Taiwan Jones moves to middle linebacker for the 2014 season. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
East Lansing — Constant change is the reality of college sports.
As Michigan State moves closer to preseason camp in early August, it will be dealing with that inevitability.
“Everybody’s lost players, not just us,” coach Mark Dantonio said Monday.
On the practice field was the next generation of players as Michigan State’s youth camp was in full swing. In his office in the Skandalaris Center, Dantonio was contemplating a season that will see six new defensive starters.
It will be quite the test for a team that, coming off one of its most successful seasons, one that included Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles, is again a favorite to win the conference and has a shot at playing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
“We’re always gonna change, always have to have somebody play ahead,” Dantonio said. “In 2010 we put a guy in the game because somebody was hurt and everybody was concerned how he was gonna play. How is Darqueze Dennard gonna hold up? He made a bunch of plays and never stopped making them.”
Dantonio is hoping for the same scenario to play out at several positions this year, including a replacement for Dennard, the top defensive back in the nation and a first-round pick of the Bengals.
The Spartans defense, one that has led the Big Ten three straight season and was No. 2 overall last season, is buoyed by the fact it has created depth as Dantonio enters his eighth season.
“In 2010 our entire No. 2 group was true freshmen or redshirt freshmen,” Dantonio said. “Then with the 2011 class I think we redshirted everybody but Taiwan Jones. So we built a lot of depth with just those two scenarios.”
Included in that group are several players who will be counted on this season to prove that depth is legitimate.
Replacing Denicos Allen at outside linebacker will be Ed Davis, who showed plenty of promise late last season. With Jones moving to middle linebacker, Darien Harris will move into the other outside linebacker spot. On the line, Joel Heath and Damon Knox will be the leaders for playing time at tackle while RJ Williamson is the likely starter at strong safety.
Each of those players redshirted in 2011.
“Our guys are growing up,” Dantonio said.
If the current players live up to expectations, some highly recruited players could end up being redshirted, including five-star defensive end Malik McDowell and four-star tackles Craig Evans and Enoch Smith Jr.
But, Dantonio won’t hesitate to go with the true freshmen if they prove they are ready.
“We’ll see how that all shakes out,” Dantonio said. “But I would think that Malik ... guys like Craig Evans or Enoch, those guys are very good players.”
While questions exist on defense, Michigan State enters this season feeling more confident on offense.
Connor Cook was a second-team all-Big Ten quarterback after starting the season in a four-way battle, while running back Jeremy Langford led the conference with 18 rushing touchdowns.
And two positions that were seen as a potential weakness entering last season — wide receiver and tight end — are now strengths.
Even with the loss of Bennie Fowler, Dantonio believes Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings Jr., R.J. Shelton and DeAnthony Arnett provide a solid top six at wide receiver.
“I was saying they had talent all along, but we weren’t catching the ball as confidently as we needed to,” Dantonio said, “Then we started to toward the end of ’12 and then in ’13 we messed around a little bit then boom. Now if you look at our wide receiver group it might be a strength of the team.”
Dantonio feels much the same way about tight end with the emergence of Josiah Price, the solid play of Andrew Gleichert and the potential of Jamal Lyles.
“Last year tight end was a little bit of a position of concern,” he said. “Now with Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles and Gleichert, it’s a position of strength.”
So when Michigan State opens against Jacksonville State on Aug. 30, some names will be different, but Dantonio is confident everything will keep rolling in a positive direction.
“There is a learning curve,” he said, “but we should be fine.”