Seniors buttress Spartans' football rebound
East Lansing — Raequan Williams recalled a recent film session when the defensive line was watching game film from last season.
That season, of course, was the worst in Mark Dantonio’s tenure as Michigan State’s coach, a 3-9 year that ended without a bowl game, no trophies to hoist and very few memorable moments.
As the sophomore defensive tackle watched that film he had one reaction.
“What were we even doing?” Williams said. “I don’t know, we just looked bad. It was a whole different vibe.”
As Michigan State now sits at No. 16 in the country, unbeaten in the Big Ten and heading to Northwestern for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, so much has changed from that team a year ago.
There are plenty of fresh faces. Fourteen of the 22 projected starters are underclassmen and 13 true freshmen have already played this season with two of those starting — cornerback Josiah Scott and right guard Kevin Jarvis.
But it’s that vibe Williams talked about that’s different, and that’s something that’s harder to quantify. You can’t look on a depth chart and see that. As Williams said, everyone is playing for each other now, something that had disappeared in 2016.
And while Dantonio and his staff surely deserve plenty of praise for that, it would be wrong to overlook the senior leadership the Spartans do have this season. From the fiery nature of linebacker Chris Frey to the more cerebral approach of center Brian Allen, the Spartans have that veteran guidance they were sorely lacking a season ago.
“They're critical,” Dantonio said quickly when asked about this week about his seniors. “Because regardless of what you see, even though we don't have a lot of seniors playing, they're still in positions of leadership. They've been there. These guys have been to Rose Bowls, been to playoff games, Cotton Bowls, and those type of things and also been without a bowl one year.”
It’s true for running back Gerald Holmes and defensive end Demetrius Cooper and linebacker Shane Jones and quarterback Damion Terry as well as the other seven seniors.
Some have played a lot, some not as much. But they’ve all seen the ups and downs of Michigan State football and have put everything into getting back to this point —– competing for a championship.
“They've experienced a lot of different things,” Dantonio said. “I think there's some wisdom in that. And the other thing they've done they've been extremely unselfish as they've gone through, there's not as many, but they've been extremely unselfish. Usually, when you look at them, you ask your seniors to have the best year you've had as a football player at Michigan State.
“I think Brian Allen is playing at a very high level right now. Coop is playing very, very well. Chris Frey is probably playing as good as he has right now. Those are our three seniors that are really playing a lot. Gerald has been nicked up a little bit and other guys are playing in and out, but they're doing what they can do, and it's been a big positive for us.”
It’s not something that just happened when the season began, either. From the moment last season ended, this senior group has been working toward a turnaround.
Holmes was one of the catalysts in the offseason, and even though he’s missed the last couple of games, his impact is still felt.
“He’s still leading,” Dantonio said. “Been doing that since January. Been a big part of us sort of recollecting ourselves in the offseason when things were going on and everything. I think he had a lot to do with sort of just keeping everybody together.”
And now that the season is rolling, the Spartans looking to win their fifth straight, those seniors are still in control.
It’s natural for Frey, but he admits it took some time for him to ease into this role. He followed before, but now realizes what he means to the young roster.
“It’s honestly weird for me because I’ve had guys like Riley Bullough and Darien Harris and Taiwan Jones and Shilique Calhoun, guys all around me that I’ve learned so much from,” Frey said. “I’m in a different position now. I’m one of the only seniors on the defense. A lot of guys lean on me for things throughout the week. They watch film with me, and they’re doing different things to learn from what I do.
“It’s different for me, but it helps me get in here and watch more film, do the things that I need to do so that I can help those guys when I need it.”
It’s a proven formula at Michigan State. As Dantonio said, the Spartans count on the seniors to have their best years. There aren’t as many now, but that formula is working again.
“We know that we’re in the driver’s seat of the car that is going to take us wherever we need to go,” Frey said. “Everything is in front of us and we just need to focus on what we’ve got to do and we can win these games.”
MICHIGAN STATE VS. NORTHWESTERN
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 6-1 (4-0 Big Ten), Northwestern 4-3 (2-2)
Line: Michigan State by 2.5