NCF Nation: Mark Dantonio

Some national reaction to the news of Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury is focusing not only on the harsh consequences for Ohio State but also on the impact for the Big Ten as a whole. Mark Schlabach basically says the league's quest for a spot in the College Football Playoff took a huge hit.

To that, I say let's all slow down for just a bit. Some key counterpoints to consider:

[+] EnlargeJosiah Price
AP Photo/Al GoldisTo say the loss of Braxton Miller dooms the Big Ten's College Football Playoff chase is demeaning to the defending Rose Bowl champs.
1. It's Aug. 19. To pretend any of us has any idea what will happen in an upcoming college football season is to ignore history. How many pundits picked Auburn to make the BCS title game last year? I'm guessing most people would have sold their stock on Michigan State's season after the Spartans' lost at Notre Dame on Sept. 21. They turned out all right.

2. Ohio State isn't suddenly going to turn into a 6-6 pumpkin. There is still a ton of talent on this team. I watched an entire practice this spring in which Miller did not participate. I was still blown away by the speed and athleticism on the roster. Are the Buckeyes a top 10 team now? Maybe not. But they will still be, at the very least, a top 20 club. They're probably not a playoff team, but beating Ohio State won't be a meaningless win for other Big Ten teams, either.

3. There is more than one team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes have been the league's flag-bearer for most of this century and have more national credibility than any other conference program. But don't forget the Buckeyes haven't won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009. There is no guarantee they would have claimed one this year, either, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are all legit title contenders.

4. Let's go back to Michigan State here. The Spartans proved themselves as elite the past year, as they finished No. 3 in the final polls and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's team goes to Oregon in Week 2 in a game that could define their season. If the Spartans win there, assuming Oregon goes on to have a very strong season, they will be formidable playoff contenders no matter what else is going on in the Big Ten. Even if, say, they lost to the Ducks by a field goal, going undefeated the rest of the way should be enough to get Michigan State into the field of four.

5. Let's say another team from the West -- such as Iowa or Wisconsin, should the Badgers beat LSU in the opener -- runs the table. Don't you think a Big Ten championship game featuring the Spartans and an undefeated West team would get the attention of the selection committee? Iowa and Nebraska probably need a zero in the loss column, while Michigan State and Wisconsin could afford a setback, given their marquee nonconference opposition. And, hey, who's to say Ohio State doesn't go 12-0 again, even without Miller? Urban Meyer has yet to lose a regular season game in Columbus, after all.

The bottom line is there are far too many variables -- including what goes on in the other Power 5 conferences -- to count the Big Ten out at this early date. The path to Pasadena (or, less likely, New Orleans) certainly got a lot bumpier with the loss of the league's best player. But the road hasn't been closed yet.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
When Michigan State Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis first told football coach Mark Dantonio about his plan to schedule a home-and-home series with the Oregon Ducks, Dantonio did not wrestle his boss to the ground, scream obscenities or start updating his résumé.

As Hollis recalls, Dantonio simply smirked, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Why not?"

The reasons not to schedule Oregon -- especially at eardrum-splitting Autzen Stadium, where the Spartans go in Week 2 -- of course include the Ducks' tornadic offense, their dominance at home (92-17 since 1997) and the Big Ten's historic struggles in Pac-12 country. So why would Michigan State saddle itself with such a challenging matchup so early in the season?

"I've never really said, 'Oh, no, I don’t want to play those guys,'" Dantonio told ESPN.com. "I just feel like, if you're going to be a champion, you have to be willing to take on all comers."

[+] EnlargeMark Hollis
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State athletic director Mark Hollis has upgraded the football schedule with the College Football Playoff in mind, beginning this season with a road game at Oregon.
The Spartans arrived in the ranks of the elite in January by beating Pac-12 champ Stanford in the Rose Bowl, capping a 12-1 season. Now they get a chance to prove they can stay there with another trip to the West Coast on Sept. 6. This early-season showdown of conference heavyweights -- Oregon is ranked No. 4 in the ESPN preseason power rankings; Michigan State is No. 7 -- carries key implications for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"If we play well in that game, it can definitely bounce us up to the four-team playoff," Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun said.

The playoff was exactly what Hollis had in mind when he added Oregon to the schedule in March 2012. He also signed future home-and-home deals around the same time with Miami (Fla.) and Alabama, the latter of which has since been canceled. Hollis said arranging the Oregon series was made easier by his close relationship with Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens; the two became friendly when Mullens was at Kentucky and the Spartans and Wildcats put together a basketball series.

"We don't want to be stupid in our scheduling, but at the same time, we were anticipating the playoff system and anticipating the strength-of-schedule [component]," Hollis told ESPN.com. "As we were having these conversations, it seemed right, it fit right. They're a top-five program, and with us coming off a Rose Bowl championship, kind of by freak of luck this turned into a pretty nice game."

(The fact that both schools are Nike-sponsored and wear green doesn't hurt, either. "It's always nice to see Phil [Knight]," Hollis joked, "even though I'm sure he'll be on the other sideline.")

Michigan State sees little downside to the game. Even if the Spartans lose in Eugene, as long as they are reasonably competitive, they would have plenty of time to rebound and still win a Big Ten title. They recall last year, when they lost at Notre Dame but went on to capture their final 10 games and finish No. 3 in the polls.

"It’s not an end-all either way," Dantonio said. "It’s going to be a measuring stick for us -- where are we at, what do we have to do, who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in season."

The on-field matchup itself is incredibly intriguing.

Oregon, with its fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense, leads the nation in scoring the past four seasons combined at 47 points per game. In that same time span, Michigan State's ferocious defense ranks fourth in the FBS in points allowed and third in yards allowed. The Spartans finished No. 2 in total defense in 2013; the Ducks were No. 2 in total offense.

Michigan State has fielded a top-10 defense in each of the past three years, but it is replacing six key starters from last year's unit.

"This should give us an early indication of how things can go for us, if our team is tight-knit or if we have loose ends," Calhoun said. "It will be nice to see how they play and see if we match up with them."

The wise guys say it will be difficult, as Michigan State opened as nearly a two-touchdown underdog in the betting lines. That's not much respect for a defending Rose Bowl champ.

"We’re used to it," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "We were underdogs last year against Ohio State and against Stanford. So we're used to playing with a chip on our shoulders, and we're not going to let that affect us."

Regardless of the outcome, the game should provide significant national buzz for the Spartans, as well as heavy local interest. Hollis said the school received more than 8,000 requests for its 3,000-ticket allotment to the game. Oregon's return visit to East Lansing on Sept. 12, 2015, will be a scalper's dream.

"For the general fan, it's one of those games that, no matter who you cheer for, this is one you want to watch," Hollis said.

Dantonio will make sure his team doesn't put too much focus on this one game, as Michigan State must first deal with its opener on Aug. 29 against Jacksonville State, not to mention the 10 regular-season contests after Oregon. But it's impossible to ignore the magnitude of what awaits in Week 2.

"It's been in the back of our minds all offseason," Cook said. "If we win, it will be a statement game that can turn a lot of heads, and it could put us on the way to a national championship."
CHICAGO -- The preseason primping in college football is over. The beauty contest has been canceled. If the playoff selection committee does its job, nothing that is said, written or ranked between now and early October will matter.

And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.

"That football side now matters."

Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking forward to the new College Football Playoff.
Although some question whether any poll should have bearing on the national title race, at least these rankings will be shaped by what happens on the field in the current season. While the playoff technically broadens the national championship field from two to four teams, in reality, the doors are open to dozens of others.

"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."

Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.

"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"

Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.

"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."

The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.

"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."

Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.

So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?

"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."
These days, you always hear about the offensive innovation in college football. There are more snaps taken, more yards gained, more points scored and more creativity from the men calling the plays.

But there's plenty of defensive innovation, too, especially as coaches try to combat the up-tempo spread offenses they often face. I reached out to defensive coaches around the country to discuss innovation, and among those who weighed in was Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State's defense, led by Pat Narduzzi, has been among the nation's elite in recent seasons.
Michigan State sets the standard for defense in the Big Ten these days. The Spartans are the first team since since at least 1985 to lead the Big Ten in both total defense and rushing defense for three consecutive seasons.

MSU has finished in the top six nationally in fewest yards allowed for three consecutive seasons. Last year's defense was the only FBS unit to finish in the top three in the four major statistical categories: total defense (No. 2), scoring defense (No. 3), rushing defense (No. 2) and pass defense (No. 3). MSU led the nation in pass defense efficiency and fewest yards per play, and finished second in opponent third-down conversions.

The Spartans undoubtedly have had star players -- cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, linemen Shilique Calhoun and William Gholston, to name a few. But according to Narduzzi, their scheme also sets them apart.

From today's story:
"I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do," Narduzzi said. "We're more cutting edge [with] zone pressure. We're cutting edge with how we play our quarters [Cover 4] coverage. It's adapted to if you play Stanford, a two-back, two-tight end team, or an empty team. We do a lot of things people don't do and to be honest, people are trying to copycat it all over the country."

Narduzzi added that one Big Ten defensive coordinator called him during bowl practice about MSU's success with zone blitzes.

"He said, 'I love it. I don't know how the f--- you guys do it, but I love it,'" Narduzzi recalled. "They think it's easy and then they try to do it and they screw it up. It's some different stuff."

Don't worry, MSU fans: Although Narduzzi and his staff will meet with other coaches at clinics and discuss base coverages, the zone blitz concepts are off limits.

Narduzzi also talked how the defense often switches its approach after the snap. Offenses want to see "statues," he said -- defenses sitting in base coverages -- and while MSU sometimes looks basic, things get complex in a hurry.

Although Iowa isn't a hurry-up offense, the Hawkeyes tried to "throw a fastball at us," Narduzzi said, in last year's game at Kinnick Stadium. It didn't work out as MSU switched its coverage and Dennard intercepted Jake Rudock's pass.

"We've got smart kids and we've got good coaches and we work at what we do," Narduzzi said. "Post-snap we're going to have something different coming at you."

Narduzzi recalled about how when he first joined Mark Dantonio's staff at Cincinnati, he had to convince Dantonio, who had been Ohio State's defensive coordinator, to buy into a speed-based approach. Dantonio wanted sturdy linebackers and tall cornerbacks, probably because he could get them at a program like Ohio State.

"It was like, 'God, coach, we're not doing that,'" said Narduzzi, Dantonio's defensive coordinator since 2004. "I had the philosophy of speed. We gradually got him thinking like we do. That's worked to our advantage.

"We've been ahead of the curve for years."

Supreme confidence from the leader of Michigan State's defense. Judging by recent results, Narduzzi has every right to be.
The true assessment for Michigan State's Jack Allen doesn't come during games but immediately after them.

After the clock expires, Allen, the Spartans' 6-foot-1, 300-pound junior center, heads to midfield with his teammates for the traditional postgame exchange with their opponent. He will look for the defensive players with whom he mashed plastic, metal, skin and bone for three-plus hours. If they approach him with right hands extended, he'll reciprocate.

Deep down, he hopes they look the other way.

[+] EnlargeJack Allen
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesCenter Jack Allen brings a wrestling mentality to the Michigan State offensive line.
"If the other guy at the end of the game shakes my hand, I didn't do a good enough job," Allen told ESPN.com. "There were a few games where defensive tackles and linebackers didn't want to see me ever again.

"I've done my job when they don't want to go out there any more."

The postgame escape, in Allen's mind, is football's version of tapping out, a term he knows well as a state champion wrestler in high school.

Allen was a three-time all-state wrestler at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois, winning the Class 3A state title at 285 pounds as a senior. He holds Hindsale Central's record for career wins (143) and had second-place finishes at the state meet as a junior and a sophomore.

The success on the mat has shaped Allen's approach on the field: You’re going to get beat up, but come back tomorrow so you can get beat up a little less. When a guy’s not as good, you’re supposed to beat him bad. You try to pound everybody.

"Just finishing plays," MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten said, "to the last vibration of the whistle."

Allen helped Michigan State finish its best season in decades with Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships in December and January. After starting 12 games as a redshirt freshman at center and left guard, Allen solidified himself at center in 2013, starting the final 12 games for a line that limited sacks (17, tied for third-fewest in the league) and wore down opponents late in games.

He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (media) and recorded 68 knockdowns.

"He was the bulldozer," Staten said, "the guy that kept things going, brought that bit of nastiness every single play. He cannot stand to lose; it doesn't matter if it's a play, a series or a game.

"As combative as he is with the wrestling, it just suited us."

Allen's approach traces to the mat, where his bloodlines run deep: his father, John, wrestled at Purdue in the early 1980s; uncle Jim Zajicek wrestled and played football at Northwestern and coached Jack at Hinsdale Central; younger brothers Brian and Matt both wrestle. Brian Allen not only has followed his brother's wrestling success, winning the Class 3A 285-pound title as a junior, when he went 48-0, but will play center at MSU. Brian arrived on campus Monday and will live two blocks from Jack. He'll wear No. 65 for the Spartans and occupy the locker next to Jack's (No. 66).

John Allen didn't push his sons toward wrestling. He simply wanted them expending their endless energy in some athletic endeavor, mainly to spell their mother, Leslie. "He wanted to give my mom some time to get away from all the nuts-ness," Jack said. The boys played everything -- basketball, baseball, soccer -- but gravitated toward two: wrestling and football.

"We never played any soft sports," Jack said. "It was always contact."

John Allen, a self-described "wrestling homer," sees parallels between wrestling and football, especially when he watches his eldest son. The emphasis on balance, the importance of the first step and hand position and mental toughness translate between the sports.

"Every time you snap the football," John said, "it's like a wrestling match for the first couple seconds."

Wrestling undoubtedly prepared Jack for Big Ten football, but it wasn't his only driver.

Just 215 pounds as a high school sophomore, Allen didn't find himself on the football radar for major college teams. He wanted to play at a Big Ten school, but for a while, wrestling seemed like his ticket to get there. He didn't start to gain weight until he was a junior, when then-MSU assistant Dan Roushar began targeting him.

"If I had a nickel for every guy who told me he was too small I could buy a lot of coffee," John Allen said. "I was grateful that Coach [Mark] Dantonio gave him a chance, but it came later for him. People kind of passed over him."

Allen's top goal last season was to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. He came up short. His second goal: to play with a chip on his shoulder and never get pushed around.

Mission accomplished.

"A lot of people didn't believe he could do what he's trying to do," John Allen said. "He plays kind of angry. Sometimes, it's scary."

It's also what Michigan State's offensive line needs.

He's our physicality, he's our mentality and he's our attitude.

-- Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten, on center Jack Allen
Dantonio has built the program on an aggressive, stifling defense that consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally. But few Big Ten programs take the next step with an unremarkable offensive line, which MSU had until last year.

"We're going to hit you and keep on hitting you," Spartans tackle Jack Conklin said. "Teams start to give up after you beat them up so many times, and it starts from [Allen]."

MSU returns quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and almost all of its top offensive skill players from the Rose Bowl team. But the Spartans lose three line starters, including guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain.

To maintain the standard, Allen needs an even better season. He improved from the neck up this spring, diagnosing safety depth, linebacker alignment and any tells from the down linemen while making all the line calls for MSU.

"We go as he goes, I always tell him," Staten said. "He's our physicality, he's our mentality and he's our attitude."

Allen embraces the increased responsibility.

"I need to have a lot of good days," he said, "to do what we want to do this year."

Good days for Allen consist of two things: Spartans victories and no handshakes afterward.
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."

Video: Coaches talk scheduling challenges

May, 21, 2014
May 21
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The College Football Playoff will place a greater emphasis on scheduling quality teams in the nonconference. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney offer their thoughts on what this means for college football.
The scheduling partnership between the Pac-12 and Big Ten might have ended before it started, but teams in both leagues continue to end up on each other's schedules.

The latest matchup features Michigan State and Arizona State, which Tuesday announced a home-and-home series in 2018 and 2019. Arizona State will host the first matchup on Sept. 8, 2018, and the Sun Devils will visit Spartan Stadium on Sept. 14, 2019.

Pay attention, SEC and ACC. This is called a solid nonleague matchup. If the playoff selection committee has a backbone, you'll need these to make the top four after recently voting to remain at eight conference games. Both leagues are requiring their members to play at least one nonleague game against a major-conference foe, but the quality of those contests, aside from annual rivalries like Clemson-South Carolina and Florida State-Florida, remains to be seen.

Fans of both Arizona State and Michigan State, meanwhile, get nine league games plus this appetizing intersectional gathering. The Pac-12 already plays nine league games, and the Big Ten will go to nine in 2016.

MSU adds ASU to a slate of nonconference games that features Oregon this season and next, Notre Dame in 2016 and 2017, Miami in 2020 and 2021 and Boise State in 2022 and 2023. The Spartans also had a home-and-home series scheduled with Alabama, but the Tide opted to cancel it.

Arizona State has upcoming games against Texas A&M (2015), Texas Tech (2016, 2017) and LSU (2022 and 2023).

Bottom line: Both teams are in good shape, schedule-wise, for the playoff.

These games are a long way off, but if coaches Todd Graham (ASU) and Mark Dantonio (MSU) remain in their positions, it creates an intriguing offense vs. defense matchup. The teams have met just twice before, as Michigan State won on its home field in 1985 and Arizona State defended its turf the following year.

Some Big Ten fans will wonder why Michigan State scheduled Arizona State after what happened to Wisconsin last season at Sun Devil Stadium. It will be interesting to see if Michigan State asked for Big Ten officials -- customary for the road team at most venues -- for the 2018 game. Arizona State is 9-0 at home against Big Ten foes.

After the scheduling alliance dissolved, there was some concern the historic ties between the Big Ten and Pac-12 would fray. It has been just the opposite, as the leagues this year will begin playing two more bowl games (Holiday and Fight Hunger) and have several upcoming series like Michigan State-Oregon, Nebraska-Oregon and Wisconsin-Washington. Northwestern is set to play Stanford six times between 2015-22, and Michigan plays two Pac-12 teams in 2015 (Utah and Oregon State) and another (Colorado) in 2016.

Another good matchup has been added. Will it help or hurt the Spartans and Sun Devils in their quest to make the playoff? Time will tell, but fans of both teams should be excited about the series.
Wide receivers Kyle Prater and DeAnthony Arnett never expected to run routes like these.

Both players emerged from high school as top-60 recruits. Prater was the No. 9 wideout in the 2010 class according to ESPN Recruiting Nation; Arnett was the No. 9 wideout in the 2011 class. Both grew up in the Midwest but both elected to play for famous, faraway programs -- Prater at USC, Arnett at Tennessee -- that had produced great wide receivers over the years.

Then, in January 2012, both elected to transfer closer to home. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., transferred to Michigan State to be near his father, William, awaiting a kidney transplant. Prater, from Maywood, Ill., transferred to Northwestern and also cited family reasons, although he hasn't gone into detail.

[+] EnlargePrater
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern WR Kyle Prater feels that he's finally past the annoying injuries that have hamstrung his career to date.
Both fanbases celebrated the arrivals. The good vibes continued when the NCAA ruled that both Arnett and Prater could play immediately because of the circumstances that sparked their transfers. Each had three years of eligibility left.

Although their situations weren't ideal, both wideouts appeared to be back on track.

But they had more detours ahead. They have combined for only 23 receptions and no touchdowns the past two seasons. Prater dealt with a "plethora" of lower-body injuries that limited his effectiveness. Arnett took longer than expected to adjust to the offense and slipped down the depth chart as other receivers emerged.

Fans didn't forget them, but the buzz that existed when they arrived practically disappeared.

Prater and Arnett are still around and, after strong performances during spring practice, both could finally make the impact many expected two years ago.

"I'm looking forward to great things happening this year," Prater told ESPN.com. "I can honestly say I feel like I'm back, and I’m ready to go."

Added Arnett: "I had a big spring, so I’m continuing to build on that."

Both receivers drew high marks from their coaches during the spring, as they put themselves in the two-deep heading into the summer.

Prater's chief challenge was making it through the 15 practices intact, which he did. Despite a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Prater hasn't been structurally sound during his college career. Injuries limited him at USC, where he had only one catch in two seasons, and have continued at Northwestern, where he recorded 10 receptions in 2012 and nine last season.

"You could not put together a worse script from an injury standpoint for a person," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's been such a bad deal for him."

Prater hasn't had one single major injury, but several issues "built up to a degree where I couldn't perform where I wanted to." He thinks many of the issues could have been prevented with the right stretching or training regimen.

When Northwestern's training room opens at the ungodly time of 5:45 a.m., he's often the first one through the door. He has improved his flexibility and tried to lower his hips to create more explosion out of breaks.

"It's just being proactive," he said. "Like if it’s a hamstring, I'm going to do the things to not have [an injury], strengthening my glutes, all the areas around there."

[+] EnlargeDeAnthony Arnett
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett hopes to build on a strong spring to have a big 2014 season.
Arnett also has worked on his body, adding 18 pounds last season, when he appeared in just one game -- the opener against Western Michigan -- and had only one reception. But his challenge has been grasping the system and competing for time in a Michigan State receiving corps that improved significantly after the 2012 season. Dantonio said late in the 2012 season that he wished he had redshirted Arnett, who played as a true freshman at Tennessee and had 24 receptions.

This spring, Dantonio called Arnett the team's "most pleasant surprise" and noted his consistency, aggressiveness and run-after-catch ability. The suspension of Macgarrett Kings created more opportunities for Arnett, who had five receptions for 63 years during a mid-spring scrimmage.

"It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself," Arnett said. "I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."

Arnett is more relaxed, and his time on the sideline last season, while not what he hoped, allowed him to absorb the playbook. After a diet of pasta, steak, rice and iron -- the kind you find in the weight room -- Arnett expects to play this season between 190-195 pounds.

"I don't think just because I haven't been playing, the expectations should be lower," he said. "I want them to be high. I want to be in the situation where there's a lot of pressure on me to produce."

Fitzgerald called Prater "outstanding" this spring, and Prater thinks he surprised the coaches with his play. His next goal: silencing his doubters when the season begins.

"There's always a lot of naysayers, lot of people felt I didn't have it," he said. "They thought I wasn't there anymore, but I never stopped believing."

There were days when Prater wondered about all the injuries, why they kept happening, and whether he had a future in football. He admits the accolades he had coming out of high school overwhelmed him.

The last few years have brought growth and perspective.

"I look at the game as far as being more appreciative, having fun and being blessed that I'm out there," Prater said. "My whole career has been overcoming adversity. It shows a true test of my will that [I can] talk to you today and say I'm still here. I'm very confident in my ability to play. Everything I've been through has made me who I am now.

"This is the best I've ever felt, and I look forward to great things."

There are no guarantees for either Prater or Arnett this season, as both play on teams with multiple returning starters at receiver.

But if called upon, they'll be ready to finish their roundabout routes the right way.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ron and Erin Waynes named their first son Trae because he became the third member of their family. Now, Trae Waynes is looking to add his name to another lineage: the one involving Michigan State standout defensive backs.

With Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard and All-Big Ten safety Isaiah Lewis off to the NFL, Waynes will become a focal point in the Spartans' secondary. The junior will be taking over Dennard's role as the team's boundary cornerback and hoping to keep the "No-Fly Zone" in place.

"I feel like I have to fill his spot," Waynes told ESPN.com. "I basically just have to continue to do what I was doing and hopefully not take any steps back. There is a tradition of great cornerbacks here, and I'm trying to continue that."

[+] EnlargeWaynes
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Trae Waynes has all the skills to be the next great Michigan State DB.
Waynes has only one year of starting under his belt but has shown the potential to be a top-flight corner, including his acrobatic interception early in the second half of the Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has talked in the past about The Bus, which is what he calls the group of star defensive backs he has coached over the years. Dennard and Lewis earned coveted spots on that bus last season, and Waynes could be next in line.

"Yeah, I think maybe he is," Dantonio said. "He had a good year last year for us, and he's got two years left, hopefully. I think he has the ability to be a shutdown guy and a top player for us."

The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder has the size and the will to get physical with receivers and the speed to track them down. He has been clocked at around 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Credit that swiftness to genetics, as both his parents ran track in college, and his younger brother currently does so at Eastern Michigan. But Ron Waynes said he discouraged Trae from participating heavily in track in high school because "I never wanted people to think he was just a track guy playing football."

Waynes grew up in Kenosha, Wis., and won a lottery to attend Harborside Academy, a charter school. Since it didn't offer sports, he played football at Bradford High School, taking a bus to workouts and practices before he got his driver's license.

"I think that shows you the commitment level he had," said Jed Kennedy, his coach at Bradford. "I can probably count on one hand the number of workouts he missed in four years."

He was not a hotshot recruit for most of his prep career, in part because he played safety until his senior year -- "I should have moved him to corner earlier," Kennedy said. "That's on me." -- and because he missed parts of his last two seasons with a shoulder and then a leg injury. But Waynes went to a lot of camps between his junior and senior seasons and gained notice for his athleticism.

Michigan State got in with him early thanks to a relationship built by recruiting coordinator Brad Salem, and Waynes hit it off quickly with secondary coach Harlon Barnett.

"Having Coach Barnett and Coach Dantonio coaching me was a big part of [the decision]," he said. "I mean, if you're a defensive back, why wouldn't you want to come here?"

Going to Michigan State meant Waynes would not play in college with his high school teammate and best friend, current Wisconsin star running back Melvin Gordon. Gordon originally committed to Iowa before switching to the Badgers, and despite Bret Bielema's efforts, Wisconsin couldn't keep Waynes in his home state.

"It was just bad timing," Gordon told ESPN.com. "Michigan State was also his first offer, so you always got love for the people that show you first love. I think if I would have committed to Wisconsin and said, ‘Come on, Trae, let’s do this. Let’s pair up,’ he would have been here. But when he got on Michigan State’s campus, that’s when they got him. ... [But] everything is working out for both of us."

"You can say they're like brothers," Ron Waynes said. "But I think they both made phenomenal choices. Look at where Melvin is for a running back, and to be a defensive back, Trae's at a great school."

Waynes and Gordon still talk or text daily, trying to avoid football subjects but usually failing. Waynes said Gordon gave him grief during the NCAA basketball tournament when the Badgers made the Final Four and the Spartans fell just short. But when in doubt, Waynes said, "I always just throw the Rose Bowl win at him."

Talking trash isn't really Waynes' style. He's soft-spoken and describes himself as shy. But he's trying to force himself to become more of a vocal presence on this year's team and says he gained a lot of confidence after last season's performance. His coaches haven't had to worry much about him since he got his first major exposure in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over TCU.

"The most impressive thing is how consistent that guy's been since the TCU game two years ago," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "He hasn't looked back and had a bad day since. He's got ball skills, and he's tough. What else do you want in a corner?"

Narduzzi said Waynes -- whose first two career interceptions came in the regular season finale against Minnesota -- could make a lot more plays this season as he moves over to Dennard's spot. That gives him the chance to join the elite company of former Michigan State and Dantonio-coached star defensive backs. No one needs to remind him of that lineage.

"It's just a known fact," Waynes said. "The previous guys set the bar really high, so I've got a lot to live up to."


EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ask Mark Dantonio for his favorite moment from Michigan State's magical 2013 season, and he’ll tell you about the stories he’s heard.

Since the Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Dantonio has received countless letters and emails from fans. He has been stopped in stores and restaurants. Every fan, it seems, wants to tell him about the way they enjoyed their favorite team’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif., since 1988.

He’s listened to tales of people who squeezed into the middle seat in the back of a sedan for the three-day drive from Michigan to California; people who slept all night on an airport bench; people who went to the Rose Bowl with their fathers or grandfathers, or who remembered going with their fathers 26 years ago and were able to take their own children this time.

"It had a deep meaning to our fans," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "That's what I get out of it: the feeling that we made a lot of people happy. It wasn't just a game. You made a life experience for people."

Remnants of that experience are impossible to ignore around Michigan State this spring. The Spartans’ three big trophies from last season -- from winning the Legends Division, the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl -- stand together in a prominent glass display case in the Skandalaris Football Center. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s cell-phone case displays the Rose Bowl logo, while offensive coordinator Dave Warner keeps the placard of his name from a Rose Bowl news conference in his office.

The coaches and players are rightfully proud of one of the best seasons in school history, but they are also wary of lingering too much on their 2013 accomplishments and failing to build on them for 2014.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and MSU enjoyed every second of their 2013 Rose Bowl season, but they say it's now time to focus on the 2014 season.
"Even when we were on spring break, a lot of people approached us on the beach and said, 'Oh, you guys won the Rose Bowl,'" quarterback Connor Cook said. "We don't even want to hear about it anymore. We want to put that aside and start a new legacy this year. If it were up to us, we’d want people to stop talking about it and focus on the now."

Dantonio spoke to his team about avoiding complacency almost immediately after returning home from Pasadena. Michigan State was one of the last Big Ten teams to begin spring practice, waiting until March 25. Dantonio said that was by design, as the team spent more time than most on grueling winter conditioning. There’s nothing like weeks of 5:30 a.m. workouts to keep you from resting on your laurels.

"I think we've proven to ourselves that we can play on a large stage," Dantonio said, "but we have to retain the thinking of what got us there. We have to sort of strip ourselves down and remember how many hard lessons we had to learn. We can’t fall backward into thinking that it just happens."

The Spartans know how quickly fortunes can change. After back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, they dipped to 7-6 in 2012, needing to win their final regular-season game on the road just to make a bowl game.

"That’s a great scale to show us what could happen if we’re complacent," junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "Sometimes, you feel like you’ve earned it, but you didn't earn anything. You have to come out every day and play like you want to earn it."

To be sure, this isn’t the same team that went 13-1 and beat every Big Ten opponent by double digits a season ago. Several star defensive players are gone, including Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. They were mainstays on a defense that finished in the top six nationally in yards allowed each of the past three seasons and was No. 2 in the FBS in 2013.

But virtually every skill player is back on an offense that made steady improvement last season. That includes Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship game MVP Cook and 1,400-yard running back Jeremy Langford. The defense still has Calhoun, the Big Ten’s reigning defensive lineman of the year, plus several players who have been waiting for their opportunity to shine.

"The good thing about our defense is we have depth," said Taiwan Jones, who is expected to replace Bullough at middle linebacker. "When Will Gholston left, everybody was like, 'Who's going to step in?' Shilique stepped in, and you saw what he did last year. When [safety] Trenton Robinson left, Kurtis Drummond stepped in, and so on.

"We’ll probably miss those guys, but we won’t miss them that much because the guys coming in can make the same amount of plays they did."

Maybe the most important returnee was Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. He’s more than ready to be a head coach but didn’t find the right opportunity this winter after turning down UConn.

Narduzzi has been Dantonio’s defensive coordinator now for a decade, dating back to their days at Cincinnati in 2004. That uncommon stability at the top has been the cornerstone of Michigan State’s success and should prevent any major backsliding.

"One of the great things about Mark is he’s just so steady," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "There’s not going to be a lot of changes. I think the program kind of reflects that."

Dantonio readily concedes that "expectations have been raised" now for the Spartans after last season’s breakthrough. They should start the season somewhere in the top 10 and have a highly anticipated Week 2 showdown at Oregon.

"That's an experience game," Dantonio said. "When you play on the road in that kind of environment, with that kind of exposure, those are things you can build on, good or bad."

By then, the 2014 Spartans will surely be building their own legacy. And maybe creating some new unforgettable stories.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Connor Cook's two MVP trophies sit just to the left of the TV in the family room of his parents' house. When he's there, Cook admits that sometimes his gaze drifts from whatever show he's watching to those two prized keepsakes.

Who could blame him? No scripted drama or reality program could spin a more surprising story than the Michigan State quarterback's furious finish to the 2013 season. After not beginning the season as the starter and getting pulled at the end of his team's only loss at Notre Dame, Cook came up with his only two career 300-yard passing days to lead the Spartans to both a Big Ten championship game win and a Rose Bowl victory.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook seeks to build on a spectacular finish to last season.
"A day doesn't go by where I don't think, 'Oh, we're the Rose Bowl champs and we beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship,'" Cook said. "It's kind of hard to soak it all in."

But while Cook will always have those reminders of his MVP performances on the biggest of stages, he's trying now to look forward only. The junior wants to build on his first season as a starter and become a quarterback who plays at a high level every week.

Cook passed for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns with only six interceptions last season, outstanding numbers that Michigan State fans weren't sure they'd get out of the quarterback position. But he also threw a pick-six against Stanford in the Rose Bowl and threw at least a couple of other passes that could have been picked off.

"Throughout the entire year, there were times when things fell into place," he said. "I was really lucky at times, and the team was really lucky at times. This year, I don't even want to put ourselves in a situation where people say, 'That should have been an interception,' and it wasn't. I don't want to even put the ball in jeopardy for defenders to go up and make a play on it. I want to make every single throw an accurate pass where only my guys can get it."

That's a lofty goal, but consider the things Cook doesn't have to worry about right now. At this time a year ago and up until September, he was battling just for the chance to play in Michigan State's crowded quarterback derby. Then he was getting his first prolonged exposure to college football.

He entered this spring armed with the confidence that he's the Spartans' No. 1 quarterback, along with all the experience he gained in pressure situations last fall. Coach Mark Dantonio said Cook "looks like a different guy" than he did last spring.

"He has a little bit more of a calmness to him, I guess, from knowing he's the guy," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "He can just play. There were certain instances last year where he was thinking about what to do, and that sort of keeps you from just playing. He's at a point now where he can just call a play, get everybody on the right page and go out and perform, rather than having to slow things down and think a little bit."

One of Cook's great skills is not getting caught up in his own head. When adversity struck last season, he was able to simply move on to the next play. The perfect example of that came in the Rose Bowl, when he followed up that potentially crippling pick-six and drove his team right back down the field for a crucial touchdown just before halftime.

Dantonio I don't know if this is the right thing to say about a quarterback, but he doesn't overthink things. He can let the negative go.

-- Spartans coach Mark Dantonio
"I don't know if this is the right thing to say about a quarterback, but he doesn't overthink things," Dantonio said. "He can let the negative go."

Oddly, Cook said he is the opposite of that during practice. In a recent scrimmage, he threw an interception and was so angry about it that he said it affected his play the rest of the day. But for some reason, he doesn't dwell on mistakes when it counts.

"On game day, I think the worst thing you can do as a quarterback is focus on the negative," he said. "If you throw an interception or make a bad play, if you're constantly thinking about that, then you'll make another bad throw. I try to just totally forget about it, and doing that helps."

Right now, Cook is trying to forget about last year's accolades and just look forward to a new year. That can be difficult when he's constantly reminded of that special finish to 2013, or when he sees people mentioning him as a darkhorse 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate.

"I think it's kind of stupid," he said of being mentioned for the Heisman. "Pretty much every single year, whoever wins the Heisman, you have no idea who they were the year before.

"I mean, it's cool. But it's just like when people ask me if I'm going to leave after this year. I don't think I'm even good enough to be talked about like that. I need to get better at a lot of things if I want to play at the next level. So I think I'm far from that, and I'm far from the Heisman. People can talk all they want, but my main goal is just to lead this team to victory every single week and lead this team to the Big Ten championship game and win that."

And maybe, just maybe, add to his impressive trophy collection.

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