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August 14, 2012

Talkback: For serious MSU fans only

EAST LANSING - Today we debut a feature called "Talkback." It is, hopefully, a more insightful version of Mark Dantonio's most recent press briefing. Periodically throughout the feature, SpartanMag.com publisher Jim Comparoni offers "talkback" response to comments made by Dantonio.

This feature used to be a regular part of Spartan Plus and debuts today on SpartanMag.com. We have added it to the lineup here at SpartanMag.com due to new MSU rules which prohibit web sites like ours from running more than five minutes of audio or video from press conferences.

In lieu of audio or video in their entirety, we offer a transcript of Dantonio's Monday briefing, with "Talkback."

Dantonio's opening statement: First of all, in yesterday's scrimmage we went about 120 or 130 plays or so. We worked some special teams in there as well, live. It was a good first scrimmage for us. We came out of it healthy, so that's a positive.

"I thought our football team played pretty crisp, played hard, with a lot of effort. The one thing that I would like to see them put forth a little bit, you would like to see them play with a little bit more enthusiasm because that is when you see them overachieve at times. But you look for that at game time and we will build to that.

"Defensively, I thought we played pretty well. The young guys played pretty well. You see guys taking the next step as a young player. I am very impressed with our redshirt freshmen and where they are at and what they've been able to do. I think you guys know a lot of guys who have been starting for us and those players.

"I thought (Andrew) Maxwell was sharp and delivered the ball well. Nice job by our corners and our wide receivers battling. (Le'Veon) Bell ran the ball well and our offensive line did a pretty good job protecting. We threw a lot of things at our guys and lot of different situations, lot of live situations. All saidand done, it was a pretty productive scrimmage."




COMP's TAKE: Media weren't allowed to watch, but it's clear that the defense ruled the day. The No. 1 offense failed to score a touchdown. The most noteworthy offensive stat that jumps out to me is Le'Veon Bell's 12 carries for 49 yards. That's a pretty solid 4.0 average.

Also, 12 carries is a good chunk of work for the physical, proven, first-string tailback. That seems to be the scripted amount of work for Bell in a scrimmage. In the spring, he had 12 carries for 49 yards in the first scrimmage and 13 carries for 48 yards in the second.





On the 'lack of enthusiasm' he mentioned in the scrimmage:
DANTONIO: "I'm not saying there was a lack of enthusiasm, but there is a difference between being all hyped up when you make a play, and just going back to the huddle. I think that's when you over-achieve. We have to get to the point that that's part of this football team. I think that comes from the leaders on this football team, from the players. A coach can jump around, but in the end it's the players on the field.

"We addressed that. The players do an outstanding job in terms of what we emphasize and what we bring up that we need to do better. They concentrate on it and they get it.

"You also can't fake that aspect of the game. Sometimes the atmosphere provides that.

"But the played very hard and for the most part played very well on both sides of the ball.




COMP's TAKE: During Dantonio's first season at MSU, he often talked about the need for the sideline to get more involved, on every snap, any time anything positive happened. He wanted second-, third-, fourth-string guys to all get excited, show excitement and pat everyone on the back.

After three or four weeks of these calls for more enthusiasm, we didn't hear Dantonio talk about it anymore. He must have gotten what he wanted.

Now, Dantonio is back to asking for more electricity. He didn't necessarily say he wanted it from guys on the field or on the sideline, but the point is that he wants electricity all over the place. He'll get it. It's interesting that he is calling for it after a scrimmage. Sources indicate that in practice on Monday evening a few veterans responded to Dantonio's call in taking the lead to pump up the volume a little bit.

**

As a side note, MSU practiced indoors on Monday. They were in shells as they toned down contact a little bit the day after a scrimmage.

**

One more thing about enthusiasm as it relates to sideline demeanor. Anyone remember John L. Smith's main rule about the sidelines? He wanted as few people on the sidelines as possible. He only wanted people on the sideline who "had a job to do." That often meant that third-stringers and redshirting freshmen were in civilian clothes, watching in the stands. Past MSU players also were not invited to be on the sideline.

Quite a difference.





Is it typical that the defense is ahead of the offense in the first scrimmage?

DANTONIO: "Yeah, usually. Usually the defense is a little bit ahead, but offense made some plays. We had some third down situations and they made some plays, but on the back end of that, the defense was tough to score on. When you are tough to score on you are going to win the scrimmage."




COMP's TAKE: I've covered several bad teams at MSU, several mediocre ones and a small handful of very good ones. Based on my selective memory, the very good teams had defenses that usually ruled the scrimmages, and held spring games to low-scoring battles. If you see a lot of yardage and pinball machine scoring in a scrimmage, it's not a good thing. Witness the Nichol-Cousins shootout in the 2009 spring game. Nichol and Cousins were pretty good, but the defense wasn't yet ready for prime time.




On other tight ends beyond Dion Sims:
DANTONIO "Andrew Gleichert is having a good spring. Derek Hoebing is in there and is a guy that is very functional. Denzel Drone has made the transition from defensive end to tight end and he is a guy that continues to work in there with the twos or the threes. So those are guys that have stepped forward. The young freshmen, they struggle a little bit with all of the multiple things that you do. That's normal. So we will see how far they can come.

"I would say those four guys (including Sims) are the four guys, and I would say Paul Lang is playing better. He really missed his entire freshman year. He is catching the ball and he is blocking better and he seems like he's a guy that is functional as well. He is 260 pounds and I think he can play himself into some playing time at some point."




COMP's TAKE: That part about Paul Lang might have been the most encouraging news of the day. Not long ago there were questions as to whether he would ever play football again. He's back, he looks good in the lobby, looks like a football player, runs like a player. Now we are hearing that he is "functional" from Dantonio. That's a great first step for Lang.

Just a few months ago, tight ends coach Dan Roushar told me that the coaches hoped for the best with Lang but couldn't really pencil him in for anything for the fall, couldn't depend on him, understandably. Now Lang is starting to earn some stripes. Not only is this good news for the program and the tight end talent pool, but also great news for Lang.

**

As for Hoebing, he's the biggest guy in the tight end stable at 6-7, 270. That should make him a meat-eating blocker at the least. For a guy his size, he has been a little slow to earn trust as a blocker at MSU, but he's only half way through his college eligibility and might be entering a developmental spurt.

He stalemated Shilique Calhoun twice on a pair of 4-yard runs early in the second half of the Green-White Game. Nothing great, but it was "functional," as Dantonio would say. Dan Roushar has indicated that Hoebing is showing signs of coming along as a point-of-attack blocker. MSU and the run game need it.





On punt returners in the scrimmage:
DANTONIO: "Well they didn't really get a chance to return them. We fair-caught them or sent them one way or the other a little bit. But I think Nick Hill is the guy back there right now. We will see how he responds as we continue to go. We punt every day and we do certain things every day so it is an ongoing process. We did run them down live, so we get an idea of who can get off of blocks and hold up and get off of things and do aspects of special teams."

On other true freshmen who may play, other than Demetrius Cox:
DANTONIO: "I think Demetrius is a guy that physically is ready to play. He plays a skill position so they usually are able to play a little faster. He has great attention to detail which sort of sets him apart amongst freshmen. He is firm and he plays extremely hard so he will be in the mix to see where he's at in terms of when he is getting on the field and all of that. But again, we aren't going to just take a guy's year. So he has another big week of practice. Things start to mount on players after one week but he has positioned himself well for the next phase of our summer practices.

"Beyond that I guess you would have to look at maybe Ezra Robinsion a little bit, maybe Jamal Lyles a little bit, we will probably play Riley Bullough on special teams. Those would be the guys that could possibly see action. On the offensive side of the ball the wide receivers have to continue to work in there."




COMP's TAKE: In speaking with Mike Tressel on Monday, the Michigan State linebackers coach said Lyles "really cranked it up" during the second practice in pads. Heavy-contact linebacking is Lyles' natural habitat and he's been raising eyebrows in that capacity. He is gaining regular reps in the two-deep. He isn't a full-fledged second stringer just yet, but if and when there are a few bumps and bruises, this guy Lyles has been able to plug in and make some noise, according to Tressel.

Also, I have to give a helmet sticker to Rivals.com Midwestern analyst Josh Helmholdt for recommending a fourth star for Lyles last fall. And credit Michigan State with ramping up its interest in him after he showed out at the Sound Mind Sound Body Camp in June of 2011. Lyles just got bigger, stronger and more impressive during the pads and armor portion of his high school senior season.





Did the scrimmage uncover anything that needs major attention or is everything manageable?
DANTONIO: "Everything is manageable. I think we are where we thought we would be. Guys are competing. We have some good players on both sides of the ball, so sometimes you are going to win and sometimes you are going to lose that situation. So as a head coach you sit there and try to play both ends of the stick a little bit."

Were you pleased with the physicality?
DANTONIO: "Yeah I was happy with the physicality. We ran the ball. We put them in situations where they had to run the ball at the point of attack, and I think we played very firm up there. I was very pleased with that."

More on Riley Bullough possibly seeing action this year:
DANTONIO: "He would be a special teams guys for us, but we have to consider those things and find out how many special teams he would be on. If you are on three or four of them, then I think it's worth it. If you are one of them then I don't think it's worth it unless you are a particular guy like, for example, Taybor Pepper. Taybor Pepper is going to play. He has been very good as a snapper."




COMP's TAKE: Dantonio says Pepper's snaps are very good, but he's a slim fit guy, as just a true frosh teen-ager. Mark Staten, who coaches protections, indicated that they will need to put a couple of big-butt guys next to Pepper to help eat some vacant space in the a-gaps. "There are ways to coach around that," Dantonio said of Pepper's 190-pound frame.

Meanwhile, field goal unit coach Mark Staten has indicated that junior Nate Klatt has been getting some reps with the ones as a short snapper. Klatt is coming off a fine Green-White Game and appears to be enthusiastic about the possibility of contributing in this important but often-overlooked area.

**

As for Bullough, it's hard to argue with Dantonio's logic. If Bullough proves to be hell on wheels for three or four special forces units then it might be hard to keep him off the field. MSU puts a lot of importance on limiting return yardage. During Sunday's scrimmage, Bullough must have been one of the guys who did a good job of getting off of blocks on the coverage units. Is that enough to burn a redshirt? Coaches will weigh that throughout September.

Michigan State has one of the deepest rosters in the Big Ten. The Spartans are especially deep at linebacker, with guys like Steve Gardiner, Taiwan Jones, TyQuan Hammock and Kyler Elsworth having lowered some booms on coverage units, with guys like Ed Davis and Darien Harris undoubtedly equipped in this area as well. So if Bullough continues to get consideration to earn special teams roles over some of those guys then, yes, he must be pretty good at it.

Good is good, and Dantonio puts good on the field.





The three players who led the defense in tackles on Sunday were second-string linebackers in Ed Davis, Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris. What about that, coach?
"Ed Davis is playing very well. He is active. He slips people. I think that Darien Harris has picked up and played well. Kyler Elsworth has run with the twos at Mike a little bit. Jamal Lyles has been in and out at the threes and testing the waters with the twos. Our ones played very well. We held Chris Norman out and let Taiwan Jones play with the ones and he played very, very well. He fit correctly on every aspect of it and was very active. So I was very pleased with him. And you have Denicos and Max in there.

"We have some guys. We just have to continue to bring it along and fix the little things that are problems for us."




COMP's TAKE: Second-string defenders are often going to put up more numbers than first-stringers, simply because they aren't forcing as many three-and-outs as the first-string defense. That's part of the reason that Davis and Harris can put up more numbers than a Denicos Allen or a Max Bullough in a scrimmage. HOWEVER, Taiwan Jones put up his numbers with the ones.

By all indications from coaches, Jones has been a hammer this August. Go back and watch the lick he put on Nick Hill on the second play of the third quarter in the Green-White Game and that will give you an idea of the type of fly-and-hit power he packs. Word from coaches is that he has just picked it up from there.

Harris edged ahead of Jones on the depth chart by the end of last spring. But Jones has been just a bit better than Harris this month, according to Tressel. That's a healthy competition that is eventually going to turn both players into standouts. If necessary, Jones can eventually move from 'star' to Sam, thereby creating room for them to play together, theoretically, in the future.

Their competition/race to break into the playing group is reminiscent of the Mark Dell vs. B.J. Cunningham competition of 2007, and even Lemar Marshall vs Aric Morris in 1996. In both cases, one of the two had to wait to become a starter while the other led the way. But all four guys eventually became starters, stars, and wound up in the NFL. Marshall and Morris, by the way, were not part of the same recruiting class, but a decision was made to burn Morris's redshirt and put them in the same year of eligibility.





Is the offense efficient enough for you?
DANTONIO: "I think you always want to win the situation. I wouldn't be happy coming in here saying they scored six or seven touchdowns, nor am I happy if we don't score one. But it does point to where we are defensively. We played well in coverage down the field and you have to thread it in there, and you have to make the catch, and you have to get open. Some of those things took place. And you have to throw between big people. All of those things are positives on the defensive side of the ball but you see enough on offense that there are a lot of positives that you can build with there as well. But offense is a little bit different in terms of just catching up."

On Bennie Fowler:
DANTONIO: "I thought Bennie played well, caught the ball well. He had a great catch down the field. He looked good; he looked very good."




COMP's TAKE: Sounds good.




On true freshman Tyler O'Connor:
DANTONIO: "I think Ty is ahead of the curve in terms of a freshman quarterback. He has great leadership in the huddle. He knows what's going on. He continues to learn. He has attention to detail. He is going to be a very good quarterback here in the future. I think [/db]Connor Cook[/db] is still ahead of him. I think Connor did some good things as well so right now I think we have three very good quarterbacks, but certainly Tyler can make things happen. He has a strong arm and he has a knack of making plays."




COMP's TAKE: O'Connor reminded me of former Northwestern swashbuckler Dan Persa with his high school film. O'Connor sold me even more on his play-making ability with his freelance stop, whirl-and-throw TD pass early in the Ohio North-South Game, and his shoulder-lowering TD run late in the Big 33 earlier this summer. He was team MVP of both games. Gamer.

It's interesting that O'Connor's style is quite a bit different from that of redshirt freshman, second-string QB Connor Cook. Cook can run around a little bit too, but Cook is more of a bigger, stronger, pure pocket guy. It will be interesting to see how MSU utilizes and possibly accentuates O'Connor's contrasting feel for the position in the future.


Walk-on WR Tres Barksdale had a TD catch in the scrimmage. Is he making as big of an impact as it seems?
DANTONIO: "Well we went threes versus threes, so until he gets in there with the ones or the twos you really don't know. But he makes catches down the field. He knows where to line up. He knows where to go on the routes and he has been impressive because he has made plays. There has not been a practice that has gone by when he has not make plays for us."




COMP's TAKE: You guys who have subscribed to this site for a while know what I'm going to say about this. This is example number 529, at least, of an Ohio guy showing up just a bit more ready for the practice field than guys from other states. Nothing against Michiganders and the rest, but the importance of high school football in the towns throughout Ohio and the coaching that they receive seems to yield - I don't know what to call it - maybe a little bit more football I.Q. and full-contact sharpness. If you're coming out of the state of Ohio, and you meet all of MSU's checks and evaluations, as a scholarship guy or walk-on, then just go ahead and throw another star on the kid's recruiting bio, as far as I'm concerned.

(By the way, I just made that 529 number up. But the examples are too many to count at this point).


Who are some of the redshirt freshmen who are stepping up and taking advantage of that redshirt year?
DANTONIO: "Shilique Calhoun is a guy that we have talked about a lot at defensive end. Joel Heath is another guy. Lawrence Thomas is another guy. Brandon Clemons and Damon Knox, those guys look very, very good. James Kittredge is a guy that transferred in here and sat last year, so he is another guy. So all of those guys are young players. Micajah Reynolds has done some nice things as well on the defensive line, so that's been impressive to me because this is the first time that he has shown, that he has stood out, so that's a positive. He just needs to continue doing that.

"On the offensive side of the ball, Jack Allen is a guy that is running with the ones because Tread (Blake Treadwell) is down right now. He has been impressive. A.J. Sims has looked good."




COMP's TAKE: After the first couple of days of August camp, Micajah Reynolds became my pick-to-click among non-first stringers to rise in the depth chart this fall. This is the first time he has been able to concentrate on one position at MSU for more than six straight months.

We are no longer allowed to comment on specific evaluations that we see in practice, but suffice it to say that I liked the way he looked in the Green-White Game (example: His legit TFL in fending off a reach block attempt by Chris McDonald and getting to Jeremy Langford for a loss of 2 on a zone play to the left in the third quarter).


Are there any lessons from 2009 when you had to replace Brian Hoyer and Javon Ringer?
DANTONIO: "2009 was a season when we did not have the depth that we have now. I think right now we have more depth, more solid depth overall on the defense at every position, and the offensive line certainly has more depth. And even at tailback, in 2009 we came in with no returning tailbacks. We have two that have a lot of experience in Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper and even Nick Hill has played a lot with us. So we have three guys that have been on the field with us. We didn't have that in '09. So that's a big difference.

"At wide receiver, you can probably compare it a little bit to '08 because they are young like that but in '08 we were fine with those guys. So they will learn on the move and they have a lot of ability. But it will be gameday soon enough."




COMP's TAKE: First of all, that was a quality questions by one of our colleagues in the press corps.

Secondly, running backs coach Brad Salem said during an interview with SpartanMag.com's Gillian Van Stratt and others on Monday that Caper gave the offense "exactly" what they wanted from him in the scrimmage.

Caper might not have put up pretty numbers, but they like the physicality that he showed as a ball carrier. Remember that Caper is proven in pass protection. It would be a nice boost if he is able to continue to play with physicality and avoid the injury bug that has bothered him in each of the past two seasons. Few are expecting it, but some of this shake and quake from Caper this year would spice up the offense considerably.





Have the wide outs who have been around for a while separated themselves a little bit?
DANTONIO: "Yeah, they have. They know more. They know how to get off certain aspects of coverage a little better. I've been impressed with Bennie; he has had a good summer camp. Tony Lippett shows well, and Keith Mumphery. You continue to wait for DeAnthony Arnett to get to where he really knows everything because he is still a new player; we have to remember that, even though we want him to advance rapidly. But those are some guys right off the top of my head.

"Jeremy Langford is having a good summer camp. He is a guy that I continually sort of forget about because he was a running back (and cornerback) but he has put himself in a situation where he may run with the ones as well."




COMP's TAKE: I love the firepower of the true freshman wide outs, but like I said during Monday's V-Cast, I'm guessing that MSU has more than enough to choose from in looking at the top six non-rookies at WR in Fowler, Lippett, Mumphery, Arnett, Langford, and Andre Sims, who has continued to impress according to WRs coach Terry Samuel.




On the new scoreboards at Spartan Stadium, did you notice them during the scrimmage on Sunday, coach?
DANTONIO: "Early on when you walk in, you notice them and you are sort of overwhelmed with the size of them. But after you start playing or coaching - because they weren't on - you don't have a tendency to look at them. I'm sure if they were on and it was loud it would be different.

"But we put noise on and try to make it as game-like as possible."



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