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Checking in with ... Mark Dantonio, Part I

8/24/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mark Dantonio made his first season at Michigan State about respect. Now he's looking for results.

After the Spartans reached a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, the bar has been raised both inside and outside the program. Michigan State is the consensus pick to be the Big Ten's surprise team this fall. The team returns running back Javon Ringer, quarterback Brian Hoyer and linebacker Greg Jones, but Dantonio is the biggest reason for optimism. He has elevated the demands for performance and embraced the culture in East Lansing, playing up the Michigan rivalry and the need to compete with other elite teams. The Spartans' 2009 recruiting class in shaping up to be one of the Big Ten's best, and the momentum should continue with the Skandalaris Football Center, the program's new $15.5 million facility, which opened this week.

The arrow is pointing up, but Dantonio recognizes Michigan State's recent struggles to sustain success and the challenges that await his team this fall. Dantonio took some time to discuss the team's outlook, the new facility and the importance of the Michigan game.

What were your impressions of the preseason?

Mark Dantonio: We have some young players that will play this year, some freshmen. We're a relatively young team. We have really 13 seniors on our team, 10 recruited guys, 13 total with guys that have earned scholarships. With that said, we've got experience. We can put people on the field that have started at one time or another probably 11 out of 11 on defense and like 10 of 11 on offense. Where our youth shows is in our depth, like most football teams. But we've had a good summer camp and we're ready to focus on Cal, which is a huge challenge for us.

You guys have been in the new facility for a little while, opened it this week officially. How beneficial has that been for you and your staff?

MD: It's been great. First of all, it's very functional in terms of teaching and all the different things we have to do. It's very user-friendly. The technology is cutting edge. As far as the look of it, it gives you that feeling that when a recruit comes or when somebody visits, it's a first-class facility and it speaks of the past. It sort of links the present with the past and sort of points to the future a little bit. Everything that we tried to accomplish is being done in terms of the way the building's set up.

What's your favorite feature?

MD: I like our team meeting room, the way it's set up. You actually can hit the computer screen and a big wall goes down in the middle of it. It seals it off so that you have the offense's and the defense's meeting room. Theater-style seating and the acoustics in it, it's a great sound system and everything. And then you can go directly from those rooms into the [position] meeting rooms. They don't go out into a hallway and then move to their meeting rooms. They leave that room and it would almost be like a big house with big closets off of that room. So from a time-efficiency standpoint, it's very good. There's a message when you come in the meeting room, a message about Michigan State football and then you walk out of it and in the hallway, you see the NFL area and then the hall of history and everything and there's direct access to the locker room, which is all very quick. You can be in and out of the meeting room and the locker room in literally seconds.

How does the facility impact you and your future and the program's future?

MD: Long-term, it's going to send a message to recruits that the resources are here for them to be successful. When you look at any program, you have to ask yourself, do they have the resources available to make you a better football player? We have stability in our coaching, we have continuity in our staff right now, which makes it very good for us. We have a facility that is first class and a facility that has been done in a year and a half, which includes an addition to the weight room that takes it to 16,000 square feet and a player's lounge in addition to this that will also be state of the art that will be done probably by the end of next spring. The weight room will be done in October. Those are the first three phases and then we'll move to stage 4 and 5, and financially, the resources are already there to do those two other avenues, which would probably be the locker room and the training room.

Just getting back to the team, you mentioned the depth being young, but you have some wide receivers in [Keshawn] Martin and [Fred] Smith. How have they been in camp and which freshmen do you expect to play this fall?

MD: They've done a nice job. When you talk about our receivers, last year at this time, it was, 'Who are our receivers?' We had a true freshman starting for us in [Mark] Dell. He's gotten better. And then we had Devin Thomas, who caught six passes in [2006] and responded with 79. So conceptually, we'll be able to get the ball to people. We'll probably do it a little bit by committee. B.J. Cunningham is a redshirt freshman, he's going to be an outstanding player for us. Fred Smith and Keshawn are true freshmen. We've got a couple other young guys that will provide added depth there. Keshawn looks to be a great player in the making. As far as our [true] freshmen, we've recruited five offensive linemen, they don't play too early, but they're all very good players. Keith Nichol, who initially went to Oklahoma, and Kirk Cousins, they're two quarterbacks that will help immediately in the future. Obviously, Nichol has to sit out a year. We've got a couple of good tailbacks. Defensively, a couple nice corners and a big-time safety, I think, and a couple nice linebackers. We only brought 19, 20 guys in. They're all going to be good players, they're just young. We had a lot of freshmen we redshirted last season, so it's going to be the depth as much as anything.

Are you still shuffling at bit at linebacker, figuring out where to put Greg [Jones], or is that set?

MD: No, we are. He's played a variety of positions for us this summer. He even lined up a little bit at defensive end. He makes plays wherever we put him, and it really depends on how everybody else plays. It's not so much where he's playing because he's been productive at every place. It's really a luxury to have him be able play these positions. We experimented in bowl practice last year with him at [middle] linebacker, so it's been quite a while since we've done it. We did it this spring and we've done it again this summer, so we've moved him around a little bit. We play around him, but there are other guys. Eric Gordon started for us a lot last year, an outstanding player and he was a redshirt freshman. So I feel good about it.

What is the aspect you'd like to see improve the most on defense? What is your top message to that unit?

MD: We had 40 sacks last year, which is the third most in Michigan State history. But we have to be a little bit more consistent. There's so many different offenses that you play week to week, and by knowing things conceptually a little bit better, you can transition from offense to offense every week. That's what we have to do. Last year was our first year here, so conceptually, we made some mistakes. We also have to make play on the ball when we have a chance, whether it's a deep ball or a tackle in space. Some of that's physical. We have to continue to emphasize those things physically, but conceptually, just in terms of knowing the defense and how it fits together, we continue to work our plan. Our players, as they get older and they're in the system, they get better and better in it.