Big Ten: Dana Dixon

Mark Dantonio acknowledges Michigan State has some momentum right now. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. They come off of a Legends division title and could enter the season as the Big Ten favorite. But they also lose a lot of star power from the 2011 team, namely quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and three-time captain, and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans have won 11 games in each of the last two seasons, but what about 2012?
Can Michigan State be a better team in 2012, or will the Spartans backslide in their effort to reload?

"There were questions as we left 2010," Dantonio said. "Can we replace Greg Jones and Eric Gordon? Could we replace our punter, Aaron Bates, or [wide receiver] Mark Dell? We were able to do that and progress, so there are great possibilities. Our football team is poised for that, but at the same time we need to guard against being complacent and understand we’re going to be judged game-to-game.

"It's important we bring our energy with us in everything we do, but there's no question we have confidence. There's no question we have continuity. We've built a great foundation to springboard us forward."

The next phase begins Tuesday, as Michigan State kicks off spring practice in East Lansing.

Dantonio discussed the spring and the future with ESPN.com earlier this week.

Some notes:

  • Dantonio is "very optimistic" the NCAA will approve wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett to play this coming season. Arnett transferred from Tennessee to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father in Flint, Mich. He appeared in 12 games for the Vols in 2011 and had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns. "It was a hardship because his father is ill," Dantonio said. "DeAnthony had success at Tennessee. He was happy at Tennessee. He felt like he needed to come home to be near his family. Every Friday afternoon he goes home. He's a great young man, and he cares deeply about his family and wants to be close to them and wants them to have the opportunity to see him play as well." The NCAA recently granted a waiver for Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer, to play immediately at Notre Dame. Carlisle transferred to be closer to his father, who took a position in Purdue's athletic department. Arnett is eligible to practice this spring for the Spartans.
  • If Arnett receives his waiver, he'll provide a big boost to a position that Dantonio calls the "most critical" to replenish. Michigan State loses its top three receivers -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- from 2011. The Spartans need to get Bennie Fowler and Juwan Ceasar healthy and have some immediate contributions from their incoming freshmen.
  • Michigan State has good depth at defensive end, so Denzel Drone will move to tight end, at least for the start of spring ball. Drone has made six starts at defensive end in his first two seasons and has recorded 28 tackles, five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He played a bit of tight end as a high school senior. "We can at least look at that position move in the first two weeks," Dantonio said. "He's played enough defensive end that he can go back over there and be a co-starter for us, but I think we need to put our best football players on the field, and if he can be one of those top 11 players, 12 players, 13, 14 players on offense, then we'll leave him there. If not, he'll be one of those top 14 players on defense." In another move, defensive back Dana Dixon will practice at wide receiver this spring but could return to the secondary "in a heartbeat," Dantonio said.
  • Defensive tackle will be a fascinating position to watch this spring as Michigan State looks to replace Worthy. Tyler Hoover, a starting defensive end in 2010 who missed all of last season with injury, will move inside this spring. Hoover is up to 297 pounds, Dantonio said. The Spartans also will audition a host of redshirt freshman defensive tackles and sophomore James Kittredge, a transfer from Vanderbilt.
  • Michigan State redshirted 19 players last season, a few more than normal, and the spring will provide a proving ground for several of them. Dantonio listed defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Lawrence Thomas, safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Trae Waynes as freshmen who could have played in the latter part of last season.
  • The Spartans are one of only four Big Ten teams to return their entire coaching staff from the previous season. It wasn't easy, as other teams made runs at both Michigan State coordinators, Pat Narduzzi and Dan Roushar, but both men stayed, in part because the school made a stronger financial commitment. "It was natural to me to be very concerned we would lose a coach or two," Dantonio said. "But it gives you a feeling that you’re doing things right here and there's a good working environment. Obviously, all of our guys, we’re going to do everything we can do to hold onto them, and some of that is financially-based."
  • Dantonio on quarterback Andrew Maxwell: "Very patient young man, as evidenced by him sitting here and waiting for his opportunity. Very poised, extremely strong arm, very athletic, he was a 6-7 high jumper in high school. He's got size. He’s got great intelligence. He's got a great demeanor among his teammates. The one thing he's missing right now is that experience of going out and doing it on game day on a consistent basis. Kirk always stayed the course and was never knocked out of a football game, so Andrew never had to take the reins of our football team in a critical situation. That's coming for him."
  • In terms of leadership, Dantonio said Maxwell's teammates already have accepted him in his new role. Dantonio also listed linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, offensive lineman Chris McDonald and running back Larry Caper as potential team leaders in 2012.
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.

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