- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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A Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU took the sting off of a mostly disappointing season for Michigan State. Picked by many (ahem) to win the Big Ten, the Spartans went 7-6, dropping five games by a total of 13 points, including all four Big Ten home contests. Mark Dantonio's squad resumes its primary mission -- to claim a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance -- when it returns to the practice field Tuesday. Dantonio shuffled his offensive staff after coordinator Dan Roushar left for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, and Michigan State will have competition at quarterback, running back and other positions. The defense once again looks very good but needs to fill some gaps.
ESPN.com caught up with Dantonio this week to talk spring ball.
What are some of your primary objectives for the spring?
Mark Dantonio: The first thing we have to do is address where we're at and look forward. We have a new staff member on each side of the ball, and there's no question that we can improve on both sides of the ball. With that being said, there's a lot of experience coming back. There are areas every football team needs to address. Some of that is concept-based. We're going to try new things and move from there. Our objectives will be to get out of there without getting people hurt and move forward as a program, allow our young players, the guys who redshirted, to make a move on the depth chart and then solidify our No. 1s.
What will be different offensively with Dave [Warner] the lead play-caller and Jim [Bollman] coming in from the outside?
MD: Everybody is unique with their thought process, so you can promote from within or bring from the outside, and there's going to be some difference. With the addition of Jim Bollman, you bring in a guy who has experience at Michigan State (he was a Spartans assistant from 1995-97), not just experience offensively. Dave already knows what we do. But that's going to bring new ideas into what we're doing. Brad Salem, he'll be working with the quarterbacks, so it's a little bit of change. Mark Staten will still be with the offensive line and Terry Samuel will be with the wide receivers. There is change. We have a base of where we're at, and we'll move from there. It's not like we're reinventing the wheel. We have a base, and we need to grow from that base to improve.
What areas need to be improved on that side of the ball?
MD: When you look at where we were at last year, we need to improve in the red zone, obviously. We have to catch the ball, protect the quarterback more consistently. But we've got to score touchdowns in the red zone. We had too many field-goal attempts. We had 32. So it's not that we're not getting down there. We're getting down there and stalling out. We're going to work toward that. And then we've got to do some things conceptually that takes you forward.
We need change. There's no question we need some change in some areas, but there's also a lot of good things we've done. We've won a lot of football games here. When you look at last season, we were so close in so many different areas from having another 10-, 11-win season.
You've had a quarterback coach in the past, but neither coordinator is going to be coaching that position directly. How much do you expect the coordinators to work with the quarterbacks?
MD: Our coordinators have always coached quarterbacks, so they have a good handle on how to coach the quarterback, whether it was Don Treadwell or Roushar, they'd both been quarterback coaches in the past. So they were running along side our quarterback in terms of everything. Dave Warner will meet with the quarterbacks outside the classroom setting as well, so that consistency will remain with him, but at the same time, there will be freshness at that position. Everybody does it a different way. I want our coordinator to coach as many different people individually as he can. I don't want him in a group with just three or four guys.
How would you describe the quarterback position entering the season? Is it a competition?
MD: Andrew [Maxwell's] got a year of experience under his belt. I'm sure he'd like to have back some plays, no question about that, but experience is so valuable. I think Connor Cook took a big step in the bowl game. He needs to be more consistent. Tyler O'Connor's a guy we redshirted last year, and he's going to be exciting to watch in the spring. And then you've got a true freshman coming in with Damion Terry, who is extremely talented. With all that being said, Maxwell will enter the spring [as the starter]. We're going to offer opportunities to everybody, but he's our No. 1 quarterback based on his leadership, based on his experience. Obviously we need to get better, but I'll stand behind him and give people equal opportunities, all of them.
Why are you still confident in Andrew, and what do you want to see out of him?
MD: He's a proven commodity in his value as a person. His leadership value, him getting us in the right play, his knowledge of the system. He just needs to create more when things have broken down. But he's a great person. We're all going to have some storms that we've got to work through, and it's important that people are [supporting] us through those storms. Quarterback is an extremely critical position. When things break down, everybody looks to the quarterback. The head coach, the offensive coordinator, the quarterback, they get the brunt of it when things don't work quite right.
You lose an extremely productive player [Le'Veon Bell] at running back. Who do you look for to step up there this spring?
MD: We've got three guys in Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins, guys we're going to be looking at initially, and then you've got three [incoming freshmen]. Those guys will have a lot of opportunities for a lot of touches this spring. Our last three tailbacks have been drafted. Two of them have been All-Americans, and the other was All-Big Ten. So we have a tradition there at this point in what we've done here, and that tradition needs to continue. Somebody needs to take control of that position. Nick Hill will start and he could be a very exciting runner. Beyond that, the guys that are coming in, we've played freshmen in the past, so there will be opportunities for them, too.
The receivers took a lot of heat last season. How do you feel about that group entering the spring?
MD: We had an inexperienced group last year. We lost 95 percent of our receiving yards [from 2011], had some great players leave like Keshawn Martin and [B.J.] Cunningham. Those guys got experience last year. We saw Bennie Fowler rise to the top and play much more consistently, as well as [Aaron Burbridge], who has had some great games as a true freshman. DeAnthony Arnett needs to take a big step, as well as Macgarrett Kings, and you've got guys like Tony Lippett and Monty Madaris. I feel there's no question we've got talent at the wide receiver position, but that talent has to make tough plays on the field.
What are you looking for from the offensive line this spring?
MD: Very, very good. We have seven guys with starting experience back. All seven of those guys are good players. We have a couple guys miss spring because they're coming off of some surgeries, shoulder surgeries, but I feel very good about our offensive line. It should be a strength of our offense. We've got people, we've got numbers at that position. We have to continue to use them to our advantage.
Will there be any position switches?
MD: Yeah, we'll move some guys around. LT [Lawrence Thomas] will start out on defense for us, but he can definitely move back to the offensive side. We'll try some things with certain guys, but it will be nothing that makes you say, "Whoa."
We haven't talked much about the defense but what are you looking for from that unit, especially from a leadership standpoint?
MD: If you look at our defense, we were ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in five different categories last year. We bring back quite a few players defensively, and I'm very excited about the guys we redshirted as well, especially in the secondary and at linebacker. Some of those guys will make a difference. It's an exciting time to play on our defense. The last two years, we've been the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten, without question, and we're looking forward to having that opportunity again. I think you win with defense, and we've done some good things, but we need to continue to be consistent, we need to play better at the end of the game, and understand that's where we need to get better.
We've got guys like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis' back, Max Bullough's back, Denicos Allen, Marcus Rush, Shilique Calhoun, Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds are both back and they should be outstanding as well. We've got the bulk of our guys back. Obviously, we lose William Gholston, but we've got some guys like Joel Heath. I'm very excited about our young players, [Lawrence] Thomas and those types of guys.