June 19, 2010 at 1:00 am

Eric Lacy: Michigan State football

MSU's Mark Dantonio on the clock after disappointing season, on and off field

Mark Dantonio has led the Spartans to a 22-17 record in his first three years as coach. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

East Lansing -- Michigan State's football program and coach Mark Dantonio, entering his fourth season, can't afford any more controversy.

The Spartans have a lot to prove in 2010 after two straight seasons that saw Dantonio discipline a total of 14 players for various team rules violations.

Former MSU running back Glenn Winston got in trouble twice during that span. That's not the kind of start Dantonio wanted to have for a program that hasn't won a national championship in 45 years, hasn't been to a Rose Bowl in 22 years, or hasn't won a bowl game since 2001.

The players who admittedly made a huge mistake by being involved in a Nov. 22 fight with members of a fraternity have an opportunity to redeem themselves.

So does Dantonio, who is officially on the clock after a disappointing 2009 campaign that started to waver with a loss to Central Michigan.

No shortage of talent

The Spartans have a chance to resurface as a Big Ten darkhorse because of the talent they have on both sides of the ball. All-American Greg Jones leads a linebacking corps that could end up being one of the best in program history.

Phil Steel's College Football ranks MSU's linebackers the sixth-best position group in the country. North Carolina got top billing. Another plus is the continuous improvement of Kirk Cousins, who has the potential to end his career as one of MSU's most accurate passers. Throw in the presence of Larry Caper and Edwin Baker in the backfield and sackmaster Jerel Worthy along the defensive line and there's plenty of reasons for fans to get excited.

The ultimate deciding factor, however, could be leadership -- not from dependable veterans, but those players who got a second chance and are back with the team.

There are enough players who made poor decisions and damaged their standing with Dantonio to make a difference now -- if they learned from mistakes. Players like receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham and defensive back Chris L. Rucker expressed their regret publicly to members of the media on the day there were allowed back for spring workouts. During the same interview session, offensive lineman J'Michael Deane also apologized and appeared to shed a few tears.

An "attitude of gratitude" should be a rally cry for these guys.

Winnings cures everything

The Spartans clearly want to rid themselves of last season's ugliness. Through it all, Dantonio and his staff continue to recruit well and have an absolute gem in Detroit native Will Gholston, a defensive end/linebacker hybrid. MSU also has found ways to develop players over time such as Worthy, receiver Keshawn Martin and tight end Charlie Gantt.

But in the end, the only way for this program to be convince everyone it's beyond last season's off-the-field issues is to simply win.

College football is a "don't tell me, show me" kind of business.

The time for talk is over. If all is finally well inside the walls of MSU's Skandalaris Football Center, then it's time for the Spartans to finally prove it.

elacy@detnews.com">elacy@detnews.com.