By Robert Bao
Mark Dantonio believes a strong foundation has been laid, but now wants to build on that success and continue reaching higher goals.
Last year MSU won 11 games for the second straight year, the Legends division championship and a memorable New Year’s Day bowl game.
But Head Coach Mark Dantonio is not ready to rest on his laurels. He is intent on continuing to build and improve on that foundation.
"We have to guard against complacency," Dantonio says. "We want to build for a championship and continue to develop confidence. All of us, we need to earn our jerseys. Whether you are a coach here or some part of our staff, whether you are a trainer, a manager, a quarterback or a tailback, every day that you go out there you have to earn what you get, earn that jersey that you get and make a big deal about it."
The Spartans are in good shape to do so in 2012, as they return eight starters on a defense that ranked high in most statistical categories. On offense, MSU needs to fill a few more holes and find new players at quarterback, wide receiver, fullback and tight end. In special teams, MSU needs to find a holder to replace Brad Sonntag, who proved invaluable in the bowl win.
Perhaps the most notable hole to fill on defense is the departure of All-America Junior Tackle Jerel Worthy, who left early for the NFL draft. Senior Defensive End Tyler Hoover, injured for most of last season, is slotted to plug the hole with his massive 6-7, 295 frame. Anthony Rashad White, at 6-2, 320, did an outstanding job at nose tackle in the Outback Bowl replacing an injured Kevin Pickelman. Other defensive linemen include Brandon Clemons, Damon Knox, Micajah Reynolds and Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge.
Dantonio believes that moving Hoover to the three technique is not a stretch.
"He's big," says Dantonio. "He has great ability. He has experience. Of course he can always go outside and play d-end, but I think he is one of our best 11, no question. This (moving him to DT) gives him an opportunity, it puts more speed on the field. He knows the defense. So he should be very, very capable."
The defensive line will be bookended by Will Gholston and Marcus Rush, with several up-and-comers adding depth. Redshirt-freshmen Shilique Calhoun is said to be as quick off the edge as veteran pro Julian Peterson, while Joel Heath reminds Dantonio of a younger Gholston.
"We have a good defensive front," says Dantonio. "I think Damon Knox is going to be a tremendous player. I look at guys like Heath, tremendous upside. James Kittredge is a guy that will be very exciting for some people to watch. Brandon Clemons. We go four-deep at defensive tackle right now and I think they can be quality players for us."
MSU also needs to replace Safety Trenton Robinson, who became the third straight MSU defensive back to be drafted by an NFL team in the past three years. Several underclass players like R.J. Williamson and Kurtis Drummond will vie for that role to join Johnny Adams, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis in the backfield. A true freshman could also step up and earn playing time, given the high regard for MSU’s incoming quartet of Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmondson, Mark Meyers and Ezra Robinson.
MSU linebackers return with more numbers, as many newcomers will reinforce MSU’s lineup with starters Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman. Redshirt freshman Lawrence “L.T.” Thomas, a high school All American, has recovered from an upper body injury. A number of other prospects, including Taiwan Jones, who played last year, and Darien Harris, will be in the mix.
"Taiwan will be an outstanding player here for us and I think he will compete for playing time,” says Dantonio. "He has as much snap and explosiveness as any linebacker out there but he has to learn to play fast out there and not second-guess himself."
On offense Junior Quarterback Andrew Maxwell was slightly injured in the spring, and so Connor Cook, a redshirt freshman, was able to get plenty of work. “Maxwell is a seasoned guy and he should be very good,” says Dantonio. MSU coaches also look forward to the arrival of Freshman Quarterback Tyler O’Connor, whose performance in an all-star game received accolades.
Le’Veon Bell returns as the running back, having rushed for 1,553 yards and 21 touchdowns in 27 career games. Also returning are Larry Caper and Nick Hill, both experienced backs. Niko Palazeti has big shoes to fill at fullback after the departure of Todd Anderson, a fierce blocker.
Upfront, MSU will be led by returning starters Fou Fonoti, Dan France, Travis Jackson and Chris McDonald. Skylar Burkland will be back from an injury. Others in the mix include Jack Allen, Donovan Clark, Henry Conway, Mike Dennis, John Deyo, Ethan Ruhland and Blake Treadwell. Dion Sims returns at tight end, along with Paul Lang, Walk-On Andrew Gleichert and Denzel Drone, who was a defensive end last season. A freshman tight end might find himself in the mix as well.
MSU’s biggest question mark on offense might be at wide receiver, with the departures of Team MVP B.J. Cunningham, MSU’s all-time leader in receptions (218) and receiving yards (3,086), Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol. The good news is that many talented receivers are competing to play, including Andre Sims, James Kittredge, Jeremy Langford, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery. Bennie Fowler, who played in some games, will return from injury this fall. MSU coaches hope that Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gains immediate eligibility.
MSU returns its special team specialists, including kickers Dan Conroy and Kevin Muma, Punter Mike Sadler and Long-Snapper Matt Gianpapa. Hill comes back as a kickoff returner.
“One of the reasons we’ve been successful the last two seasons is continuity,” says Dantonio, who notes that in the past six years only two assistant coaches have left—both for head coaching jobs. “Our defensive coaches have been together for nine years. We are always critiquing, tweaking, and trying to learn—and that’s from the head coach on down.”
MSU assistants include coordinators Dan Roushar and Pat Narduzzi, and assistants Harlon Barnett, Ted Gill, Brad Salem, Terrence Samuels, Mark Staten, Mike Tressel and Dave Warner.
The 2012 football season will feature new high definition video scoreboards and a very exciting schedule that includes two prime-time television appearances—Boise State (Aug. 31) and Notre Dame (Sept. 15). "You would be hard-pressed to find a more challenging home schedule than the one we'll face this fall," says Dantonio. "Six of the seven home games will be played against bowl teams from last season.” MSU's seven-game home schedule includes Big Ten games against Ohio State (Sept. 29), Iowa (Oct. 13/Homecoming), Nebraska (Nov. 3) and Northwestern (Nov. 17).
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