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Sophomore Brian Lewerke talks after Michigan State's first practice.

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East Lansing — One day with just helmets and no pads can make it difficult to truly assess a football team, and Michigan State Mark Dantonio was quick to point that out on Monday.

But after the Spartans went through their first workout of preseason camp, it was clear there was different feeling.

“I think the big message this year has been we’ve got something to prove,” Dantonio said. “We’ve got to come back in here and get ourselves right and do the work. We’ve got to do the work. There’s always gonna be resistance to doing the work, whether that’s by injury or someone preventing you from that on the field, but that’s the main message right now.”

There’s no doubt there will be plenty to prove for Michigan State. Over the next few weeks it will be mostly to themselves that last year’s dynamic has been washed away by time. Following a dismal 3-9 record on the field there was an off-season of issues that simply compounded the misery of 2016.

Since then, player after player has admitted something was missing. There was simply a different feeling than previous seasons when Michigan State was routinely winning 10 games or more and competing for Big Ten championships.

Junior safety Khari Willis has seen both ends of the spectrum. He got his first career start as a true freshman in 2015 and played a key role all the way to the College Football Playoff. And he was in the middle of it all last season when things went south.

He’s hoping this camp is more like his first, and one practice in he senses the difference.

“Last year is in the past and whatever happened there we have to build off that,” Willis said. “Whatever we were missing I feel like we found it this offseason and were bringing it.

“There’s definitely a blueprint (to winning). Look at our history since Coach has been here, and then look at last year. You can’t just focus on one year. It’s a building process, this is a real program and now we go through it the right way.”

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The Spartans will be in full pads by Friday when the real work begins, but there’s no doubt they’re happy to be can on the field focusing simply on football.

That was hard to do early in 2017. Not only did they have to deal with the growing number of problems off the field, but the fact they missed out on 15 bowl practices made the off-season seem painfully endless.

The two-plus hour practice Monday was the cure for that.

“Ecstatic,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said when asked what it was like to be playing football again. “Being able to get back to football, get back to doing what we love to do is definitely a great feeling.

“We had four or five weeks of just doing nothing (at the end of the regular season). That was the first time I’d had that experience and it’s definitely not what I want to do again.”

There surely will be issues again as camp moves forward, and for Michigan State the key is making sure those issues are all football-related — developing young players, overcoming the inevitable injury, figuring out the depth chart.

It’s all welcomed after the past few months. But while the Spartans agree they have something to prove, they are also on the same page in the fact they understand there is no magic to getting back to winning.

“Obviously that chip on our shoulder I don’t think we really had last year,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “But I don’t care what the media says. We come out and work every day and let our play do the talking. Yeah, it was a tough off-season but we come out and work every day just like we did last year.”

The work has begun and it will get tougher over the next few weeks. Turning that into better results on the field is the focus.

“We do feel like we have more to prove,” Lewerke said. “We feel like we need … not need, but want to come out and perform like we know we can and give the fans something to be proud of.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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