To casual football fans, spring games for Division I football programs seem meaningless.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, especially for a Michigan State defense looking to replace dynamic playmakers such as Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Darqueze Dennard, and Isaiah Lewis.
While quarterback Connor Cook led the White team to a 20-13 win over the Green team in the final minute of the contest, the result was less important than the process. Since the MSU coaching staff learned a great deal about the team, the spring game was a big success.
Defensive line coach Ron Burton, who coached the White team, discovered a great deal in particular about the defense he will be working closely with next season. Burton, along with several players, spoke with the media following Saturday’s spring game.
Burton believed that the spring game reveals a great deal about where the team is, and what changes the Spartans need to enact heading into the summer.
“The kids came out and played hard early, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. They had the ability to come back and play, and that’s what we expect from our players,” Burton said. “Overall, we know where we are and we know where we need to go. We’re still a work in progress, that’s for sure.”
The Spartans have some work to do at defensive line after losing studs such as Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. But as MSU’s “next man up” system demands, there is a great deal of talent at defensive line for the Spartans.
Linemen on both teams impressed the Spartan coaching staff on Saturday.
“I think they came out playing fast and hard. They were a little edgy, and we had some offsides penalties,” Burton said. “Our guys tried to harness that edginess…I think we did some good things. They showed some edge to them as far as moves they made. In the future, we have to continue to harness that, and those moves on the ball can cost you in the game. You want to turn them loose as much as you can. There are some pluses in there, that’s for sure.
“There are some things we can learn from, also. I think they had five or six sacks overall as a group and that can be a plus. That’ll carry over into next fall.”
Burton spoke more about the play of his defensive tackles, who he was impressed with.
“Joel Health flashed today and did some good things; getting off the ball, moving them inside. We wanted to know if he could handle the double teams and stuff like that. He was very active,” Burton said. “The defensive tackle on my side, Brandon Clemons, did some good things. I think he was very strong at the point of attack. On the other side, [Damon] Knox got into the game and played a lot. He hadn’t played as much as we wanted him to this spring.”
The second-year defensive line coach at Michigan State also talked about Demetrious Cooper.
A redshirt freshman from Chicago, Ill., Cooper has shown great potential at defensive end in his limited time thus far. Cooper will compete for playing time behind established starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush.
“His strengths right now, as you can tell, are his quickness off the ball, his pass rush, and his third-down ability,” Burton said. “I think that’s where he’ll have a chance to get on the field. I’m still dangling it right now, so he’s got some more work to do, that’s for sure.”
When asked to note Cooper’s biggest area of improvement, Burton responded, “His ability to play against a run. The use of his hands in run-blocking schemes. We know we have the ability to rush the pass, so we want to see him get off the block in run situations,” Burton said. “He has showed that, but he’s got to get consistent with it.”
Calhoun is also excited to work with Cooper, as the two linemen get along well. Calhoun and Cooper are even developing friendly competition after Saturday’s spring game.
“It’s funny because he came up to me at the end of the game and was like `I had more sacks than you.’ I was like, `Really? That’s how you’re going to start off this conversation?’ He played well today,” Calhoun said. “That just shows that he’s a young guy that can get off the ball fast. He uses his hands and he wants to make plays. It was nice to see him out there getting some reps and showing his stuff on the Big Ten Network. I think he had three and I had two, but he played his butt off today and I commend him for that.
“He’s gained weight and he’s understanding his role in the defense,” Calhoun continued. “He understands that defense is where his help is now. He’s playing into the role. The skills that he has, his skill set he’s using within our defense. It’s nice to see him out there and finally understanding and getting into gear.”
As Calhoun noted, Cooper has learned a lot and proved his mettle thus far.
While Calhoun has been there to help, Cooper is developing quite quickly on his own.
“He’s a pretty smart kid. He learned a lot on his own,” Calhoun said. “Coming in he learned a lot, especially hand placement and striking with the down hand. I would say that he’s taught me a lot actually. A lot of things that he does on the pass rush, small little things that he does with his shoulders to get the offensive tackles off balance. You can learn from a lot of guys and I’m willing to learn from him just like he’s willing to learn from me. He does a great job of shooting his hands. I feel like if he just keeps that separation it will work out well for him.
“Even at his size, I think he weighs about 245 [pounds] now so even at his size…if he just keeps shooting his hands and moving his feet nothing can stop him,” Calhoun said.
Cooper is only part of Michigan State’s deep defensive unit. The Spartans’ depth chart is loaded with playmakers.
In essence, while MSU loses several key seniors, not much will change on defense this season.
“The biggest thing that we had last year is we had depth. That’s one of our key things for this defense is having depth, having guys who know what to do and being able to step in for older guys,” Calhoun said. “Having [Cooper] and LT [Lawrence Thomas] gives you confidence that we’re going to have a lot of power going into fall. It gives me a lot of trust in those guys, seeing them out there playing today instills a lot of trust in me. Having them ready to come in when I need a [breather], they’re going to come on in and play just as hard as me.”
Calhoun even went as far to say that the Spartans have the deepest defensive end core in the country.
“We’ve got a lot of guys. We’ve got LT, who can play. He’s very versatile, so he knows multiple positions, but he’s very strong at defensive end and so is Cooper,” Calhoun said. “Marcus Rush was a freshman All-American. It just shows that we’ve got guys on this team who can play. We have a lot of depth at the defensive end position.”
Meanwhile, a battle is brewing for the middle linebacker spot.
Neither Taiwan Jones nor Jon Reschke was able to stake a claim on the starting role during the spring.
“At the middle linebacker position I think we had some things we wanted to see out of TJ and Reschke. Those guys have the ability to make some plays, but they’re still a work in progress,” Burton said. “Those two guys are battling for their job right now along with a third guy. I think overall it was good, but there’s always room for improvement and I think that’s where we are right now, we’re just average. I think we can get a lot better experience-wise and that’s the true teacher. We have to keep them on the field.”
Like the rest of the defense, the secondary had a great day. As starting cornerback Darian Hicks said, the secondary is shaping up well for the Spartans.
“I think we all did really well. Jalyn Powell had some good hits for the White team and Jermaine [Edmondson] had an interception, Kurtis Drummond had an interception then I had a pick at the end of the game. Demetrious Cox had a pick for the Green team, and Ezra Robinson did too,” Hicks said. “We all had a very productive day. We all showed up and showed the fans what’s in store for Michigan State next season.”
Senior safety Kurtis Drummond was just as impressed with the secondary’s showing.
“We just need to know what we’re doing. We’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays consecutively. Guys in the spring are just trying to learn more, to take steps forward, and be consistent in tackling,” Drummond said. “Overall, today, from my standpoint, the young guys did a good job.”
With the spring game complete, the onus is now on the players to stay in shape over the summer and come back in the fall ready to work. Don’t expect any Spartan Dawgs to lose their appetite over the summer.