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Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Big Ten Q&A: Mark Dantonio, Part II

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. For Part I, click here.

Toward the end of last year, you had some defensive linemen emerge, guys like [Jerel] Worthy and [Blake] Treadwell. Who are you excited about up there?

Mark Dantonio: We got two great young players last year in Treadwell and Worthy playing pretty well. They'll only get better, although Worthy's a bit jammed up because of an injury. At defensive end, Tyler Hoover's a guy who will begin to play more and better. He's going into his third year now, he's 6-foot-6, 265, he's an outstanding athlete. Denzel Drone, Corey Freeman, Colin Neely comes back with a lot of time under his belt. And Kevin Pickelman, he's up to 280 pounds now, and he's going to have an outstanding spring. Really, we've got 13 players back on defense with substantial time as a starter at one point in time. And 13 on offense who have started at one point in time. We do have players back, but we have to solidify depth issues.

How about the secondary? You lost a couple guys there, but you have quite a few who have played. How does that unit need to improve?

MD: We have four guys back with plenty of experience. They've all started at one point in time, whether it was [Trenton] Robinson or [Chris L.] Rucker or Marcus Hyde or Johnny Adams. So that gives us a nucleus on which to build. And then guys like Jairus Jones are going to come in and play, and some of our young freshmen, Dana Dixon. We need to get better at the back end. We need to get better as a football team.

When you talk about defense, you talk about points scored, and usually you look at third-down efficiency, how you play in the red zone, and turnovers. When you look at us, we were No. 2 in the conference in sacks [35]. Third-and-long, we were fine, 75-80 percent. But third-and-short and third-and-medium is where we fell down. We didn't play well enough in the red zone, and then we didn't come up with enough turnovers. So that's where it starts to look you in the face statistically. I'm not that concerned with the yards, as long as it doesn't lead to touchdowns. You never know where those yards come from. But you need to get off the field on third down, you need to have turnovers, you need to play well in the red zone, and we'll work to correct that.

Pass defense, it's a total team thing, so you need to be able to transition from the defensive line, from playing the run to stopping the pass, to create a pass rush in a four-man scheme. Our linebackers also have to play better. On the flip side of it, we were 25th in the nation versus the run, and that's something we can build on.

Greg Jones, in talking about why he was coming back, mentioned how he wants to improve in pass coverage. Are there things you can see him doing to be more involved there?

MD: He made a statement for our football team, not just as a player but as a captain, as a team member, being unselfish and coming back here. Everyone always can improve. Certainly I can improve. So when you're in the same place in the same system, you always look for major improvement. Greg's a pass rusher, too. He had 9.5 sacks, so you can't negate that aspect of our defensive football team, but he will become better at the [middle] linebacker, having been full time in there last year. And that's the exciting thing. He provides a catalyst for our defense, and we can play around him.

I wanted to ask you about the offensive line. It's tough when you lose players like Rocco Cironi and Joel Nitchman. How do you see that group shaping up? And also Arthur Ray, how is he progressing? Will he be able to play?


MD: Arthur is able to run, he's able to jog, he's able to do some drills on his own. He's able to, at this point in time, lead a normal life, and that's a tremendous thing for a young man who has been on crutches for the last year and three quarters. His bone is healing. He hopes to play in the near future, within maybe a year. We'll have to petition the Big Ten office for that. We would have room for that at this point, but that's something the doctors have to decide on, and his family. But me, personally, and our entire football staff and team, are thrilled to have Arthur out there every single day, just seeing him walk and catch a ball and run around. He's reconditioning himself to be a football player. Where that takes him? Time will tell. But I can look at him now and say, 'There is a possibility.' So we'll have to make that decision probably next spring at this time.

And then just with the offensive line as a whole, what's your outlook there?

MD: Offensive line and kicker are the two areas where we have to develop the most. We have a kicker with no experience back. [Dan] Conroy kicked one field goal [in 2009], but for the most part, it's been [Brett] Swenson's job for four years. So Kevin Muma and Conroy will compete for that, and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out. Offensive line wise, we have progressed and we have been able to take the past program's offensive linemen and they've been very, very productive for us. Joel Foreman has been the only guy that we've recruited that we've used extensively last year, although D.J. Young is a guy who came on with us. So two guys. But for the most part, Cironi, [Brendon] Moss, Nitchman, they were the last staff's young people.

So it's time now for our guys. Two of our guys have three years in, four others have two years in, and then we have some guys that have one year in. They have to grow up, they have to get experience and that experience has to show in spring, fall camp and then through our first couple games. That will be a work in progress, but I do think we have talent at that position. There's so many moving parts there that they have to understand what to do and do it at a high rate of speed.