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Five Important Notes From Big Ten Media Days

[Author's note: This post was written last week, and then was put on hold because of the midweek recruitingpalooza.  So, it's more than a bit tardy, but . . . here it is anyway.  --LVS.]

1.  Dantonio seems to like this team more than last season's.  Rexrode has the lede:

One year ago, Mark Dantonio greeted heightened expectations -- his Michigan State team was picked to finish third in the league by Big Ten media -- with a reminder that MSU would miss departed leaders such as Javon Ringer, Otis Wiley and Brian Hoyer.

As it turns out, lacking intangibles played a role in MSU's 6-7 season in 2009. Now the outside expectations are tempered, but Dantonio has had high praise at the Big Ten's annual media days for the 2010 team's chemistry -- telling TV reporters Monday that it's the best he's seen in his coaching career.

“I guess I did," Dantonio said when asked here today about that comment. "I said best or I said one of the best. Either one of the best or the best, I can’t remember what I said but I’m certainly very excited about it. I just see a bunch of givers on our football team, I see a very unselfish attitude. I don’t see a lot of takers, I see givers. I see guys who care about each other.

It should be stated first that, at TOC, we're statistics-mongers, and therefore are naturally skeptical of arguments about team chemistry and the like.  With that said, it's a nearly-unavoidable conclusion that there was something intrinsically wrong with the makeup of last year's MSU team.  The team suffered many close losses, consistently  struggled to make big plays at important junctures of games, barely showed up to play Penn State once a bowl berth was secure, and, finally, the incident at Rather Hall highlighted the team's character flaws in an excruciatingly embarrassing fashion.

So, it's notable how much more positive Dantonio's outlook was at this year's media day than it was at last year's.  Unlike last year's team -- where the team's quarterback situation was out of flux all season long, and Greg Jones was perhaps a bit uncomfortable with his leadership role on defense -- this year's team has clear leaders.  Kirk Cousins is a natural captain, Jones seems to have seized his leadership responsibilities this season (e.g., spearheading the lamely-named but seemingly productive "Unity Council" following the Rather Hall incident), and Chris Norman and Larry Caper seem like natural leaders for the underclassmen.  This team could have self-destructed after the adversity of last season; it seems to have done the opposite.  And, while it's a favorite pastime of coaches to tamp down expectations when they're high, and inflate hope when expectations are low, Dantonio truly seems much more at ease with this group, and apparently for good reason.

More, after the jump.

2.  Expect several freshmen to begin contributing immediately.  The preseason roster and depth chart have been released.  The latter doesn't include incoming freshmen who weren't on campus for spring practice, however, and a big theme of Dantonio's remarks was that many newcomers (particularly those on the defensive side of the ball) will have the opportunity to earn playing time immediately.

Obviously, the most celebrated player in the group is Will Gholston.  During his recruitment, Gholston repeatedly stated that he wanted to play linebacker in college*, and that desire may well end up coming to fruition, as he's listed as a linebacker on the roster.  However, Dantonio may have something a bit more sophisticated in mind:

Gholston, a five-star recruit from Southeastern, expects to see plenty of the field, especially with the Spartans playing more 3-4 sets on defense.

"He's 250, 6-foot-6, we're gonna get him on the field somehow," Dantonio said.

Dantonio even compares Gholston to Will Smith, the Pro Bowl defensive end for the New Orleans Saints. Dantonio was Smith's defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

Smith played the "Viper" position at Ohio State, a mix between linebacker and defensive end. He sees that as a possible spot for Gholston.

While at Ohio State, Smith was listed at 6'4", 263.  So, Gholston is a bit lankier, but the physical similarities are substantial.  (Smith now is a full-time defensive end, but he's also bulked up to 283 pounds at this point.)  There's been lots of talk during the offseason about how committed Dantonio and Narduzzi are to playing a 3-4 defense -- but the "viper" combo position that Dantonio seems to have in mind for Gholston may represent the bridge between the two defenses.  Smith was damned near unblockable at Ohio State, so Dantonio's setting the bar quite high -- but if Gholston can live up to the expectations, he'll be the foundation of the defense for the next three or four years.  We'll have a better idea when Will puts on the Green and White for the first time on Monday.

While Gholston may be the headliner of the freshman class, the coaching staff seems to have big, immediate plans for several players.  When Dantonio brought Gholston's name up, it usually was in conjunction with Max Bullough.  Bullough's currently listed as Greg Jones's co-backup (along with Steve Gardiner); it seems clear that the "OR" tag will be shed soon enough and that Bullough's spring performances established him as Jones's heir apparent. 

Mylan Hicks might see the field immediately at cornerback:

Two freshmen receiving rave reviews from teammates are cornerbacks Mylan Hicks (Detroit Renaissance) and Darqueze Dennard of Georgia.

“Those two guys are going to be exciting to watch,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “The heat will be on because they'll have the opportunity to get involved.”

Dantonio mentioned Monday that Hicks could have played for MSU last season, when the secondary lost players to injury

Rexrode concurs on Hicks.  During his opening remarks on Monday, Dantonio rightly emphasized that the team desperately needed to force more turnovers this year than last -- and MSU's secondary only notched 5 interceptions total in 13 games last season.  Given that, and the utterly attrocious pass completion percentage MSU allowed last season, one would have to believe that the opportunities for playing time in the secondary are more plentiful than at any other position group.  If Hicks or Dennard show skills on the ball this month, either could be starting sooner than later.

*In fact, a major Wolverine recruiting pitch was that Gholston would be able to play linebacker in Ann Arbor, but not East Lansing.

3.  We're no closer to finding out who will kick.  Aside from Aaron Bates, of course.  Bates's presence at media day -- as a last-minute replacement for Keith Nichol -- ensured that there'd be more special teams coverage than usual.  And, Rexrode bites:

[Bates] has worked closely with kickers Kevin Muma and Dan Conroy - the neck-and-neck competitors to replace Swenson - along with incoming freshman punter Mike Sadler.

Like Dantonio, Bates said he has no idea who will emerge between Muma and Conroy. They have similar skills and strengths, he said.

"Right now there really isn't a difference," Bates said. "I couldn't tell you who should be kicking. Physically, they're as talented as Swenson, easily. They have as much (distance) or more than Swenson. Where Brett was so good was that he was so mentally tough."

Dantonio reiterated that the competition between the two has "been pretty much even after spring ball," but that he "feels very, very good" about both.  One other interesting bit about the kicking situation came during Dantonio's time at the dais, when, stupefyingly, one of the six questions he fielded was about whether to redshirt a punter:

Q. When you look at the kicker situation I know in the spring you said that Mike Sadler would get a look. People down in Alabama- Mike just got back from a kicking camp said he was consistently putting it in the end zone. Is he a little bit behind the eight ball, are you wanting to redshirt him? Or if he wins it, can he get it?

COACH DANTONIO: When we took Mike Sadler last year where he accepted the offer and it was right at this time last year, to me, it sort of solidified our kicking game for the next five years. He's an outstanding punter. Bates will punt for us.

We hope to redshirt him. But if he's the best, whether it's kicking field goals or kickoffs, he will be the guy. And Mike is a tremendous complement to our recruiting class and one of the most outstanding kickers in this country.

I concur; if Sadler is kicking off far better than anyone else, it's worth foregoing his redshirt year.

4.  Ugh.  The right side of the offensive line.

There's little question who will play on the left side and at center.  The right side . . . be thankful we don't have a lefty quarterback.  Perhaps the only surprise here positions is that Chris McDonald is essentially confirmed as a starter, as there's no "OR" conjoining him with Zach Heuter and/or Antonio Jeremiah.  McDonald played a fair amount at the end of the season against Purdue, Penn State, and Texas Tech, and was a solid 3-star recruit from Utica Ford, so the fact that he's playing is no great surprise.  It's merely a disappointment that Jeremiah seemingly isn't more of a candidate for the position -- not that Dantonio had much of a choice, apparently:

[Jeremiah] had a solid spring, but his weight remains a problem. Asked Monday about Jeremiah's assumed weight decrease, Dantonio said dryly, “It's up.”

Dantonio went into greater detail today: “He's an outstanding athlete. It's disappointing -- you have to get your weight under control to be able to play at a high level. But we're going to find a way to try and get him through this. He is a very talented athlete, and I thought he had a very good spring.”

Jeremiah is listed at 6-feet-5 and 360 pounds.

Jeremiah was thought to be the best prospect from Dantonio's first recruiting class, so his continuing struggles are a major frustration.  The switch from defense to offense probably represented his last best chance to make an impact.  Barring a major physical turnaround during the next four weeks, it's probably safe to write him off as a lost cause, as he's unlikely to win a starting job as a senior ahead of two younger players with (presumably) more experience at that point.

The one unsettled position is at right tackle, where your starter is either J'Michael Deane or Jared McGaha.  Neither played much last season after the non-con tomato cans (aside from McGaha's play on special teams), although we've heard about Deane's athleticism for quite some time now.  A while back, Rexrode listed Deane as #5 on his  his "Top 10 Spartans Who Could Surprise" list; based on highly flimsy evidence, I think he'll be the starter against WMU.

However, a substantial amount of chatter at media day revolved around the third candidate for the right tackle slot: Henry Conway, last year's scout team darling.

Conway missed spring ball with a neck injury and saw some specialists in the offseason before he was cleared to participate. He has been working out for "three or four weeks," Dantonio said.

Conway was identified as a possible contender to start at right tackle before the spring injury. He and fellow redshirt freshman tackle David Barrent are massive players - Conway is 6-foot-6, 304 pounds [ . . . ]

"He's got a big, physical presence and he's tough," Dantonio said of Conway.

You really get the sense that had Conway not been injured, he would have been the favorite to start.  As it is, he has catching up to do after missing spring practice, but I wouldn't be stunned if he ends up leapfrogging Deane and/or McGaha.  Conway is clearly the long-term option.

5.  "Smash right through that line of Blue" . . . or Purple?

The most interesting news from the press conferences may have been this tidbit from Mark Hollis:

Hollis would not share much of his plan for divisions, but he did say Northwestern "has a lot of value to Michigan State" and that he would like the Spartans and Wildcats to meet annually in the new format. [ . . . ]

Right now, each Big Ten team has two "protected" rivals that it plays every season. MSU's are Michigan and Penn State.

Hollis said the Penn State series is "a very important rivalry" for MSU, so it sounds like he'd like MSU, U-M, Northwestern and Penn State to be in the same division, along with two other unnamed programs.

Rexrode wrote the piece, and so the opinion at the end is his.  However, he seemed to completely back off the Penn State angle in a blog post written the next day:

If the only protected games are within divisions in Hollis' plan, he has MSU with rival Michigan, and Michigan with rival Ohio State. And that's why I'm guessing his plan also has Penn State in the other division. Just a guess, and I know Hollis said that rivalry is "very important" to MSU, but he didn't call it untouchable. I just can't see how he would propose to be stuck with U-M, Ohio State AND Penn State. Penn State's out, Northwestern becomes a newfound rivalry of emerging programs and MSU plays in Chicago every other year.

I think his revised opinion is right.  Hollis went out of his way to talk about how much he wants us to play Northwestern every year, and it's clear that the possibility of Michigan rotating off is a non-starter.*  Compare that with his language about Penn State: "a very important rivalry."  Like Rexrode, I see that as the start of an attempt to ease us out of PSU as an every-year game.  Personally, I'd be more than fine with that.  Our record against them is abysmal, PSU is a long trip and tickets are relatively difficult to come by, we have no historical connection to them, and the winner gets the worst trophy in sports.  Nobody's going to shed a tear if they come off the schedule twice per decade.

As for Northwestern . . . it makes plenty of sense.  MSU has more alums in Chicago than anywhere else out-of-state (although I think that every Big Ten team save PSU could say the same thing), and our series against them in the last fifteen years or so has been very competitive.  It's a great road game trip, it's not very far from Lansing, tickets are easy to come by, and we win plenty of the games we play against them.  (At least, far more than we do against PSU).  I've long wanted to ditch the PSU protected rivalry for either Northwestern or Purdue -- and if Hollis can pull it off, it'd be a fantastic thing.

*As confirmed by Dave Brandon, Michigan's new AD: “There’s such wide awareness of the two rivalries,” he said today at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. “I don’t spend half a second worrying about whether we’re going to play Ohio State every year or Michigan State every year. I don’t spend half a second worrying about that because it’s going to happen."