East Lansing — As Michigan State continues to prepare for its season opener on Sept. 2 against Bowling Green, there are plenty of questions to be answered.
From quarterback to wide receiver to the offensive and defensive lines and all the way back to the secondary, there’s plenty the Spartans must figure out over the next few weeks and throughout the 2017 season.
What is unquestioned, however, is who will be in charge of getting Michigan State to pull out of the 3-9 tailspin that took place a season ago. Even through a winter and spring of off-field turmoil it’s been clear from athletic director Mark Hollis and president Lou Anna K. Simon — Mark Dantonio is the right man for the job.
“Coach D is a great coach,” Hollis said this week.
And as Hollis pointed out, he has complete faith in the decisions Dantonio makes, including those that involve his staff, one that came under plenty of fire last season as the Spartans fell to 12th in the Big Ten in scoring offense and 10th in scoring defense.
Those were hardly numbers Michigan State has become accustomed to seeing and while plenty of critics were calling for Dantonio to make changes on his staff, it was something he never considered.
“It’s the same staff we won the Big Ten championship that everybody was celebrating last year,” Dantonio said back in December. “It’s the same staff that won the Rose Bowl basically, same staff that went to the Cotton Bowl that had record-setting numbers in ’14. … It’s all inclusive. Doesn’t mean we fire players or anything like that if they miss a tackle. So, there will be no changes in that area.”
True to Dantonio’s word, Michigan State enters 2017 with the same nine assistant coaches it had last year, albeit adjusted a bit with Mark Snyder moving from coaching linebackers to defensive ends and co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel back in charge of the linebackers. Offensive line coach Mark Staten also has been promoted to assistant head coach and added the title of recruiting coordinator.
But on the whole, it’s the same group, something the staff believes makes perfect sense.
“That was one year,” said Harlon Barnett, associate head coach and defensive backs coach. “The year before we were in the playoff. All the sudden we can’t coach? You know what I mean? I’m not surprised by (no staff changes). That’s who he is and that’s why I’ve been with him going on 14 seasons.”
Barnett, who was part of Michigan State’s Rose Bowl win in 1988, is one of four coaches who came from Cincinnati when Dantonio took over in 2007. That’s three years with the Bearcats and the 11th coming up with Spartans for Barnett, Staten, Tressel and Dave Warner.
It’s created a level of continuity they all believe has played a large role in their success.
“I think it’s always been his philosophy to have continuity,” said Warner, who was quarterbacks coach at Cincinnati and MSU before becoming offensive coordinator and running backs coach in 2013. “I think he hopefully looks at the success we’ve had over the years and understands that last year was a breakdown in a lot of areas. This area — my area — being one of them. We appreciate his loyalty to us as staff members, and we’re going to do everything we can to get things going back in the right direction.”
As Warner said, there were breakdowns in his area. He arguably took the most criticism from those outside the program in terms of play-calling with Dantonio answering questions last season about whether he would change who was calling the game.
But like the staff overall, Dantonio puts faith in each of his assistants to get the job done, and never considered having someone else call plays. What the staff has done over the off-season is re-evaluate how they do things, something they say they do every year but took on more of a focus this time around if, for nothing else, there was simply more time after missing a bowl game.
“I feel like we’ve all learned, collectively as a staff,” Barnett said.
It also has energized the staff, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said.
“We changed a lot of structural stuff, like how we did off-season stuff and practices and those types of things,” Salem said. “Part of it, too, is talking about you can’t just show up and win 10 games. That was sort of assumed. I think there’s an appreciation for the work that needs to be done to win football games. It is so hard to win a college football game. Hard. So, you never devalue when you win football games because it’s tough.
“A lot of work goes into it, so we’re hoping to build on that. But these guys have an energy and enthusiasm and know nothing is going to be given to them. It’s a good group and we have a lot of passion for football.”
And if the shortcomings of 2016 create the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality among the coaches that has motivated the players over the years, then even better, they say.
“That’s who I am. That’s every year,” Barnett said. “Regardless, that’s what this program is about. I am a Spartan, so that is every year. That’s just who we are. That’s in our DNA.”