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Spartans flex versatility at pro day

3/19/2015

When Mark Dantonio stuck Tony Lippett, the Big Ten’s receiver of the year, in his defense’s starting lineup last November, he did it for a couple reasons. Lippett’s size and tracking ability helped seal a gap at Michigan State’s vulnerable cornerback position, but Dantonio wasn’t blind to the fact that he was also giving his all-conference receiver a boost in the eyes of NFL scouts.

 Lippett worked at both receiver and cornerback again Wednesday at Michigan State’s pro day. He was one of a handful of Spartans who performed drills at more than one position for the dozens of scouts, coaches and general managers in East Lansing. The well-attended event gave them a chance to show off the breed of versatile players that have made the Spartans a consistent national power.

“It just goes to show what kind of athletes Coach D brings into this program,” said Marcus Rush, who worked out at linebacker Wednesday after starting all 53 of his college games on the defensive line. “You’ve got guys like Lippett and [LB-turned-DB] Mylan Hicks and myself going from end to linebacker. It’s just a matter of what kind of players he’s bringing in. We’re athletes willing to play at any position.”

Dantonio said the explanation for all the multi-functional players on his roster is simple.

“We’re always looking for good football players,” he said.

Lippett certainly fits that description. His conference-leading 1,198 receiving yards last season showed his ability on offense. There’s very little tape of how much he can help on defense, but a 6-foot-3 corner with decent speed and good hands is an attractive possibility. He said he’s leaning “60-40” toward playing wide receiver if he has his choice, but wanted to show scouts that he was willing and able to do both.

Footwork on defense was Lippett’s main focus in the month he spent training between the NFL combine and this week’s workout. Dantonio said he had several NFL teams asking him about Lippett’s potential at corner. The ability for a player to develop on both sides of the ball is a plus for pro teams that have to find creative ways to fill out their 53-man rosters.

“I know a lot more at wide receiver than I do at corner,” he said. “This is the time for me to embrace corner as well. I can learn a lot on that side too and probably be one of the dominant ones on each side of the ball. That’s my goal. I try to embrace it all.”

 Lippett’s teammates, such as Rush and running back Jeremy Langford, also had a chance to show their versatility to scouts Wednesday. Langford spent time at cornerback and wide receiver before settling as the team’s top running back in each of the past two seasons. He tried to showcase his ability as a pass-catcher by running routes at pro day.

“The NFL is a passing league now,” Langford said. “They want to see running backs [who] can be a three-down back and catch the ball out of the backfield. That was something I really wanted to show.”

Rush, who didn’t get an invite to the Indianapolis combine, spent his winter in California working out with former Spartan middle linebacker Max Bullough. Rush said he wanted to show scouts that he could flip his hips like a linebacker and drop into pass coverage -- something he rarely, if ever, had a chance to do in college.

The 247-pounder sees himself as an option at linebacker or as a rush end in certain packages at the next level. He said the string of NFL teams switching to a 3-4 this season will give him a good chance to find a place to fit in as a ‘tweener.

Michigan State had only one player selected in the 2014 draft after finishing 13-1 the previous fall. The program’s consistency, though, has made East Lansing a popular stop on the pro-day circuit in March. Dantonio is hoping this year’s crop of prospects will boost those numbers by giving NFL teams too many options to ignore.