The first game of the NFL preseason doesn't usually warrant much attention. Fans get about a series worth of starters (if they’re lucky) and then it’s time for the rookies and journeymen auditioning for roster spots. In many ways, it’s like Day Three of the NFL Draft: unless you’re a football junkie, the TV is off…if it was even on to begin with. For the Michigan State football program, however, last Saturday's game between the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers spoke volumes about what Mark Dantonio has accomplished in East Lansing.
Eight Spartans, whose careers span Dantonio’s entire eight-year tenure, took the field and snapped this memorable photo. From left to right, that’s Marcus Rush, Max Bullough, Brian Hoyer, Garrett Celek, Keith Mumphery, Mylan Hicks, Kurtis Drummond and Keshawn Martin. Regardless of the program, eight alums in one game – preseason or no – is quite a statement. For MSU and its fans, it serves as a symbol of just how far this program has come since Dantonio took the reins.
As someone who grew up during the Bobby Williams and John L. Smith eras of MSU football, the thought of legions of Spartans in the NFL seemed a little...far fetched, to say the least. Sure, there were your Charles Rogers', Julian Peterson’s and Robaire Smith’s but, overall, there was never an overwhelming MSU presence on Sundays. Fast forward to 2015 and those notions look as outdated as the one-ton SANYO I watched games on as a kid.
MSU has now produced a first round pick in each of the last two drafts, in Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. William Gholston plays amply for the Buccaneers, Micajah Reynolds is on the Ravens and Bennie Fowler is making a few waves in Denver. Last year's lead dawgs, Tony Lippett and Jeremy Langford, are both getting solid reviews so far in their young pro careers. Oh, and there's some guy named Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh who might be the best running back in the league. The Dantonio generation is blowing their predecessors out of the water.
The beauty of that picture? None of those players are in it.
While that photo has no shortage of former MSU star power - all but Hoyer, Celek and Martin were all on the Rose Bowl winning 2013 team - Celek and Hicks are the true testaments to the program Dantonio has built. Both were poised to be early contributors but faced injuries and stacked depth charts during their time in East Lansing. Celek ultimately graduated with 14 catches for 135 yards and 3 TD’s while Hicks had 27 tackles and one sack in his four years. Yet, despite never being what you would call "stars" at the collegiate level, here they are getting a shot at making an NFL roster. That is the type of thing that happens when GM's respect and believe in your program.
When he took over in East Lansing, Dantonio was "selling hope" but, as he has said so often in the past year, he is now "selling results". Last Saturday, those results got together on the field, smiled and said "Go Green".