Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thoughts on the opening of MSU spring football

Doesn't it feel like we just saw LSU get demolished by Alabama in New Orleans?

The surprisingly successful and exciting MSU basketball season resulted in the last three months going by in the blink of an eye. Now, football back. MSU's first of 15 spring practices took place Tuesday. Spring culminates with the intrasquad scrimmage at 1 p.m. on April 28. The game will be televised live on Big Ten Network, a result of sustained program success. MSU looks to build on back-to-back 11-win seasons, but has some major holes to fill before the season kicks off next fall. That starts with spring practice.

"We want to try to get 3 percent better every practice," Mark Dantonio said at his press conference on Tuesday (full transcript here). "That's something my head coach, my position coach really talked about in spring practice going way back in the 1970s. I think I still try to hold that to be true. So you're going to remain 97 percent of what you do will remain the same. If you can just change that 3 percent every day, you're going to become a more effective football player in the end. So that's what we're trying to do.

"Develop new concepts, new ideas, new position changes and experiment with those different things. We also need to stay healthy, but guard against complacency, I would say. Regardless of where you're at, if you're the head coach here, position coach, position player, you need to look forward to the next thing and really guard in terms of being complacent in everything that we do."

Considering not much has happened on the field yet, the biggest stories are on the depth chart. Bennie Fowler, Chris Norman, Lawrence Thomas and Paul Lang are notable players who will miss part or all of spring due to injuries, but let's take a look at who will be practicing.

Andrew Maxwell moves into the starting spot at quarterback, as expected. In the backfield, Le'Veon Bell is listed as the lone starter, with Larry Caper and Nick Hill behind him. I can't remember the last time there wasn't an "OR" under the running back depth chart. Bell will get the most carries, but Dantonio didn't have much to say about that, just saying no player can get complacent. 

Sophomore Niko Palazeti is the new starter at fullback. The biggest hole to fill on offense is at wide receiver. Fowler will miss at least the first two weeks of spring after undergoing foot surgery, so Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey are the listed starters, but the position really is wide open. Transfer DeAnthony Arnett's waiver has been sent in, so MSU is now waiting for the NCAA to rule whether or not he can play this upcoming season.

"It will be important for our guys to work on their own after spring ball, throughout the summer and in August and the first couple games in fall camp will be important for them to get game experience as well.," Dantonio said. "But I think they're very, very capable of giving us explosiveness out there in big plays."

Dion Sims is the starting tight end, but after him, the position is thin. Former defensive end Denzel Drone has moved to tight end as part of an experiment. This is the most experienced and deepest offensive line MSU has had under Dantonio. Blake Treadwell takes the lone open starting spot at left guard. Skyler Burkland was the starting right tackle before getting injured at Notre Dame, but is now listed as the backup left tackle. He'll push for playing time somewhere on the line. 

"I look around the conference right now and people are having a hard time with their numbers in terms of having a spring football game, we've got numbers on both the offensive line and defensive line which will enable us to do that really throughout the entire spring," Dantonio said.

Only three starting spots are open on defense. After missing almost all of last season, Tyler Hoover has bulked up and moved over to defensive tackle. He's listed at 295 pounds on the depth chart and will bring a lot of athleticism to the position. As expected, Anthony Rashad White is listed at nose tackle. There is a lot of talent and depth on the line. Dantonio said redshirt freshman end Joel Heath is looking like Will Gholston with his 6-foot-6, 277-pound frame. Dantonio also compared redshirt freshman end Shilique Calhoun to former Spartan Julian Peterson. He clearly likes what this group has stocked for the future, although those players will contribute this season.

Dantonio was asked about using a 3-4 defense, but said the Spartans have as many talented linemen as linebackers. 

"We're so we're formulated to be a 4-3 team, we can experiment with the 3-4," he said. "We use it in certain situations. I think it's important that we adapt and have answers for everything. But you're best when you know exactly what you're doing, especially game time when you have to fix problems. We were ranked in the top five defensively, I think in four categories, maybe five nationally this year. Some people could point to us having the best defense in the Big Ten Conference, at least statistically."

Sophomore Taiwan Jones is listed the starter at STAR linebacker because Norman will miss most of spring after undergoing offseason surgery. With Thomas also out due to offseason surgery, a lot of inexperienced guys have a chance to get quality reps. The coaches really like Jones.

"I think he'll have a tremendous spring. He pulls the pin, he's got as much power and explosiveness as any linebacker out there" Dantonio said. "He's big. He's quick, but he has to learn to play fast at all times. He can't second-guess himself. But that's part of the experience and what spring is for.

"If you look at it, he'll probably have another thousand snaps sometimes this spring. A little different than most. Some people rush through spring. But we'll take our time and go five weeks with this. So there is going to be a lot of practice, evaluation of practice, practice, evaluation of practice. So there are going to be a lot of reps and situations he'll see as well as the other guys."

In the secondary, RJ Williamson and Kurtis Drummond are listed as co-starters at the vacant free safety spot. Drummond played in MSU's nickel packages last season, while Williamson redshirted and drew a lot of praise from the coaches. MSU returns most of its special teams starters, although they'll need a new holder. Hill will be the new punt returner. 

Overall, Dantonio sounds really excited about the potential of this team, especially the skill on the defense. He brought up recruiting rankings and said that what a team has coming back is more important than recruiting. 

"Want to look at recruiting and say we've got the No. 1 class, the No. 10 class, whatever it is. The bottom line is how many games you win at the end of the season," he said. "That is the bottom line. The second bottom line is how many guys you have returning. How many players do you have coming back?"

He's got a point. We've already talked about the shortcomings of rankings. Besides, most incoming freshmen aren't going to play right away. If they get time to improve, what they are as redshirt freshmen or sophomores is much more important than what they are as incoming freshmen. Look at Calhoun and Jones. Both were three-star recruits, but with a season under their belt, they're ready to take a step up and becoming big-time players in the coming years. Who cares what recruiting services ranked them out of high school? How good are they right now? But I digress.

The biggest questions going into this spring are Maxwell, the receivers/tight ends and the inside of the defensive line. Other than that, it's mostly about trying some guys in different spots, gaining quality depth and staying injury-free.

With Maxwell, you really couldn't ask for much more from a new starter. Maxwell has been in the system for three seasons and spent a lot of time learning from Kirk Cousins. He knows the playbook inside out. It's all about getting game experience now. A nationally-televised game against Boise State will baptize Maxwell by fire, but before we get to the regular season, he has to take all the reps as the No. 1 guy in practice. By most accounts, Maxwell has a stronger arm and is a better athlete than Kirk Cousins was. However, Cousins had the legendary leadership and left MSU with most of the quarterback records. Physically, Maxwell has all the tools, it's all about refining the other things now.

"He came here as a highly recruited young man, and from day one when he came in here he impressed," Dantonio said of Maxwell. "So it wasn't the type of thing where we had to sort of sit there and say well, hopefully he gets good enough. He's come here with an idea that he can be the guy, and this is his time. It's going to be very exciting to watch him."

The guys Maxwell will be throwing too are all pretty much new starters. Only Sims and Fowler have extensive game experience, and Fowler will miss some of spring. Lippett saw some time at receiver last season, but was a defensive back for most of the year. Now he's sticking to the offensive side. While replacing an entire receiving corps usually results in struggles, the fact Maxwell has been throwing to a lot of these guys should speed up the learning curve. Maxwell already has an on-field relationship with a lot of these guys, especially Mumphrey. On the other hand, tight end is going to be a struggle this spring, with recruits not coming in until fall and Lang missing time this spring. 

The defensive line is only something to watch for because of how dominant it was last season. Jerel Worthy is going to be a first- or second-round pick in the NFL and Kevin Pickelman became a solid run-stopper. Both are gone. Hoover comes in with a lot of size and experience and White is coming off a solid performance in the Outback Bowl against Georgia. With Hoover at 295 pounds and White at 320, MSU should have no problem replacing the beef inside. 

"Again, the nature of the situation is that we want to put our best players on the field all at once, and I think (Hoover) is one of our best 11, there is no question," Dantonio said. "This gives him an opportunity to put more speed on the field. He knows our defense. This is his fourth year in this, so he knows our defense, so he should be very capable. Actually, it's his fifth year"

It's nice to have actual football back, even if we're just talking 'bout practice.

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