in terms of transitioning to middle linebacker and translating what you guys want from the rest of the guys around him?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I sort of feel like Joe is much like Brian Lewerke in a lot of ways. He has that sort of “It” factor a little bit. You knew he was going to be a good player last year, even last year; you knew that Brian was going to be a good player based on what you saw from last year and the feeling that you had.
Same thing with Joe Bachie. He’s a great athlete, as I’ve talked about before. Physical and very hard-working guy. Brings a sense of that hard-work mentality to our entire defense. But he’s a great athlete, very active and he’s been very, very productive.
Q. How would you assess Brett Scanlon’s progress since he’s been here?
COACH DANTONIO: Brett has punted for us, he’s kicked for us a little bit on scout team stuff. He sat out the one year and now he’s in a position to be the kicker. You know, he’s been pretty good. He kicked one a little flat this past week, which we can’t have, but I think he’s solid. He’s a team guy. He’s got toughness and I think he’s a big competitor.
So you know, going to have opportunities, like I said. You know, here comes the 10-game season now. So he’ll have opportunities as we go, but he’s done a nice job.
Q. I know it’s hard to -- you can’t really say how the season is going to go but 10 true freshmen at this point. Are there other guys that are close? Could you see other guys playing, or is it more only if there’s injuries or if there’s an issue at depth at this point?
COACH DANTONIO: I think Dom (Dominique) Long will play this week. I think he’s another guy that will play. I just think he does too many things on special teams. He’s a good tackler. I think we can get him involved.
It’s a long season and you get guys nicked up and they can’t practice and then you end up practicing this guy or that guy, and I think he’s a good football player and I think he’ll play. But you know we’ll see how it all shakes out. I thought he might have played this past week but we held him out, but I do anticipate him playing.
Q. In the media, sometimes all we hear about is negativity with players, but Darrell Stewart after the game on Saturday got emotional talking about appreciating the education, the people, about being a Spartan. He said it’s so much more than football. I’m just curious about that side of Darrell, the character side, the off-the-field young man. He’s not the exception; he’s really the rule.
COACH DANTONIO: Darrell is an outstanding young person from Houston. So they have been going through it a little bit, his family throughout, not just this hurricane but another one, another flood.
Darrell is a very appreciative person. He’s a very good person. I think he’s a very hard worker and he’s talented, skilled, but I think he’s a very appreciative person. Just a great person and I think that much like you said, I think we have a lot, a lot of players that appreciate where they are at right now and what they are doing. They are trying to do their very best to put their best foot forward.
Q. Can you talk about the development of Matt Morrissey?Seems like he’s been all over the field the last couple of games, seven tackles so far on the season. What have you liked from him? Do you know if he talks with his dad (Spartan alum Jim Morrissey) a lot?
COACH DANTONIO: Oh, yeah, he talks to his dad a lot. Matt is a football player, he’s in his third year playing. I guess he’s a redshirt-junior. He’s a guy that has been on special teams and been very active on special teams for us the last number of years. Now has an opportunity to start, he has great ball skills. Was on a state champion semifinal basketball team, big school division in Illinois. So he can jump and run. Very athletic and he knows what to do.
When you know what to do and you can do it fast, good things are going to happen and that’s where he’s at right now. He’s got a good feel and he’s another one of the leaders I think on this football team and a very controlling position. He’s done a nice job.
Q. Looking at the secondary, there’s been a lot of talk about Josiah Scott or one of the older CBs, but what have you seen from maybe a Khari Willis or Matt Morrissey out there of the safeties?
COACH DANTONIO: Secondary is playing very well at this point. Giving up about a hundred yards a game passing in this modern era of football.
But again as I said with other positions, challenges are going to come. Right now they have played the ball very well to the deep part of the field. There’s not a lot of mistakes back there. They have tackled pretty effectively.
So you see them limiting yards after a catch and things of that nature. Again, the meat of the schedule is coming, so you know, we’ll just continue to try to take one step at a time here.
Q. You mentioned earlier about keeping the guys fresh. I noticed you rotated interior guys, outside guys, pretty much everybody around the linebackers, and I guess even the linebackers. Is that a result of the speed of those two teams that you played are going with, and is that something that you expect to kind of continue to do throughout the year?
COACH DANTONIO: I really think we’ll continue to do that because I don’t think that there’s a lot of separation between the quality of player. So they put themselves in that position.
Tyson Smith, for example, he started for us before. So he’s playing in there as a two a little bit, but he deserves to play; you know with the big pick against BG for a touchdown. You know, we talked about Josiah Scott and Josh Butler as an improved football player. Justin Layne, what he did last year. I don’t care really who is playing. It’s pretty much like the tailbacks, and we’ve got that situation with the defensive line and defensive ends. Probably the linebackers a little bit more clear with those guys but we’re playing a lot of guys and we typically roll some linebackers in there, as well.
I think that’s a good situation. It keeps guys fresh and maybe as much as anything, it keeps everybody energized and focused on the task at hand throughout the week, and they bring that emotion to the game and I think that’s good for everybody.
They are a very close unit, much like our offensive line. We’re playing eight guys. So when guys get to play it takes on a whole new meaning of preparation, or preparation takes on a whole new meaning.
Q. I know you’re never going to complain about scoring a touchdown but a couple games in now, you have a redshirt freshman kicker (Matt Coghlin) who is still yet to make a field goal; is there some concern there or do you do anything different to keep the pressure on in practice or anything like that?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, we do. We try and keep the pressure on him in practice, and he’s done well in practice, but it’s not like the chip shot I was talking about in front of 80,000.
You know, he’s confident and I think he’s doing a great job right now, and every kick he’s hit, he’s hit with -- ball is popping and he’s hitting good. I guess we just have to wait our turn.
Right now, red zone inversion: You know, when you get in the red zone, do you score touchdowns. I think offensively, we’re in the red zone eight times and we’ve scored seven touchdowns. So that’s a big positive. Usually your goal is about 50 percent, and dictates winning and losing games. That’s what we’ve seen. That’s been a big plus for us. And on the other side of the spectrum, I think they have only been in the red zone three times and not scored a touchdown, and that’s a positive, as well.
Q. Is there any update on AJ Arcuri, any expectation of when he might be back? And secondly the two young defensive linemen on the end, (Jacub) Panasiuk and Brandon Randle, what have you seen from them in terms of explosiveness and do you believe that they can continue into a four-down situation?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, first of all, I always say, the first question was -- oh, AJ. We’ll know on AJ here early October, I think. My hope is that he’ll start to be able to practice again. He’s had to go through some different things with his surgery. But it’s our hope that that will happen here in October. So he will be available to play some. I think he has that skill set to do that.
As far as the two defensive ends, I think they are very good players. They are active. You know, they are a little bit different. Randle is 235 probably, very quick, athletic. Panasiuk, Jacub, is about 270, very powerful but explosive. I think that one is a redshirt freshman and the other one is a true freshman. Again, it just speaks to the future here. Both are very good players that can make plays.
So I see them continuing to play and get better. Again, we probably have a three-man, a three-deep rotation at defensive end. It’s deep, but you know, those guys and Brandon can also play some linebacker. He’s been taught that position, as well, and you see him in different situations. He can show up in a number of different places.