East Lansing — Things just feel different.
It’s a common theme around Michigan State these days as the Spartans finish their second week of preseason camp.
It’s something that’s been talked about all winter long, through spring practice and into summer workouts, but the cloud of a 3-9 record in 2016 and a troublesome off-season seems to have lifted. And while some have a hard time pointing out exactly how things are different beyond a gut feeling, there is some tangible evidence to change.
Take the offensive line, a group that is short on experience at several spots but fully aware of its importance to Michigan State’s success. For Mark Staten, the assistant head coach who enters his seventh season in control of the offensive line, he sees a significant change in approach from his group.
“I like the direction they’re going, I like their attention to detail,” Staten said. “I like the fact that I go down to grab something out of meeting room and they don’t have to be there for another 45 minutes yet every single one of them is in a seat and there’s a couple running backs in there with them just watching that extra film together. That goes a long way because you gotta watch a lot of film to get better.”
That’s not typical, Staten said. It certainly wasn’t a season ago, and before that, when future NFL players such as Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donavon Clark were anchoring the line, extra film wasn’t needed for a group of guys that had been in their share of big games and had seen nearly everything.
“I go back two years and those guys didn’t need that so the older guys were catching some extra bag time and catching some Z’s because Jack and Don and Jack had seen a lot already,” Staten said. “These older guys, like Brian (Allen), have taken these younger guys and said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re coming in at 2 and it’s probably best (you’re there).’ They’re not saying, ‘You got to be there,’ but they’re just offering their time. If you got a guy that’s gonna be one of our captains saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna help you be better because this isn’t happening,’ that’s very helpful.”
What none of them want to happen again is, of course, a season like the Spartans experienced in 2016. And as Staten noted again this week, it all starts up front.
Allen is the lone senior for the group and is the one “cemented” starter, Staten said.
And Allen is taking control as an almost certain captain for the Spartans. He’s taking his lead from what he learned playing with that older group that’s now in the NFL and thriving in the environment created by Staten.
“He makes it a brotherhood in the room and he's just the dad at the head,” Allen said of Staten. “It's just fun and I love being there every day just hanging out with your guys. It really is a good position group to be in here. Everyone's friends and always cracking jokes and especially this time during the year. It's just a fun atmosphere that he gives us.”
That togetherness has already been developing and will be vital to Michigan State’s success. Staten feels good about his starting five at this point, but as he has for several seasons — a lot of times out of necessity — he’ll have plenty of guys ready to play.
Allen likely will be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Tyler Higby at left guard and junior David Beedle at right guard. Sophomore Cole Chewins should start at left tackle with redshirt freshman Luke Campbell in front at right tackle.
But they’re all being pushed. Redshirt freshman Matt Allen – the younger brother of Jack and Brian – is playing well at center, something that could allow Brian Allen to move around the line, while a pair of true freshmen are already running with the second team. Jordan Reid of Detroit Cass Tech is No. 2 at right tackle and four-star recruit Kevin Jarvis of Chicago is No. 2 at right guard.
Staten pointed to the “want-to and the athleticism” of the young players as reasons they’re moving past some older players on the depth chart. However, that “different” feeling has been exemplified by how the group is sticking together.
“It’s really nice. You’ve got these older linemen that are helping them and maybe they got passed up by one,” Staten said. “But they want to be successful so they’re gonna work as hard as they can to push them but also help them to push those guys in front of them.”