At long last, spring is approaching. And while this means warmer weather, NCAA Tournament action and baseball, it also signifies the beginning of a new football season with spring practice.
Michigan State is only a couple of weeks away from its first spring practice on March 25. The Spartan Nation has reason to be excited for the new season following a highly successful 2013 campaign that culminated in a Rose Bowl victory. Despite this success, head coach Mark Dantonio’s troops are hungrier than ever.
While winter has raged outside, the Spartans have been working tirelessly in the weight room to ensure that the Big Ten trophy stays in East Lansing.
“Winter conditioning has been outstanding thus far,” Dantonio said. “I’m very impressed in terms of how our players have handled it. We continually talk about how you have to be able to handle success. 2014 is a different football season. How we’ve approached it has been impressive. The enthusiasm has been very good, at 5:30 in the morning.
“More importantly, what I’ve tried to convey to my football team and myself is whenever you’ve had some success, is to step back and recognize how you got there, and never forget how you got there and where you were at, and what took place for you to get there. And you have to step back and then renew yourself.”
Since Dantonio arrived in East Lansing, the Spartans have had a chip on their shoulder. This chip has spurred the Spartans to the upper echelon of not only the conference, but near the top of the college football world.
Some might think this chip would disappear after MSU’s 13-1 finish last season. This won’t happen on Dantonio’s watch.
“I can promise you that the chip is still there. That’s just the type of people we are,” the veteran head coach said. “Even though I look back and hear we won every game by double digits, which has never been done in the Big Ten history, I can honestly say that every game was very close. It gives us a reality check in terms of how we did this.”
Dantonio’s primary concern now is to prepare the team’s younger players to replace veteran leaders with the proper mentality.
“We really need to worry about restarting ourselves,” Dantonio said. “We lost some great football players, but I think we have some great football players back.
“I’ve been very impressed with guys like Kurtis Drummond, Travis Jackson, two guys who have been leaders. Jeremy Langford has been a leader, Tony Lippett is working extremely hard. You look at the linebacker group, we’ve got some younger guys who I’ve been impressed with: Darien Harris, Marcus Rush, or Shilique Calhoun, guys like that.”
One position the Spartans will be focusing on in the spring is linebacker. The position loses a number of key contributors to graduation, such as standout Max Bullough, converted backer Jairus Jones and Rose Bowl MVP Kyler Elsworth.
“[There are] some guys coming back with quite a bit of experience, [such as] Darien Harris, [Taiwan] Jones and Ed Davis. Riley Bullough moves back there,” Dantonio said. “We’ve got some very good young players, Jon Reschke, Shane Jones. Chris Frey is there as a true freshman. We’ve got a couple other guys who have shown some other different things as well. But you let it play out … We’re going to play the best players at game time. That’s what’s important to figure out.”
Another position to watch is quarterback. While Connor Cook has the starting spot all but locked up, a battle is brewing behind him for the backup role. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry are each very talented and will look to lock up the No. 2 spot.
But since the competition will not be as fierce as last season’s battle for the starting spot, Dantonio will not have the same policy as last year, which allowed hits on quarterbacks.
“The quarterback situation is interesting,” Dantonio said. “We made them live in spring last year, I don’t think they’ll be live this year, but maybe a little bit. You have to give Connor Cook a lot of credit for elevating his game last season.”
“It wasn’t a roll of the dice based on what we needed to find out,” Dantonio said of the decision to make quarterbacks live last spring. “It was a necessity. We just kept pushing the envelope until we found out. I really didn’t care who was the guy.”
Dantonio also talked about several players who will be switching positions this spring. The veteran coach believes in playing the best players on a roster, regardless of position.
“You look at your players, and you gotta get them on the field as soon as possible,” Dantonio said. “If they’re not making moves in this area, they gotta be making moves in a different area. You’re not quite as athletic on this side, you have to move to this position where they can play. We’ve made good decisions over the past seven years in that way and we need to try to create some movement.”
James Bodanis is one Spartan Dantonio wants to see play more. Spartan Nation broke the story of his position change late last fall and Dantonio had more to say. The senior will be moving from his native defensive line position.
“We feel he’s a good athlete, a big guy,” Dantonio said. “He’s gotta move to the offensive line where he can play now. Hopefully he’s going to make that transition, he’s been working very hard at it since December.”
Spartan Nation broke the story of a position move for two players and Dantonio took time to confirm our report. Dantonio said that Noah Jones will also make the switch from defensive line to offensive line, as Jones will move to tackle. The MSU coaching staff will look at Devyn Salmon at center.
With so many exciting young players stepping up for departed seniors, the Spartan Nation has reason to be optimistic. And luckily, spring practice, and a brand-new season, is quickly approaching.