Diversions help MSU offensive line form bond

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — If there’s one group on a football team that knows how to avoid getting beaten down by the dog days of camp, it has to be the offensive linemen.

At least that’s the case at Michigan State.

A group that over the years has gone on buffet tours of the East Lansing area, the Spartans offensive linemen have shaken things up this year by going on a paintball excursion as well as stimulating the mind by becoming regular chess players.

It’s all an effort to keep things loose when camp is a couple weeks old but the first game is nearly as far away.

“I think it’s really important,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “It’s a grind, but you have to love the grind. We constantly talk about that in the offensive line room. We’ve got to bring back our joke of the day because it’s starting to envelop them. We’re constantly trying to think of ways to bring a smile.”

The group is notorious for it, but so is coach Mark Dantonio. Early this week, he brought a hypnotist to camp and had the entire team entertained.

Some players were left laughing uncontrollably, others were yelling at the hypnotist — all under his control.

“It was amazing,” Staten said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was absolutely phenomenal.”

The latest diversion for the linemen has been chess — and like Texas Hold ’Em on their IPads last year, it has become on obsession.

“If we’re not watching film we’re spending time playing chess,” junior left tackle Jack Conklin said. “It sounds kind of weird, but you see five chess boards in there.”

Weird it might be, but when the line produces the way it has, it’s hard to argue with their approach.

Conklin could end up being a first-round pick in next spring’s NFL draft, and center Jack Allen, a fifth-year senior, could become an All-American. And while the left tackle might get more of the attention, there’s no doubting who is in control.

“Jack’s the guy,” Staten said. “Jack’s running the offense.”

While there’s no question Allen anchors the front five, it’s a unit that has been steady the last few years and could be outstanding this season.

But, Staten wants to see more. Two years ago, he began rotating his linemen, using as many as eight in a game. It wasn’t common, but it has become that for the Spartans.

Finding depth has been Staten’s challenge. The starting five is solid, with sophomore Brian Allen at left guard, fifth-year senior Donavon Clark at right guard and junior Kodi Kieler at right tackle. As a unit, they performed well in last weekend’s scrimmage.

“We ran the ball very effectively,” Staten said. “We protected (quarterback Connor Cook) very well.”

Getting those next few guys is the challenge.

“If you’re looking for a whole new five right now, we’ve got some guys that need to step up,” Staten said.

Junior Miguel Machado has drawn the most consistent praise throughout camp and has been playing at right guard and right tackle. A junior college transfer a year ago, Machado was close to seeing the field.

“He’s definitely helping us this year,” Staten said. “How much and at what position is up to him.”

Junior Benny McGowan also has played well at times, as has sophomore Dennis Finley. Former defensive lineman David Beedle is also coming along after making the switch to offense this spring.

Getting those players to work in with the starting five and getting the same production they had the last scrimmage has been an up and down process, one Staten lamented after practice Thursday.

“Sometimes days happen,” he said. “We all have bad days.”

Limiting those will be imperative to the Spartans continuing to use multiple linemen.

“We need more consistency out of the second and third-string guys,” Staten said. “Our first string played the least amount (in the last scrimmage) so we really want to see more of the consistency out of the other guys.”