Days away from officially entering his eighth season at the helm of the Michigan State football program, Mark Dantonio has already been measured while carrying a quiet confidence.
With No. 8 Michigan State opening up its 2014 season on Friday against Jacksonville State, Dantonio took to the podium Tuesday to offer up his thoughts with his team ready to start to do its best to offer up a suitable encore to its 13-1, Big Ten and Rose Bowl-winning season from a year ago.
While everyone is focused and zeroed in on the Spartans' trip to Autzen Stadium next week to face off with third-ranked Oregon, Dantonio acknowledged the problems Jacksonville State will provide.
"Jacksonville State, last year, an 11-4 football team. Their coach, Clark, had left, taken another job, so Coach (John)Grass becomes the head football coach," Dantonio told the assembled media at his weekly press conference of the season. "He's a guy that was their offensive coordinator last year. When you look at their offense, they've got almost 3,000 yards or over 3,000 yards of passing, over 3,000 yards of rushing, 6,000 plus yards in 15 games, so they're a balanced football team."
He made mention specifically of both of the Gamecocks' quarterbacks in Eli Jenkins and Max Shortell, a former Minnesota signal-caller, and Gamecocks' senior running back DeMarcus James as threats that Pat Narduzzi's defense will have to deal with.
Jenkins accounted for 1,840 total yards as a freshman last year in earning Freshman All-America honors at the FCS level.
Meanwhile, Shortell sat out last year and threw six touchdowns and five interceptions for the Golden Gophers in 2012, completing 56 percent of his passes, while James ran for 1,477 yards and 29 TDs last season, setting a new program single-season rushing record in the process.
"Their other quarterback is a guy that really can throw it, Max Shortell, and he's much more of maybe a pro-style attack guy," Dantonio said. "They use both those quarterbacks. DaMarcus James, an outstanding tailback, a big, thick guy that's run for about 1,500 yards. The other two tailbacks they're going to use, as well, so they're going to be complements to him."
Dantonio is anxious to see how his defense will reload after losing the likes of Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis and believes Jacksonville State will provide an adequate exam before the highly-anticipated Week 2 meeting with the Ducks.
The fact that some people are playing at new positions might temper some expectations. But the system that has been instilled since 2007 is one that preaches faith.
"You basically want to see guys bend their knees and play in space and tackle, play the ball in the deep part of the field. There are certain things that you can do schematically, and then it comes down to guys making plays," Dantonio said. "But you need to keep your feet up underneath you and stay balanced as a football player, you need to get off blocks, you need to be an attacking defense.
"Obviously we always want to affect the quarterback. We always want to come up with turnovers and stop the run and do all those things from the standpoint of the things that win football games. You want to do those things, but I think it starts with attention to detail on your initial reads."
With all the expectations placed upon Michigan State this year and the unfamiliarity that comes with playing a FCS opponent, a comparison to more familiar rivals might be helpful.
Dantonio threw out a pair of the Spartans' Big Ten East rivals, Ohio State and Indiana, in describing what Jacksonville State likes to do on offense, depending on who's under center.
"You know, just depends on who's their quarterback a little bit. When Jenkins is in there, they're a little bit more like a Nebraska, Ohio State, with runs from the quarterback position," he said. "I think when Shortell is in there, they're a little bit more like a traditional passing team, maybe more like Indiana in some regards. They're going to spread you out horizontally and vertically, and it's going to be quick, rapid.
"I'm not sure how fast they're going because we haven't seen them in real-time, but it looks like they're going very fast from all indications that we have and all information that we gathered. They look like they go pretty quickly."