Spartans regroup, recoup what was missing last season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The record spelled it out pretty clearly – things had gone wrong in the Michigan State football program in 2016.

Finishing at 3-9 following an appearance in the College Football Playoff make that pretty obvious. In the wake of that collapse was a team wondering what it had to do to get things headed back in the direction it was in when it won 36 games over a three-year period from 2013 to 2015.

That, however, wasn’t easy.

“The season had come and gone so fast,” offensive lineman Brian Allen said. “At the end you looked back and said, ‘What the heck happened?’ There were definitely a lot of aspects that weren’t there last year that were in 2014 and 2015. We’re still a young football team, but we’ve got to get back to what we had.”

Allen should have pretty good perspective. Entering his senior season in 2017, Allen had the benefit if learning from the likes of his brother, Jack, as well as the players Shilique Calhoun and Darien Harris that were the heart of Michigan State’s best teams.

That disappeared last year and getting it back is now the focus.

“Players are holding each other accountable more,” Allen said on Friday. “It was OK in the past to let guys get away with some stuff because we would win on Saturday. But everything comes to light when you’re not winning and there are problems we have to clean up – guys going to class, simple as that, or being to a lift on time.

“People are starting to demand more of themselves and realize it’s not OK to do that stuff and just basically being a good person and doing the little things that will help us.”

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Getting everyone on that same page wasn’t exactly the most comfortable process. The players held meetings, putting issues out in the open and clearing the air.

It wasn’t always pretty.

“There were confrontations in those meetings,” Allen said. “I don’t think it was bad confrontation, but we came out of those meetings with guys closer.”

Of course, the work to become a closer team has taken place while the program has been dealing with its share of turmoil off the field.

Three players are suspended as they are being investigated for their role in an alleged sexual assault on campus in January while Auston Robertson was dismissed from the team last week after being charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Before that defensive end Demetrius Cooper was charged with a misdemeanor for spitting on an East Lansing code enforcement officer and linebacker Jon Reschke left the team after making an inappropriate comment to a former teammate.

Needless to say, it has weighed on the players still on the roster.

“The guys on this team, we don’t talk about that stuff,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “Who is in the room, that is who we focus on because those are the guys we trust and have each other’s back on game day.

“The guys that have gotten in trouble — I love those guys. They are my brothers and will always be my brothers, but we’re focusing on the guys in the room right now.”

The goal is that by the fall the Spartans will be much closer to the team that won the Big Ten championship twice in a three-year period than the team that lost seven straight at one point last season.

Recognizing how they got in that spot has been the entire focus since winter conditioning and through spring practice. The entitled mindset is getting pushed out.

“Last year did humble us,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “We thought because we’re Michigan State we were supposed to go out there and win and it takes work. It takes work and work and work every day.”

It also takes being a better teammate, and Allen said the meetings were just the first step. Since then, players are making it a point to hang out with different groups away from the facility and breaking down trust issues that developed last season.

It’s all in an effort to not waste what had been built.

“Whenever we talk about what we want to be it’s relating to 2013 and 2014,” Allen said. “Not because the success they had but because that was the right way and that’s why they had success. (We) hold ourselves accountable and try to live up to those expectations and not hurt the foundation they worked on to get us where we are. Those guys are really the reason that we are where we are — or were — and what we need to get back to.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau