East Lansing — Senior Day is tough on a head coach, especially for Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, who on Saturday will watch potentially the winningest senior class in school history play its final game at Spartan Stadium.
"We try to make it as seamless as we can, but it's an emotional time," Dantonio said. "They're more than just football players; they're guys that you've been around for five years who you brought in as 18-year-old freshmen. When they're leaving, they're 22 years old with a lot of dreams that have been accomplished here, but a lot of dreams that they have for the future, too.
"You sort of see that chapter close, and it is an emotional time because there is a lot tied up. There is a lot of sacrifice, hard work, toughness, celebration, disappointment. You go through all those different appearance experiences as a coach with your players."
All but one of the seniors being honored before the game against Rutgers have been in the program for five years; eight have already earned their degree. Those fifth-year players have been part of 50 victories. But classes are measured in four-year increments, and this one, from 2011-2014, has won 39 games, a Big Ten Championship and a school-record three straight bowl games.
If the Spartans beat Rutgers, Penn State and whatever bowl game they play in, this outgoing class will tie the school record for 42 wins —which was set by last year's outgoing class.
"Yeah, if we win out, they'll tie the winningest class in Michigan State history, which was last year's class, which previous to that was 2011's class," Dantonio said. "So there have been a lot of good things that have happened here in the last number of years, and I think they're very much involved in that successes — some big play guys."
The seniors who start or are listed on the depth chart are receiver Tony Lippett, who will go over 1,000 yards receiving with his next catch (he's at 999) and running back Jeremy Langford, who has 1,155 yards rushing and 13 consecutive Big Ten games of at least 100 yards rushing.
There's also receiver Keith Mumphery; starting guards Travis Jackson and Connor Kruse; tight end Andrew Gleichert; defensive end Marcus Rush, who has started a school-record 50 games; safety Kurtis Drummond, with 31 straight starts; middle linebacker Taiwan Jones, the only fourth-year senior; linebacker Mylan Hicks; tailback Nick Hill; punter Mike Sadler; and long-snapper Leland Ewing.
"They've been really critical in our development here over the last five years in terms of our success," Dantonio said. "They've had great success here themselves, but they've worked through the ups and downs of everything, the trials and tribulations."
Don't blame Dantonio if he gets a little extra mist in his eyes when he shares a hug with Langford — the two have been through a lot together. It took a couple of years for Langford to convince him to play him at tailback.
"Jeremy's an interesting guy," Dantonio said. "He sat in my office and we've had long discussions about what position he's going to play. Hasn't always been (what he wanted). When he moved to defensive back, he really didn't want to move. I sort of forced the issue. Then he bounced back.
"He's always wanted to play running back, and I would always force the issue saying you're too good of an athlete to be standing on the sidelines and not getting the reps, so he played special teams. He's a very, very good special teams player. The guy was running down on kickoffs last year."
With 2,561 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns in two seasons as the starting running back, Langford has more than won the point.
"To see him flourish like he did last year, that was a life lesson for a lot of our players and really a lot of coaches and probably myself as well," Dantonio said. "Don't give up on players, see it through. Players, don't give up on your dreams. Players, experience other positions, it will help you grow. So there were a lot of lessons learned there. It will all work out. Cream will rise to the top."
Also being honored will be offensive linemen James Bodanis and Adam Brown, receiver John Jakubik, defensive lineman James Kittredge and fullback Matt Rea. Skyler Burkland and Patrick Rhomberg, whose playing careers were shortened by injury, will also be honored.
Plenty to play for
Dantonio is having no difficulty finding ways to motivate his team, even though the main goals of winning the Big Ten and playing for a national championship have been all but quashed with the loss to Ohio State two weeks ago.
"We have a chance to be a top 10 football team and go to a (Selection Committee) bowl game," he said. "We still have a chance to go to the Rose Bowl one year and a bowl like that the next year; that would be a tremendous boost for our program. We want to build on our resume."
"Quite frankly, if we finish like we hope, it would be another great football team here at Michigan State. One that would be talked about for years to come and we will play a tremendous opponent in a bowl game — that's going to happen anyway you cut it. But we'll play a tremendous opponent that will have a national prestige to it."
Dantonio couldn't suppress a smile Tuesday when he was asked about former Spartan Le'Veon Bell's 204-yard performance for the Steelers on Monday Night Football.
"Le'Veon was a guy that came in mid-year and was the last guy taken," he said. "Wasn't a highly recruited guy. Really when we took him, we looked at him and said the guy can return punts, so he's got great ball skills. The guy was a dynamic player at linebacker. We'll take him as a tailback, but I know if it doesn't work, he can still play linebacker. That's why we took him.
"Two weeks into winter workouts, we said that guy's going to be a great football player. You could see it."
Jackson's status unknown
As is his custom, Dantonio wouldn't comment on the status Travis Jackson, who was concussed last week against Maryland.
Asked if he'd been cleared for practice, Dantonio said, "We'll make a decision on that as we get towards the end of the week. If he can't play, I'll announce it. But our intention was he would be able to play, but we'll see how practice goes. We won't rush the situation."