Spring practice is about to get under way at Michigan State, and four players convicted in last year's residence hall assault have been reinstated to the team.
Head coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday that cornerback Chris L. Rucker, offensive linemen J'Michael Deane and wide receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, all of whom received probation and community service after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault, are back on the team. Wide receivers Donald Spencer and Chris D. Rucker, suspended for being present at the Nov. 22 incident but never charged, also are back for the spring.
Dantonio confirmed that wide receiver Myles White and nose tackle Oren Wilson will transfer. White was sentenced Monday to probation and community service, and Wilson faces sentencing March 31. The status of wide receiver Fred Smith, sentenced Friday to five days in jail plus probation and community service, will be determined when his legal issues are over. Eleven current or former players pleaded guilty in the incident, and six -- White, Wilson, Ashton Leggett, Jamiihr Williams, Glenn Winston and Roderick Jenrette -- are no longer with the program.
I fully expected reinstatement for Cunningham, Dell, Deane and Chris L. Rucker, who had no prior indiscretions. White and Wilson deserved heavier punishment, potentially dismissal from the team, because their involvement in the assault didn't come to light until January. Wilson even played in the Alamo Bowl, a privilege he didn't deserve. But it's all moot now as both players will be transferring.
I spoke with Dantonio moments ago, and while I'll have a two-part Q&A with the coach this afternoon and Wednesday, a few notes and quotes for now.
Dantonio, on the off-field problems Michigan State has faced: "You’re going to fall down at times. We have the same problems that society has in a lot of ways, and because we live in a fishbowl a little bit, there's going to be higher consequences, more public scrutiny and things of that nature. But you do always have to believe in your young people. That helps them grow, and that’s what we’ll do."
During the winter, Dantonio put a greater emphasis on the team's Unity Council and held 90-minute weekly seminars for players that featured guest speakers, including former players and a criminal justice professor. "We talked about the law, talked about our players’ rights, talked about consequences," Dantonio said. "When you make a decision, it’s not a quick fix judiciously. Our players need to understand that. It’s not over and done with when you do make a mistake. We're just trying to educate and be proactive, and I think it draws our team together."
The big personnel news of the day is Keith Nichol's move from quarterback to wide receiver. Nichol remains an option at quarterback, but with greater depth behind Kirk Cousins this spring, he has a better chance to make big contributions at receiver. Nichol played some wideout during the Alamo Bowl but will spend much more time there this spring. Dantonio said Cousins has earned the starter's tag entering the spring after a solid sophomore season. Nichol is listed as both a first-team wide receiver and a second-string quarterback on the team's spring depth chart. "Keith is an outstanding athlete," Dantonio said. "He's played quarterback for us and he should continue to be thought of in that light somewhat. He would always be able to move back in there. ... But I also think that he can be an outstanding wide receiver, as proven in bowl practice. ... He needs to get on the football field for us."
Dantonio identified offensive line and kicker as the two most critical areas to develop in spring ball. The Spartans lose three starters on the offensive line, including standout center Joel Nitchman, as well as first-team All-Big Ten kicker Brett Swenson.
Some wonderful news about Spartans offensive lineman Arthur Ray Jr., who has kept his dream of playing football alive after battling bone cancer. Ray is finally off crutches and able to run and do individual drills. "His bone is healing," Dantonio said. "He hopes to play in the near future, within maybe a year. We'll have to petition for that. We would have room for [Ray on the roster]. That's something the doctors have to decide on. Me, personally, and our entire football staff, are thrilled to have Arthur out there every single day. ... I can look at him now and say there is a possibility [of him playing]." There are plenty of folks rooting for Ray, myself included.
Defensive end David Rolf is transferring to be closer to his family. Defensive tackle Cameron Jude's status is unclear as he works through academic and personal issues.
Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy doesn't appear on the spring depth chart because he underwent offseason shoulder surgery and will be limited in practice