NCF Nation: Mark Dantonio
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
“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.
He's our physicality, he's our mentality and he's our attitude.” -- Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten, on center Jack Allen
"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.
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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.)
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
“"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."
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
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.
It was the program's best season in decades. But as Michigan State prepares to open spring practice on Tuesday, coach Mark Dantonio wants to make sure the team isn't still busy patting itself on the back for 2013.
This most pressing on-field challenge this spring in East Lansing will largely be about finding replacements for the valuable seniors who contributed to last year's special season, especially on defense.
In that regard, the initial depth chart lists Taiwan Jones as the starting middle linebacker, in Max Bullough's old position. Jones played the weakside linebacker position last season, but now Darien Harris is listed there.
"He's become a thumper a little bit and he's a big, physical guy," Dantonio said of Jones. "We are going to have to see how he transitions in terms of the knowledge there, but again they are all linebackers and he can play outside, he can play Sam as well and we are going find out if we can play the Mike."
Ed Davis begins the spring No. 1 at the strongside spot, but Davis will be limited this spring because of a shoulder injury. Dantonio said the linebacker spots will continue to be evaluated this spring.
Sophomore Darian Hicks will get the first crack at replacing Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard at cornerback, with Trae Waynes locked into the other starting corner spot. Joel Heath and Damon Knox are penciled in as the starting defensive tackles, moving in for Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover.
Dantonio said the depth at defensive tackle and how Michigan State rebuilds its offensive line after losing three starters from last season are his biggest concerns right now. But the team has an experienced offense, led by Connor Cook, and a strong nucleus of talent to build around on defense.
The good times could keep rolling for the Spartans if they don't get caught up in their past success.
"We can't feel like we are entitled," Dantonio said. "We have to make it happen and we have to be mature enough to be able to handle success and that's part of it.
"One out of every 10 teams that has had great success, there's a 10 percent chance of that team doing it again. So we need to be that one in 10 that's able to handle it."
The forecast calls for a warm-up. Nebraska weather, though, is always hard to figure; same goes for the football program of late.
But March is the time in any new year to set aside talk and look for progress in the actions of those who matter most.
Pelini, as scheduled in the contract he signed in 2011, received a $100,000 bump in salary on Saturday to $3.075 million, among the top-20 coaches nationally.
He did not -- at least not yet -- get an extension similar to the one-year deals awarded by former athletic director Tom Osborne after the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
An extension may still be in the works. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was set to complete a review of Pelini’s performance in February.
But for now, the coach is operating on a four-year contract. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. The conditions under which he works are far from averse.
Earlier this offseason, Eichorst awarded raises to just two of Nebraska’s eight assistant coaches. Again, in a vacuum, it’s not much of a headline.
Like Pelini, they’re paid well, each earning at least $200,000 annually, and let’s face it, the Huskers aren’t exactly a well-oiled machine.
Eichorst goes out of his way to say next to nothing in public about Pelini. The second-year AD issued a statement of support after the regular season as speculation ran wild about the coach’s job status. Since then, all has remained quiet from Eichorst’s office.
That’s his way. It works for him.
Put everything together, and perhaps it means little. Still, an undercurrent of sentiment exists that Eichorst does not back Pelini with the full support required for this football program to best work in harmony and achieve the goals that its administration and coaches, no doubt, share.
Pelini, for his part, is saying all the right things. He told the Omaha World-Herald last week that Eichorst has been “very supportive.”
“His style is to give people room,” Pelini told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. “He doesn’t want to micromanage.
“Everybody’s got to do it their own way. You can’t judge that. You have to respect it. There’s no one way to do it. There’s no one way to manage. Shawn didn’t come in here trying to be Coach Osborne, just like I didn’t come in here trying to be [Frank] Solich or Pete Carroll.”
Eichorst’s actions speak louder than Pelini’s words.
Sure, Bo can coach and recruit just fine with four years on his contract. But if full support exists from the administration, why not keep him at five?
Really, if he’s not extended, it’s more about power than money. No matter the circumstances, the cost of business is high in the Big Ten, where coaching salaries are outpaced only by the Southeastern Conference.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recently signed an extension that keeps him under contract for six years. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was extended through the 2018 season. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is signed through 2020.
Spring football starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Big news, as always, around here.
Old habits die hard, I know, but let’s try, for once, not to read too much into the little dramas.
Otherwise, football is no different than the weather in Nebraska: Cold one day, hot the next, with no idea from where the next storm is coming.
Dantonio was unable to discuss McDowell on Wednesday because the coveted defensive tackle hadn't sent in his national letter of intent, but the Spartans coach sat down with ESPN.com to review the rest of the 2014 class.
What stands out to you most about this class?
Mark Dantonio: This is an excellent class from top to bottom in terms of the quality of players. We have tremendous people in this class. I've seen it by how they interact with each other. There's a reason they've been so successful. You see their character.
Have you seen the effects of last season on this class, or will it not be until 2015?
MD: We did. There were some guys obviously who were [committed] as we entered the season. If you look at Michigan State football, we've been on the rise, maybe took a small step back [in 2012] but it's been a program right there, on the threshold of a championship. This year, we win the championship and recruiting gained momentum as we gained momentum on the football field. As it came down to the end, we were on some very highly recruited guys. We got some, some we didn't and that's OK. I appreciate their interest, but people make their decisions based on what's best for them, and again, I just hope that everybody can celebrate the day.
MD: I think so, but the longer you're at a place, the deeper you go in the recruiting process in terms of how long you've looked at a guy. Recruiting has become very accelerated, and there are certain individuals you see as a sophomore, and you've watched them grow. Guys like Montae Nicholson, who I thought was a national recruit but we were on him early, we knew about him, had relationships with he and his family. A big-time football player. Brian Allen is another guy who's an outstanding football player. I don't know what his record is as a wrestler. He was 48-0 last year, I think maybe he's lost once this year, so he's outstanding with leverage and very athletic. We've got guys who fit our needs, but they're also high-level players. Craig Evans, Enoch Smith it doesn't take long to watch them and you know as a football team, you want them.
Are you seeing the effects of what you've done on defense in recruiting?
MD: We are. We've been the top defense in this conference for the past three years. I think we're one of two teams in the nation that have been in the top five in the four major categories for the last three years. You see collectively, people want to be a part of that. They see guys have an opportunity to go to the NFL from our defense. They're succeeding, they're impacting the team. And on the offensive side, we've got some outstanding guys as well.
[Gerald] Owens, the big back, where does he fit into what you do?
MD: He's like T.J. Duckett. He reminds me of T.J. a lot. I'd watch his film, and then I'd put on T.J.'s film when I was here in the past. You'd see very similar running styles.
You have another Bullough in Byron. What does he bring at the same position as his brothers?
MD: When you have guys that have played for you before, like Max and Riley and now you have Byron, you have Jack Allen and now you have Brian Allen, it sends a message to me that what we're doing here is in the best interest of their sons. It tells a story that what we are doing is being done the correct way. We're not just being good football players and developing them, but we're developing the person, too. It was the same thing when we had Brent Celek and we got Garrett Celek. When we have families and they send their next son here, it's a statement.
What were your big needs in the class?
MD: Linebacker was a need because we lost some great linebackers this year. Defensive line's a need as well, just because we lost really three good inside players. I think we addressed that with three outstanding players in David Beedle and Enoch Smith and Craig Evans. David is a physical guy, 6-4 plus, 290 [pounds], on a state champion team at Clarkson High School. He has a presence and he's instinctive. For a high school kid to bench-press 225 [pounds] 30 times, it's pretty impressive.
You had a couple of guys already enrolled. Are they in better shape to contribute earlier?
MD: Yeah. Matt Sokol comes in as a tight end. He was a quarterback throughout high school and played a little bit of tight end. He's been a mismatch guy. He's 6-4, 6-5. He's going to develop. And Chris Frey is a very instinctive guy. You see him playing fullback, tailback, linebacker, corner on his high school team. He can take a game over. High-energy guy. Reminds me a lot of Chris Spielman when I was at Ohio State. He's just a football player, and he can run, a powerful, explosive guy.
What's the one theme that stands out most about this class?
MD: This group was very connected. That's through social media and everything else, even some of the guys who may have opted to go other places at the end, they were connected. This is an outstanding class, maybe our best class in seven years. That's a huge statement, and I don't mean to disrespect our other classes. Time will tell. You come in a lamb and you've got to go out a lion. That's how it is.
It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.
The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.
Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.
As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.
"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."
Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).
Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.
"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."
Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.
"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."
“There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.
The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."
While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.
Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.
"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."
After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.