East Lansing — For the last few weeks, Mark Dantonio has had a front-row seat at what resiliency can mean to a team.
The Michigan State football coach was in the stands as Tom Izzo and the basketball team brushed off multiple injuries all season and still marched to the Final Four, grabbing a Big Ten regular-season championship and tournament title along the way.
That’s why Dantonio appreciated being in Minneapolis last Saturday, a group of about 20 football players sitting courtside as well. It was a chance to see what a team can accomplish even under significant adversity.
“It was a great opportunity for our guys to sit in a championship venue and see the importance and significance of being in that game, much like we were in 2015 as a football program,” Dantonio said. “Some guys remembered that opportunity and others maybe look forward to possibly creating that opportunity for ourselves.
“I think that they faced injury after injury and different things going on. So just like any football or basketball, or any major college team in any sport, I thought they did an unbelievable job of handling the adversity and I thought their leadership showed. It was amazing how every single game there was somebody different who stepped up.”
As Michigan State gets set to play its annual spring game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium, Dantonio is hoping it’s the first step toward getting back to that championship level, one the Spartans last saw in 2015 when they won the Big Ten championship and reached the College Football Playoffs.
It’s been up and down since then. There was the drop to 3-9 in 2016 followed by the rebound to 10 wins in 2017. But with plenty of expectations entering 2018, the Spartans offense faltered, and injuries mounted on that side of the ball. It led to a disappointing 7-6 season that featured a dominant defense and a feeble offense.
That has led to plenty of focus on putting points on the board and led to the shift in coaching duties as Brad Salem took over as coordinator and is charged with bringing life to the offense. Nearly every position has questions, but Salem is also coaching the running backs and is sorting out a large group.
“We've got seven guys or eight guys that are running tailback,” Salem said, “so we're trying to rep them all to figure out who fits. For them, just to get better with their steps, their vision, and making plays with the football.”
Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson bring back the most experience with Heyward entering his junior season and Jefferson his sophomore year. But Elijah Collins, who redshirted after seeing action in two games last season, is playing well this spring, as is early enrollee Anthony Williams.
Regardless of who ends up carrying the ball, Salem is focusing on the details.
“We even just look at the cut-up of the very end of their run so that they themselves can see how they finished a play,” Salem said. “Do you really understand the value of 3 feet? One yard is a big deal, do they get it when you finish forward that's another 2 yards, maybe now it's a second down-and-4 which is better than second-and-6. Just teaching guys how to finish and understand that value. They're seeing it, they have clips of themselves now from the previous fall and you're seeing stuff from practice.”
The offensive line is also looking to take a big leap while at receiver, the Spartans are counting on a trio of Darrell Stewart, Cody White and Jalen Nailor to stay healthy and have breakout seasons.
And with quarterback Brian Lewerke healthy, Michigan State is expecting him to return to the form he had in 2017 when he gained more than 3,300 yards.
“The confidence is back and the arm strength is back,” Salem said, “so we've seen some pretty good things.”
While Michigan State had trouble putting points on the board, the defense was its usual self, keeping offenses off balance. There are only a handful of starters to replace — namely cornerback Justin Layne and safety Khari Willis — but the Spartans feel good about who will step in with fifth-year senior Josh Butler likely to move in for Layne and sophomore Xavier Henderson expected to take over for Willis.
The bigger issue is replenishing the depth.
“The goal is to develop 22 starters,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “It's surprising how many seniors we lost from our second team and how much that knowledge really benefitted us. We feel good about our first group. There is a lot of experience coming there. The second group and third group was a really big focus this spring and they've been coming along.
“We have a lot of talent, but not a lot of experience, and that’s been the focus. We had a team meeting the other day and I said if you're on the second defense stand up. About 12 or 13 actually stood up, which is good, we want them all to believe that. Then I said, ‘Stay standing if you've played 30 snaps of football at Michigan State University,’ and there were only two still standing. So, there's talent but not a lot of experience and that’s what we’re working on.”
Tressel singled out Tre Person, Shakur Brown and Dominique Long in the back end. All three will be juniors entering 2019 and have seen sporadic playing time the past two seasons. Tressel also mentioned Michael Dowell, who redshirted last season.
Up front, redshirt freshmen Jeslord Boateng and Chase Kline have stood out at linebacker, as has sophomore Noah Harvey.
However the two-deep shakes out, Tressel is emphasizing what it takes to be a dominant defense year-in and year-out.
“We also talk an awful lot … about the fact it doesn't just happen,” Tressel said. “We need to start over and have that type of mentality every year. It doesn’t because we're Michigan State Spartans. That’s not why we play good defense. It's because of how much we get after it, how hard we work, our mentality and that starts fresh every year.”