Sunny outlook kicks off Michigan State spring practice
East Lansing — Forget the piles of snow still lining the edge of the Michigan State practice fields.
It was the first practice of the spring on Tuesday afternoon, and it felt like it, both in terms of temperature and in the moods of the Spartans.
Fresh off what can best be described as a revival last fall — quickly turning around the misery of 2016 into a 10-win season complete with another bowl victory and a second-place finish in the Big Ten East — the Spartans hit the field ready to prove the foundation has been solidified for a program that has won 10 or more games in six of the last eight seasons.
“It’s a fresh start now,” said linebacker Joe Bachie, who will be a junior in the fall. “Spring ball is an exciting time. We’re done with the fourth-quarter program, done running and can actually play some football now, so it’s an exciting time.”
It’s especially exciting for the Spartans considering there has been minimal turnover from a season ago. They lost just two starters on defense and one on offense. Even with recent transfers, only receivers Hunter Rison and Trishton Jackson as well as running back Madre London figured to be on the two-deep depth chart.
However, even with the likes of Bachie, quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back LJ Scott returning, Michigan State has learned over the last two seasons that nothing is given. That was at the forefront of its thoughts on Tuesday.
“I hope we always feel like we have to earn things around here,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Last year we sort of regathered ourselves and that’s what you’ve got to do. We had our best semester academically, I think, in history of Michigan State last fall and to do that is a positive, as well. We have to continue to try and do things right on the field, off the field, in the classroom and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Doing the right things has come under more of a microscope in the past couple months. It was in late January that an ESPN report questioned how the football and basketball programs have handled sexual assault cases. It did so in the wake of the Larry Nassar case, a move that unfairly painted Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo with a similar brush.
Dantonio was forceful in his denial of any wrongdoing then. On Tuesday, he talked about the road ahead.
“Only that I want to commit to being part of the solution,” Dantonio said. “I made my statement on how I feel about things. Hopefully we’re healing as a community, healing as a university, and it’s a step-by-step process. A lot of time spring is the time for a new beginning, so I’ll use that in this case as well. It’s an opportunity to grow and get better at everything we’re doing and looking at. I think (interim president) John Engler has done a great job thus far in terms of organizationally and confronting the issue.”
What the report truly questioned was the culture around Michigan State. It was that point that was disputed in January and was again on Tuesday.
Bachie said hearing the criticism was tough, but he’s never wavered in his belief in Dantonio.
“Obviously, it was tough to listen to all that stuff but Coach D addressed everything,” Bachie said. “It’s a tough time but we know what our culture is here. We know our expectations and we keep ourselves to a high standard
“We have great people here. That’s why we were able to win and flip that 3-9 to 10-3.”
And that — what is happening on the field — was truly the focus on Tuesday.
The Spartans are looking to fill a few holes, namely at center, where Brian Allen is off chasing his NFL dreams at this week’s combine. Dantonio said that is probably the most important thing for the Spartans, finding his replacement.
There are also questions of depth at quarterback and running back while seven true freshmen are going through their first college practices.
They’re doing it all with several coaching changes. Don Treadwell is back at Michigan State in a wide-reaching role, while Paul Haynes takes over the defensive backs and Chuck Bullough is in charge of the defensive ends.
By the time Michigan State wraps things up soon after the spring game on April 7, they’ll have a lot more answers. They hope it all leads to competing for another championship.
“You always take that win (in the Holiday Bowl) and carry it on to the next season,” Lewerke said. “I think we’re doing that. Obviously, it’s a whole new year, a new group of guys and some guys that left. We still have a lot of guys returning so we’ll use that momentum but remember it’s a new season with a new focus."
THREE ROSTER ABSENCES
Defensive lineman Kyonta Stallworth, defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson and defensive back T.J. Harrell were not on the spring roster released Tuesday.
“Right now I’m concerned with who is on the roster,” Dantonio said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back and we’ve had some attrition and I understand that. But there’s reason for that and we’ve got to work through those.”
It didn’t sound like those players would be returning, but Dantonio didn’t definitively say those players were done playing, only adding, “We’ll see.”
Running back Weston Bridges, who redshirted last season, is not expected to take part in spring practice because of an injury but should be ready by the time preseason camp begins.
“Weston Bridges will bounce back after an injury,” Dantonio said. “He may not participate this spring but he looks good, looks like he’ll be ready to go this fall.”
… Brandon Randle, who will be a sophomore in the fall, is working primarily at outside linebacker this spring. He played both defensive end and linebacker in 2017 but Dantonio wants him to focus on one spot for now.
“I think he’s got a great amount of ability, but he’s got to be consistent in what he’s doing,” Dantonio said. “That’s the biggest thing.”