By Will Burchfield
Before looking ahead to the upcoming season at Big Ten Football Media Day, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio took a somber moment to reflect on the shocking death of former Spartan Mike Sadler.
A four-time academic All-American as a punter, Sadler was killed in a car crash on Sunday morning along with Nebraska punter Sam Fultz.
“First off, I’d like to express our condolences to the Mike Sadler family and Sam Hultz and Husker nation, as well,” Dantonio said. “What occurred on Sunday is very tragic. In regards to Mike, he was a giver, he lived life. There was no take in Mike Sadler. He made everyone’s life around him better, and we will miss him terribly.”
From there, Dantonio fielded questions about what lays ahead for the Spartans, discussing key position battles, the team’s impressive consistency and its goals heading into the 2016 season. He also responded to allegations of negative recruiting against Penn State.
Michigan State officially brings back 12 starters from last year’s team that won the Big Ten Championship and qualified for the College Football Playoff. The Spartans’ 12-2 mark in 2015 improved their record in the past three years to 36-5, and Dantonio expects his team to build on that momentum in 2016.
“As you’ve heard, we’ve sort of set the table in terms of what we have to do every year. Right now our focus is trying to go back-to-back,” Dantonio said, referring to the Spartans’ Big Ten title defense.
As for the team’s 38-0 loss to Alabama in the national semifinal, Dantonio has stressed to his players the same thing he has often heard from his wife.
“She says, ‘Hey, get over it, you lost.’”
“What I said to our football team is, ‘We’ve gone this far but there’s still a ways we have to go. Don’t hang your head, let’s get on with business,’” Dantonio explained.
The biggest unknown for Michigan State entering this season is who will emerge as the starting quarterback. Dantonio said the competition for Connor Cook’s replacement remains open, but fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is currently “in the lead.”
He named junior Damion Terry, red-shirt freshman Brian Lewerke and true freshman Messiah deWeaver as O’Connor’s most immediate challengers.
“All four of those guys have great ability. But we’re going to keep the pressure on our quarterback position and on our quarterbacks coach Brad Salem,” said Dantonio. “I think that’s the thing to do right now, not to pin it on one guy, not to say, ‘Hey, he’s our guy.’ That will be defined through August camp and early in the season, but we’re going to give people opportunities.”
Dantonio spoke highly of the team’s linebacker corps, suggesting the Spartans have five players capable of starting at that position. He also commented on the depth at running back, where both L.J. Scott and Madre London return as trimmer versions of themselves.
“L.J. I was thought was a little heavy last year, played at 235 [pounds.] Much like Le’Veon Bell did – we saw what dropping weight could do for Le’Veon. I think L.J. looks very good right now. I think Madre is in that ballpark as well,” Dantonio said.
“Our tailback situation is very, very solid,” he added.
Regarding Michigan State’s recent run of success – the Spartans are 65-16 in the past six years – Dantonio pointed to the continuity within his coaching staff and the strong performance of one senior class after another. And he expects this year’s seniors to continue that trend.
“It seems that when the time comes as a senior [and] you have to play your best football, our seniors have their best years…We’ve got guys poised for that,” said Dantonio. “Again, we’ve established a culture. We’ve lost some good players but I think we have 31 players back with some type of starting experience.”
One of those players is junior Malik McDowell. The 6’6, 275-pound defensive lineman is on the precipice of stardom for the Spartans, and Dantonio is excited to watch him make that leap in 2016.
“Malik is a playmaker, there’s no doubt about that. He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s physical, he comes to play every game. And with all that being said, he’s going to be a true junior. He had a big sophomore season last year, played some as a freshman, so I think that this is the year that sort of catapults him. So he’s gotta have a great year and I think he’s poised to do that,” Dantonio said.
Though Michigan State has a relatively clean recruiting record under Dantonio, his staff was accused last month of condemning Penn State in the battle to land mutual recruits. Dantonio shot down that notion on Tuesday, explaining such conduct runs counter to the nature of his program.
“From my standpoint, I have not said anything negative about Penn State and hopefully our coaches have not as well,” he said. “I was surprised to read that but I don’t know what happens out there on the road completely. But that’s not our M.O. and that’s not how we do business.”