East Lansing — For the first time in 14 seasons coaching with Mark Dantonio, Michigan State defensive coordinator Mike Tressel will be the sole defensive play-caller and coordinator, jobs that for the last three seasons he had shared with Harlon Barnett, who took the defensive coordinator job at Florida State in January.
Tressel talked to the media about his expanded role after practice Tuesday.
“It’s nice to call the plays. It’s nice to make the decisions,” Tressel said. “But the bottom line is that we’re competing and playing football every day and that’s the same as always. The three live team periods this spring where I’m the one standing on the sides making the calls will be the biggest difference. You make the calls based on down and distance, and coach Barnett and I used to rotate that, and that’s me now. But other than that it comes down to how these guys can compete on the football field and their confidence. It’s not about any coach. It’s about these guys.”
Fourth-year player Khari Willis is returning as starting safety and echoed that even though Barnett is gone, not much has changed.
“I feel like the mindset is the same,” Willis said. “The Spartan dog mentality is the same. I don’t really see a difference in the plays being called. There could be, but I haven’t noticed. He’s (Tressel) the same guy. Energetic, fired up, always looking to communicate with us on and off the field.”
Heading into his redshirt junior season, quarterback Brian Lewerke has noticed something different about Michigan State’s defense, something that directly relates to his daily battles against Tressel in practice.
“A little more pressure on the quarterbacks,” Lewerke said about Tressel’s playcalling. “He likes to blitz more than most guys do.”
Lewerke established himself as a dual-threat quarterback last year and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten. But former backup quarterback Damion Terry graduated and another backup quarterback, Messiah deWeaver, transferred to Mississippi Community College, leaving Lewerke as the only quarterback on the roster that’s taken a snap in a real game.
The job of backup quarterback is now up for grabs between true freshman early-enrollee Theo Day, a former three-star dual threat star from Dearborn Divine Child, and redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi.
Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner broke down the backup quarterback situation.
“(Spring practice) is as close as they’re going to get to game situations,” Warner said. “We’re anxious to see what they’re going to do, especially Theo (Day). He’s been here two months and most guys here two months don’t know the offense yet, and he’s out there in the huddle by himself getting signals from the sideline and executing plays. (He’s got a) long way to go, but it’s great experience for him.”
Warner said Lombardi’s redshirt experience from last year is helping him in the backup race.
“He knows the offense inside and out,” Warner said about Lombardi. “But actually getting in the huddle and going behind center and executing is another thing. He’s finding out that it’s less about knowing the offense and more about reacting to the defense.”
No matter who ends up being the backup quarterback, anyone thrust into a game will need a stout offensive line if they expect to have success.
Offensive line coach Mark Staten talked about what his unit’s been working on the most this spring.
“Consistency. That’s the biggest thing we’re working on,” Staten said. “When you’re young and you go in there early you rely on brute force, but when you’re out there against guys that are stronger and faster you’ve got to be able to rely on your technique. We’ve been really focusing on that all camp.”
The steepest challenge for the offensive line will be replacing center Brian Allen, who will likely be drafted next month.
Staten mentioned three names, down from four, when discussing how to replace Allen.
“We lost that key piece in the middle. We’ve got Matt Allen, we’ve got Tyler Higby and Jordan Reid fighting for minutes,” Staten said.
Higby and Reid are the more experienced options, but Matt Allen is the younger brother of Brian Allen.
“Tyler’s played a lot of football. Jordan’s played a lot of football,” Staten said. “Matt hasn’t played a lot of football but he’s practiced a lot of football, and he’s got that Allen family tradition where he’s going to work extremely hard.”
MSU SPRING GAME
Kickoff: 5 p.m., Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Notable: MSU players and coaches will conduct the annual youth clinic on April 7, from 12:30-2 p.m., on the practice fields just south of Spartan Stadium.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.