August 2, 2014 at 5:09 pm

Michigan State football opens practice with question: 'What's the next step?'

East Lansing — Michigan State went through its first football practice of the season Saturday, and the afterglow of last season’s Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory is being planted firmly in the rearview mirror.

“What we talk about is: what’s the next step for this program?” coach Mark Dantonio said after the Spartans had just finished up workout No. 1. “The next step is fall camp. It’s a long period of time. We’ve got to get through it, train for it, not have injuries, play at a high level, tackle in space, catch the ball, make the 50-50 catch — all the different things. So that’s where our focus has to be right now, then it’s got to be on the first game.

“Like I said to our football team last night, it starts here, and I think it’s a new beginning. And I think everybody across the country who starts today is feeling the same way.”

The only bit of news out of the opening practice was that junior defensive tackle Damon Knox will be out for at least a couple of weeks and might not play in the season opener against Jacksonville State on Aug. 29.

Knox, who entered camp as one of the favorites to start at defensive tackle, is having surgery for an undisclosed injury.

“Damon Knox right now has got some surgery,” Dantonio said. “So he’ll be out for a little bit of time. But it is what it is and we’ve got to deal with it.”

Dantonio wouldn’t elaborate on the injury or whether Knox has already had the surgery. It opens the door for players like Lawrence Thomas and James Kittredge as well as incoming freshmen Enoch Smith Jr. and Craig Evans.

It’s all part of a defensive line that is adding recruits from one of Dantonio’s best classes. Included in that group is end Malik McDowell.

“Our defensive line guys are gonna have opportunity,” Dantonio said. “It’s the most talented group. You can already see that. If you know one thing about our shorts practice, you can see that it’s the most talented group top to bottom, and it’s the deepest group top to bottom that we’ve recruited here.”

Dantonio said all of the players had passed their fitness tests by the time practice started Saturday but cautioned it’s just the beginning – the toughest test are to come.

“I think it’s too early to tell that because it’s just shorts practice and the game is not played in shorts,” he said. “Let’s face it, you have to put shoulder pads on and you’ll know more about it once they get the shells, once they condition themselves and get into fall shape. You can run a test but it’s very difficult to go through a practice at a high end speed every single snap. You have to train for that. We’ll learn something about our football team every practice.”

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook jokes with teammates during the team's first practice Saturday in East Lansing. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News