By the time the 2017 season ended, Mark Dantonio felt like every true freshman on the Michigan State roster had played at one point or another.
While it only seemed that way, 13 first-year players did get on the field and some —cornerback Josiah Scott, offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis and receiver Cody White — had significant roles.
“I think we played them all,” Dantonio said with a quick smile this week at Big Ten media days.
The conversation was surrounding the NCAA rule that was passed in the offseason allowing freshmen to play in up to four games without losing their redshirt. Previously, just one game would have resulted in the year counting toward the player’s eligibility.
How teams handle their freshmen was a big question this week for the conference’s coaches.
“There's not a template to say how we're going to handle this,” Ohio State’s Urban Meyer said. “I know every year when it starts getting down to that November run, you're dealing with injuries. You're dealing with other issues, fatigue, etc. You'd like to have some bodies available.
“What happens remains to be seen. You hate to save a guy for those last four games and not put them in the game. So it's still to be determined.”
While Dantonio was essentially forced into playing so many freshmen in 2017, that likely won’t be the case this season with virtually the entire starting lineup back.
He, like Meyer, sees the biggest benefit coming as the season progresses.
“I think that if you're ahead, you can certainly give them opportunities to play, but I think it's going to translate into later in the season,” Dantonio said. “You're going to see some guys play in bowl games or guys play toward the end of November relative to injuries. I think most players are going to be much better prepared to play toward the end of the season.”
While most of the freshmen who played last season saw regular playing time, Dantonio believes moving forward the rule can benefit the entire class.
“I think it gives them added significance to stay in shape, continue to learn and continue to get better as a football player. A lot of times when they become redshirted, they sort of are like ‘Hey, I'm shutting it down a little bit.’ So it keeps them on edge, I think.”
Regardless of the rule, Dantonio singled out defensive backs Xavier Henderson and Kalon Gervin as freshmen who might have an early impact this season, but as for the rest of the class, they’ll have to be ready to get on the field at any time.
“I can't say every player is going to have that opportunity,” Dantonio said. “They have to earn their way there and we have an experienced football team so it's going to be more challenging.”
Willis earns honors
Senior safety Khari Willismade an impactful speech on Tuesday at Big Ten media days, and on Thursday he was named to the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, which describes itself as college football's premier award for community service.
Willis spoke on behalf of the conference’s players at the annual kickoff luncheon and focused on giving back to the community while imploring fellow student-athletes to do the same. Willis also was nominated last week for the American Football Coaches Association's Good Works Team for players who are committed to community service.
Harbarger on watch list
The watch list parade doesn’t slow down this time of year. On Wednesday, fifth-year senior punter Jake Hartbarger was named to the Ray Guy Award watch list. The award goes to the nation’s top punter.
Hartbarger earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, averaging 42 yards a punt, with 28 of his kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.