Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio met with the media in Chicago on Thursday to look ahead to the 2019 season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Chicago — There was a familiar feel to Big Ten media days Thursday afternoon at the Hilton Chicago.
Yeah, everyone was clamoring around the Ohio State coach — it was Ryan Day this year, not Urban Meyer, so that was different — and the shooting star that is Nebraska coach Scott Frost shined brightly. The picks came out, too, and that meant more talk about Ohio State and, of course, Michigan.
Most think this is the Wolverines’ best shot to win the Big Ten since Jim Harbaugh arrived, but most also think Day and the Buckeyes will be right there in the East. Over in the West, it seems like the same old story — a bunch of teams that are close and, really, it’s anyone’s division to win.
But there was one more tried-and-true Big Ten media day tradition also taking place — overlooking Michigan State.
Picked by the media to finish third in the East, the Spartans have an elite defense, but most are wary of an offense that managed to score only 18.7 points a game last season. So, no, the Spartans aren’t coming up often when folks are talking about potential conference champions.
Not surprisingly, the Spartans are perfectly comfortable with the spotlight shining elsewhere.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes said.
If anyone understands that feeling, it’s Willekes. A walk-on when he first arrived at Michigan State, Willekes has turned himself into one of the best defensive linemen in the nation, earning the Big Ten’s top honors last season. And after suffering a broken leg in the Redbox Bowl, he delighted Spartans fans by deciding to return to school for his final season.
So he gets the whole being counted out thing, not that he worries too much about it.
“We don’t care about the hype,” Willekes continued. “We don’t care about whatever is said in the preseason. What happens on the field on Saturday is what we’re worried about, the finished product. So they can talk about every other team … we don’t need any of the hype because when Saturday comes we’ll be ready to go.”
Maybe it all feels so familiar because this is what head coach Mark Dantonio has perfected entering his 13th season. Just when it seems like the Spartans won’t be a factor, they go and beat everyone and end up in Indianapolis for the conference championship game.
It happened in 2013 when Michigan State was coming off a lackluster 7-6 mark the season before and it happened again in 2015 when most of the attention was on defending national champion Ohio State. That season, it was the Spartans who went into Columbus and won on their way to the College Football Playoff.
What people are talking about this time around are the parallels to the 2012-to-2013 transition. It’s one Michigan State could be about to repeat.
“There’s a lot of that,” Dantonio said of the comparisons to this year’s team. “Quarterback play was suspect in ’12 and suspect in ’18. The running back situation was in flux a little bit, we had a lot of wide receiver problems at that point in time with a lot of guys dropping balls. This year it was more guys being injured.
“So, there’s a lot of that, but again, you need to assess where you’re at, adjust, hit the reset button and go. I think our players are doing that.”
There’s one key consistency between what happened in 2012 and 2018 when the Spartans compiled identical 7-6 marks — an elite defense.
The 2012 unit became the one in 2013 that led Michigan State to a 13-1 record and a win in the Rose Bowl. It featured two first-round NFL cornerbacks (Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes) along with a defensive line full of NFL caliber players led by Shilique Calhoun.
Similar things exist heading into 2019. Last season, Michigan State’s defense was the best run unit in the country and it ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense. It also features four players — Willekes, tackle Raequan Williams, linebacker Joe Bachie and cornerback Josiah Scott — who could become All-Americans and high NFL Draft picks.
Of course, all of that guarantees nothing.
“It is similar,” Dantonio. “Now the results need to come.”
To do so, the offense will need to take a significant jump.
The Spartans were 13th in the conference in scoring last season and Dantonio responded by shuffling his offensive coaching staff, moving Brad Salem into the coordinator position.
Michigan State's Raequan Williams, Kenny Willekes and Joe Bachie take part in Big Ten media days as they look ahead to the 2019 season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Dantonio and his staff have been tight-lipped about any changes and there were no offensive players at the Big Ten media days. So, whether that unit can take a jump like the one in 2013 did remains a bit of a mystery.
That left the defensive players to remind folks about how Michigan State plays the underdog role.
“That’s how most of us came up,” Bachie said. “That’s how most of us were recruited, that’s how most of us were raised. That’s kind of who we’ve always been, always had that chip on our shoulder and we’re excited for this fall because of that.”
Added Williams: “We are more motivated than ever. This is the last strike we’ve got. We definitely want to leave a legacy. We need a Big Ten championship.”
The Spartans could get that championship. After all, they’ve done it before.