Michigan St., sleepers for many to take out Ohio St. for the Big 10 title and compete in the college football’s Final Four, gets the season started on the road against Western Michigan on Friday. The Spartans, historically very strong against the spread as road chalk, are 19 point favorites on the road. Coach Mark Dantonio talks about the upcoming game and what he expects from his team:
Dantonio: First game, new beginnings, I think, for every program in America right now. It’s very exciting for us to have the opportunity to play in our first game. I think most people are tired of practicing against themselves right now and ready to get on with it.
To me it’s about new beginnings. There’s no guarantees in any season. You get evaluated at the end of the season and we have our first challenge as we go over to Western Michigan.
We’ll come ready to play and we’ll come fresh. That’s our thought process.
We have three honorary captains, Little John Flowers. Tico Duckett and T.J. Duckett will be our honorary captains. All three are from Kalamazoo. We’re very excited to have them be part of our program in this first game of 2015.
Coach Fleck as he goes into his third year, 8-5 last year, after being 1-10, one of the biggest turnarounds in the country, outstanding job there. They’re returning eight offensive starters, seven defensive starters, along with a kicker, punter and snapper. They’ve got great experience on their football team.
Top guys on the offense, No. 84, Corey Davis, Braverman, No. 8, Franklin their tailback, freshman of the year last year, big runningback. Hand him the ball 25, 30 times. He’s going to have touches. And Zach Terrell, their quarterback. Offensive line returns three starters as well.
Their expectations are very high as we move into 2015.
Defensively on that side of the ball, No. 7 returns, No. 1, two guys in the secondary which have a great deal of experience. They played against us in 2013. Atkins and Zamort. Good linebacking group. Three starters return also on the defensive line.
Very well-functioning defensive unit. I think very sound in what they do. They look extremely well-coached on the defensive side of the ball as well.
So with that I’ll just take some questions and we’ll sort of go from there.
Q. Arjen Colquhoun, No. 1 at cornerback, has he earned that spot or is that Calhoun being hurt? And is Calhoun available for this game?
Dantonio: I’m not going to talk about injuries. But all the guys are available to play that you know about, so…
Vayante has had a great summer camp. Very balanced. Great tackler. Great ball skills. He’s a redshirt freshman. He’s been working with the ones periodically throughout the entire camp. The decision was made that he would start this football game.
But we expect to play pretty much all of our guys. Darian Hicks has been activated, he’s able to practice now. Along with Arjen and Vayante, Jermaine Edmondson, and obviously Demetrious Cox can go out there and play as well.
We’ve got five guys in there and feel very comfortable with a couple freshmen that we’ve got. We’re working a lot of players at corner, which we just need to and should. If they have the ability, we’re going to work with them.
Q. At runningback, obviously No. 1, you’ve talked about the other guys playing. Is this a situation where you go in wanting to find that one guy or are you open to having several guys ready?
Dantonio: I think it’s a luxury when you have a number of guys playing. It was a luxury when we had Le’Veon playing, Edwin Baker playing, Caper playing. That was a luxury for us. There were a couple years when we had to go with Jeremy or just Le’Veon Bell. They had 300 plus carries, 380, 390.
I’m sort of seeing it being the two or three prong type thing. We’ll see how injuries occur during the year or don’t occur hopefully. But I see using our guys. Want to keep them fresh. We want them playing hard. They’ve all demonstrated they can run the football.
Q. What do you say or do to keep your players focused on Western and not looking ahead to Oregon?
Dantonio: Our football team has always done a great job in terms of focusing on the present, focusing on the moment. But especially in your first game, I don’t think people look too far in advance. Pretty much everybody concentrates on that first game. Our focus is entirely on Western. It has been here since probably late last week. We’re looking forward to the moment.
But I’m not concerned about that at all. We have a pretty mature football team in terms of a lot of fifth-year seniors, things of that nature. We also have a short memory, or a long memory. I guess it would be a long memory.
Q. Is Delton possibly redshirting going to be more determined depending by how Gerald and Madre play? Is that going to be more determined by those two?
Dantonio: We’re not going to put a guy in the game and burn a redshirt with anybody. So you really don’t know how things are going. But at this point in time, we’ll just use them as they come. If we need to use them, we’re going to use them.
He is going to come to the football game. We’re going to prepare to play him. He’s going to be prepared to play. Whether we use him or not, it will depend on how the situation occurs in the game. Whether we have to, should, need to, those type of things.
Q. When you look at the ‘next man up’ that you guys have had for the past five or six years, it seems like the guys who have come in, whether it’s graduation or injury, have done a good job. What exactly is that? Is it coaching, talent, depth? What makes that possible?
Dantonio: I think it’s all of those things. I don’t think you can pinpoint it to one particular thing. It’s guys waiting their turn, understanding the situation, our system. We talk in terms of, Is that guy functional? Can he play and function within a system? Then he has to raise his level of play.
A lot of times guys wait their time. We continue to coach everybody. I just talked about all the corners. We are actively coaching those guys. So it’s not just two or three guys that we’re coaching at every position, it’s a number of players.
I think we’ve got talent here. We’ve got good players. We recruited good players. When they have an opportunity to show those talents, they’ve done a great job.
A lot of it to me is timing, as well, and opportunity.
Q. When you look at these two areas that we’re commonly drawn to 50 years ago, ’55 and ’56 teams were exceptional. These teams are exceptional. There are resources you were drawn to when you took this job, resources that have always been existing here. Can you talk a little bit to that point.
Dantonio: Yeah, I can.
The three things that really made this job attractive to me were, number one, I’d been here before, so I knew the landscape. That’s number one. I’ve always believed it’s about people. I knew there were great, outstanding people here that I would be working with, not only within the football department but the athletic department, Mark Hollis, Ron Mason at that time. I knew our president, I knew people on the board. Tom Izzo certainly very impactful. So all those people, you know, had a part in that.
That’s number two.
The third thing was really everywhere I’d gone when I was an assistant here, I could walk in the door and sell Michigan State. You can sell Michigan State because Michigan State had been on top before. It might have been awhile since they were No. 1 or 2 in the country, but they had good teams under Coach Perles. When you walked in, you were immediately recognized. People knew who the Spartans were. I felt like you could have good recruiting here. The facilities needed to be upgraded, but there was a plan in place.
The Big Ten Conference speaks to itself in terms of the type of conference this conference is, the people we play against, and outside the conference.
Then finally, you know, I feel like my family has a built-in support system. When they came back, they were coming back to friends. That’s basically what it was all about.
Q. On linebackers, you have Reschke or Frey. Is that an ongoing competition? Also no T.J. Harrell on Shane Jones on the depth chart. Why is that?
Dantonio: First of all, they’ll split time. They’ll both play. We’ll see who gets the nod based on practices this week. But both guys have done a great job with it. John Reschke can also play Mike linebacker as well. Chris can also balance out the star, he has played star before. He can play other positions.
As far as T.J. I think we just listed the two deep. Shane is in there, he’s working as a two and a half probably. Whether he goes in, whether he’s a two or two and a half, he’ll show up on the special teams. T.J. Harrell will show up on the special teams as well. They were in the mix, just not on the two deep. Both guys will travel and play.
Q. You mentioned Western Michigan’s receivers, their ability to go deep. Last time you played them, they went deep. Do you anticipate having to back off a little bit on defense?
Dantonio: We’re going to do our deal, play our plan. I think that’s who we are, that’s what we do. So it’s all predicated defensively. Better stop the run. Better defend against the pass. Better pressure the quarterback.
But there’s small windows at times, so we’ve just got to do what we do. But obviously we have a plan in place.
Q. You don’t do the scheduling, I don’t think.
Q. But do you embrace these games with the Westerns, Centrals, Easterns? You make a bigger headline if you lose than if you win. Everything to lose and nothing to win kind of game?
Dantonio: I don’t look at it like that. They all count one. As Coach Perles used to say, they all count one.
But when we made the decision to do this and make it three for one, with one at a time going away to play, it was because we wanted to create a community in the state of Michigan. It was because the economy in the state of Michigan being what it was, we could help the economy in the state of Michigan. That’s why we did it.
We wanted to create a community event in Kalamazoo, we wanted to fill the hotels in that area. We wanted to bring commerce to the city of Kalamazoo rather than take this down to Florida and play somewhere else, someplace. I think we were slated to play Florida Atlantic in their new stadium at one point in time when we made this decision.
With that in mind, we’re up. This is the time we’re up. We did it against Central a few years back. I think it did the same thing for Central. It was a community event. I think it’s good for the state of Michigan. I think that’s why we’ve done it. It was a one-time deal. So it’s three for one. Consequently they come here three different times. The payout is what it is. But it’s beneficial to us. So it’s a business deal as well.
We’re going to line up and play wherever they tell us to go.
Q. Zach Terrill is one of the most efficient passers in Division I football. What type of pressure does that put on this young secondary?
Dantonio: He’s a great quarterback. He’s going to put a lot of pressure on us in terms of what he does. Their passing game, they cover all bases. They go deep, intermediate, short. There’s bubble screens, et cetera. They hit all the different gamuts out there that’s being done in football today, in offensive football today. They’re diverse. We have to be able to play.
They’re a no-huddle offense, all that kind of stuff. We have to be able to play at our best. Those are the expectations that are here defensively, and those are the challenges we’re faced with.
Q. Have you coached at Waldo Stadium?
Dantonio: Have I?
Q. What do you feel about going to a smaller atmosphere, what that will be like for your guys?
Dantonio: To me, as long as it’s packed, it’s all the same. No difference to me. If it’s packed, it’s all the same. I’m sure it will be packed and there will be a lot of green there. Be exciting.
Q. Your thoughts on when Kirk Cousins is getting another shot at the starting quarterback position for Washington.
Dantonio: Big day today in the NFL for a lot of our guys. It’s cut day, so a lot of things are happening for our guys individually. Want to wish them the best.
Kirk getting the starting nod from the Redskins I think is phenomenal. I think he’s probably earned that position. They don’t hand those things out. We’re very, very excited for him and Spartan Nation because they all follow Kirk and wish him the best.
I was texting him the other night, congratulating him. We’ve got a lot of guys. Brian Hoyer with the Texans got the starting nod. I’m not sure where Drew Stanton is at. A lot of guys performing in the NFL. Exciting time for those guys.
Also the first day you can call recruits, the 2016 recruits. Give a shout out to all our committed guys out there, the people we’ll be calling. First day we’re allowed to direct message the juniors. Shout out to all those guys. Got to take a minute to recruit.
Q. (No microphone.)
Dantonio: No, not too many. I only started doing that with one guy because he’d send them to me. I like the guy crying, laughing.
Q. You have Riley Bullough as a kick returner. Talk about that decision there.
Dantonio: We have a number of guys that can do that. He’s shown the ability. If you go back, he was our starting tailback in 2013 against Western. He’s got running ability, can catch the ball very fluidly. He is a guy that can get something on a defending player coming down to spring R.J. Shelton. R.J. is hopefully going to be the guy that is going to catch it. We’ll see if Riley catches it. We have big expectations there. He’s shown he can do those things. Versatility.
Q. Connor Cook and a couple of other guys have both said Trevon is one of the best players on this team that doesn’t get recognition. He has earned the respect of his teammates, quite frankly those type of comments from them, what is it about him?
Dantonio: Trevon Pendleton?
Dantonio: I’m glad you mispronounced his name because I’ve mispronounced for it years.
He played fullback for us, but plays on a lot of special teams, et cetera. Very good football player. Has a knack for good plays throughout his time here. He’s been a three, four-year starter. He’s played a lot of football for us.
He’ll be an exciting guy to watch. Always making them play. I don’t think there’s any game he doesn’t make a play, a great block, a tackle on a special teams unit, or a big play, whether it’s catching a pass or at times running with the football.
But, you know, he’s done a great job for us. I think he does go unrecognized ’cause the fullback position is a little bit of a lost art really for a lot of offenses right now. But we use him. He’s very important to our offense.
Q. There’s a lot of excitement going into the opener. Would you say there’s maybe even a little more anticipation given the off-season you just went through? In other words, has this off-season been more annoying than your typical off-season?
Dantonio: More annoying than my typical? No. It’s been good. I think our off-season has been great. Usually when you win your last football game, you have a tendency for things to go well for you during the off-season. That’s what’s happened the last four years.
As far as the expectations, the most important expectations are the expectations we have as a program on the inside. There’s a lot of talk because of our record, things of that nature the last couple years, but we will get as our works deserve. We’ll have to move the rock, as I call it, forward on our own. It all starts with the first game.
I think, as I said when I opened up the press conference, I think everybody at any program anywhere in this country, whether it’s high school, whether it’s college, at any level, whether it’s the NFL, I think there’s a lot of excitement about the first game.
Everybody has a shot. You start defining yourself. As you play in that first game you start defining yourself. Our thought process is to do a good job here this first one.
I think it’s just exciting for everybody involved.
Q. What about outside noise?
Dantonio: Outside noise? Can’t listen to it. Have to shut it out. I think it’s tough these days because we’re a socially media-driven world. There’s so much out there. You have to be able to shut it out, get with yourself, get ready to play.
I’ve said this before. Games are won and lost on the field, what you do on the field, what you do on the sidelines, adjustments and decisions made there. They’re not going to be won or lost in the press.
There’s a lot of anticipation, like I said, a lot of excitement, or criticism. But I think you’ve got to win it on the field. You’ve got to be prepared to do that. It starts with this game. Everywhere it starts across the country.
Q. A lot of attention in the off-season on Connor. Both of you have talked a lot about if he plays as well as he should, this team will be where it needs to be. Has he done everything you’ve needed? What do you see from him that maybe points to him having that?
Dantonio: He’s had an outstanding summer camp. Like I said before, he drives the car, the truck, the train, pilots the plane, however you want to term it. I think he has experience, game experience. Quarterback coach has been with him. He has a head coach that has been with him. An offensive coordinator that’s been with him. He’s been in the same system.
Receivers believe in him. Offensive line believes in him. He’s got a knack for being able to put things behind him when there’s a bad play. He’s had an outstanding summer camp. He’s really picked up where he left off.
The impressive thing about Connor Cook really to me is he wants to be better. He wants to be a perfectionist. He works on his game. He’s trying to elevate. He always looks for the things he didn’t do as opposed to the things he did do. He tries to improve on those things.
Thanks, guys. Go Green.