Coach Mark Dantonio talks about facing Maryland in Michigan State's final home game of the season. Geoff Robinson, Detroit News
East Lansing — There have been bigger senior classes at Michigan State. There have been names bound to be called in the NFL Draft. And there have been senior classes that have certainly won more games.
But when Michigan State’s 15 seniors run out of the tunnel at Spartan Stadium for the final time Saturday as No. 22 Michigan State hosts Maryland in the last home game of the season, it will be a group that is hard to match in what it has meant to the Spartans program.
Not all of the 15 players are on the field on a regular basis. Only center Brian Allen, linebacker Chris Frey, running back Gerald Holmes and defensive end Demetrius Cooper have been regular starters. Linebacker Shane Jones, meanwhile, has been a consistent contributor while quarterback Damion Terry could never stay healthy.
What the group has been through, though, and what they’ve meant to the revival of the Spartans is nothing short of impressive.
“I think what stands out is that they wanted to set the record right. They wanted to make it right,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Last year was difficult for everybody. They were thrust into leadership positions, especially the guys who play a ton. And guys in positions of leadership, like Damion is in a position of leadership being a quarterback. They wanted to make sure that we took a step back in the right direction, that we returned to a bowl game, that we won the games where we were supposed to win or that we succeeded, that we had success.”
They’ve certainly done that, and then some.
After the tumble to 3-9 in 2016 followed by an off-season of turmoil, the seniors were tasked with righting the ship.
It was up to them to rediscover the culture that allowed them to be part of championships, bowl wins and playoff berths.
The group of fifth-year seniors — like Terry, Holmes and Jones — were around for a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win in 2013. They were joined in 2014 by Allen and Frey as another bowl win followed and then a Big Ten championship in 2015 and a spot in the playoffs.
“It was a big deal,” Holmes said. “The main thing is that we wanted to establish leadership, true leadership, and kind of create a family atmosphere. I feel like last year we kind of lost that a little bit. I feel like over the summer we built that obviously through the workouts.
“But just kind of just talking and the team building so I feel like that played a big difference in the turnaround.”
The turnaround came quicker than many expected. The Spartans (7-3, 5-2 Big Ten) likely won’t win the Big Ten East, but they still had a shot nine weeks into the season. And a bowl game some thought was a bit far-fetched was clinched weeks ago. Now, it’s just a matter of where and when.
In other words, the fall from grace was swift but it was brief. The senior class has seen to that.
The drama is gone. The frustration is gone. The winning attitude has returned.
“I feel like we were divided last year a little bit,” Frey said. “But from the start of this offseason throughout the entire year I think we’ve done a very good job as a senior class and as a leadership council to bring this team together as one. That was the main focus and I think we did a very good job of that this offseason and continued into this season.”
It's rubbing off on the future leaders, the young members of that leadership council. Junior Khari Willis has seen his share of ups and downs and remembers how things have been off the field this year.
“These guys are just incredible, fun to be around,” Willis said. “In the locker room whether it’s hearing Gerald talk for 45 minutes or an hour or hearing Chris just saying some ridiculous things that are just hilariously funny or wrestling around with Coop and joking with him about his bad knees on the basketball court.
“It’s just all fun. I remember the fun stuff off the field and obviously, the football memories that we’ve made.”
It’s been a remarkable rejuvenation. Sure, the wins have returned quicker than most expected, but the culture has been transformed.
The seniors take pride in that. They wanted a few more wins, but knowing the program is much more like the one they joined four and five years ago is fine by them.
“Everyone says you’re remembered for what you do your senior year and I think that’s something that we’ll remember, just coming off last year and the struggles we had,” Allen said.
“Being able to really just come together and have a fun year, it’s been fun, other than a couple bumps along the way but we really have had fun this year.”
Dantonio can only hope the other classes take note.
It’s that type of approach that leads to consistent success. If the rest of the team has learned that from this group of seniors, then the season has been a success.
“I think they've learned retribution, how to get back, how to climb back up,” Dantonio said.
“So, they experienced life at a high level and then they experienced life climbing out of a hole. And I think what they've learned from our senior class is that you're going to get it on both ends and you need to be prepared for it and you need to keep working.”