MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL MEDIA CONFERENCE
August 7, 2017
MARK DANTONIO: Good afternoon, guys. First off, I want to offer our condolences to Graham Couch's family. I understand he lost his father, and I've been through that myself. It's a very difficult situation. So our thoughts and prayers go out to him this time.
In reference to our media conference, I guess in the last two weeks I've been pretty much around, so I'm not sure what I can offer new, other than to say I think we've had great excitement thus far with our football team. It's a young football team, but I think we have great focus and things are in front of us.
Had an opportunity to go down to the Hall of Fame, which was the first time I've been able to ever do that, and it was extremely impressive, and want to congratulate Morten Andersen once again on his induction and tell him congratulations as well.
So with that, I'll sort of take some questions and we'll go from there. That's usually the best way to do it, I think.
Q. Take us through that Hall of Fame experience what it was like. Is that something you can reflect on some guys with as maybe some seniors, especially as they enter this?
MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I got there and had the opportunity to go in with some alumni, distinguished alumni of ours. As I walked in, there is Mike Shanahan over here, there is this guy over there, this guy over there, coaches, and ex-NFL players. As I sat there and watched it sort of unfold, they introduced every single Hall of Famer. I think 105 maybe were there, and some unbelievable players. Players that you grew up looking at and watching as a younger person, Roger Staubach, and Jim Brown, and people of that nature, Joe DeLamielleure was there from Michigan State. It was a first-class event from every respect.
If you're a football guy, a football coach, or a football player, maybe a sports writer who covers that, that's something that I would think would be on the bucket list. I really never really understood maybe what that was all about or had a real appreciation for it until I was able to go, so that was good.
Q. As you have to rebuild your roster, in the interim is it almost easier and quicker to rebuild the chemistry and energy and whatnot, and the hunger your team has been known for. Is that almost easier to reinstall as you wait for the players to come around?
MARK DANTONIO: First of all, I'd be impressed with the players if it was a red-shirt freshmen, second year sophomore or incoming freshmen. But it wasn't just Mark Dantonio who took a step back last year, it was our entire football team. And I think there is a renewed sense of what we need to do in terms of on the field, off the field, in the classroom as well.
Every day we've come to practice, and we enter our seventh practice right now. There is a great sense of energy. I feel good about it. Feel like we have intangibles going for us, and I think we've got some good players. So looking forward to the start of the season.
Q. You've had several years now with the same three running backs with LJ, Gerald, and Madre, and a lot of people talk about LJ could be that guy that kind of breaks out, but Gerald's also been a consistent player for you, and Madre has started. I guess what is the thought process going into the year knowing all three of those guys, that's one position on offense that you have a lot of depth and all the guys can play?
MARK DANTONIO: They've all been the bell cow before. They've all been the guy that's gotten the majority of carries in a particular game. So that's a positive. They've all run the ball for positive yardage and have had big plays. If you look at Gerald Holmes last year in the Notre Dame game, Nebraska the year before, certainly LJ has had his moments.
Madre London has had his moments. If you look back at the Oregon game back in 2015, he was a starter going in, and had a big game against Western Michigan as well.
So I think all those things are positive. Now, what they do, how they stay healthy is they move through summer camp here, and what they do early in the season will really determine who gets the majority of carries. It's tough to rotate three guys in there, but nevertheless we've sort of tried to give everybody their opportunities and we'll continue to try to do that in practices. But, you know, certainly is easier to get two guys the majority of the reps, and if you really look back to when Le'Veon was here, we gave him 374 touches carrying the football. So that's possible too. So we'll ride the hot guy. But I think all three of those guys are extremely gifted football players.
They had a lot of confidence, they're big, durable, outstanding athletes that possess power and explosive ability. They can all catch the football and understand our offense very thoroughly -- when we ine up in a T.
Q. Going back to spring, we touched on the staff changes you were making after the spring game. I guess over the course of the summer, what have you seen in those changes? In camp, how has that helped maybe develop with Mark with the defensive ends and some of the other staff moves?
MARK DANTONIO: First of all, Mark Snyder is an accomplished football coach in terms of being a defensive coordinator. He was our linebacker coach at Ohio State, he was the head coach at Marshall. Coached the defensive ends at Minnesota when they had outstanding pass-rushers, et cetera. I just felt like defensive ends with all the RPOs right now, you know, they're becoming a little bit more of a hybrid player. Are they big linebackers or, you know, what are they?
I also felt very strongly that we needed to reduce the number of player-to-coach ratio and improve that from 20 to 1. Ron Burton has done an outstanding job here and continues to do so. But we need to take that 20-to-1 ratio and make it 10-to-1. By doing that, we individualize our coaching a little bit. When you have a young football team, that individual coaching aspect and that one guy coaching what he's seeing becomes a little bit more direct, and it becomes a little bit more, I guess, position specific.
So that's the way we've done it. Our special teams have always been sort of split up and we'll continue to do that as well. I think we're seeing results.
Q. Back in Chicago you said that this team was not so much eager to get into fall camp but was focused on getting into fall camp and getting into that opener against Bowling Green. So one weekend, what have you seen from these guys? You said the young ones have been showing up. But where do you think this team is at after one week and how much work is left to do before the opener?
MARK DANTONIO: I think our seniors have done a great job. We don't have many of them, but they've done a great job. Our leadership group also has done an outstanding job. But I've seen the focus. I see guys that like being together. I see a lot of energy out on the football field. I see a sense of accountability as well.
You know, it's preseason, so everybody comes with optimism in preseason. It's how you transition through all the different games and all the different things that are going to happen. Whether it's injuries or whatever it is, but we've been on task. We've gotten things done every day. You guys had an opportunity to see practice up close and personal, I think. That was just one drill. That was just a drill we do one time a year. But I think you saw what kind of energy our football team has, and I think you saw probably some explosive players play, I would say.
Q. Outside of making staff changes and meeting with players and doing those things, after a season like last year, do you evaluate yourself differently?
MARK DANTONIO: Oh, yeah.
Q. Do you think back on your own self?
MARK DANTONIO: Absolutely. I look at myself first and foremost and ask what could I have done differently? What decisions I could have made differently? How would you have handled this situation or that situation? And I think that's what you have to do. But every single year we've done that regardless of whether we've won 12 games like the year before, or whatever we did last year.
You've got to look at yourself first, and spread it out over the course of the team. Everybody has to take a sense of ownership. Certainly I'm at the front of that boat. I don't think there is any question about that.
Q. Ever since you first got here, you've been transparent at the beginning of the years of your goals and expectations. The first year you talked about needing to get to a bowl game. Last year it was getting back to the playoffs. What are your expectations for this season?
MARK DANTONIO: In terms of wins and losses?
MARK DANTONIO: I've divided this up into four seasons basically. First season is preseason. Our goal is to remain healthy in preseason, get a little bit. We went through the football team to do this. Establish the leadership, grow the chemistry, I can't think of the seven or eight goals right off the top of my head. But do the things that you need to do now to get to the next step.
Our second stage is to win our out-of-conference schedule, and the first one up is BG, and we'll be primed and ready for that one.
The third stage is to go through that October schedule, really to last September, I think, and then the October schedule, and come clean in that. Then take the next step in November. We've always played very well in November, but November is when you win a championship.
So, it's always been like that. I'm not going to pump us up and say we're going to win X-amount of games or say we're going to win this amount of games. What I will say is we have an opportunity to play every single game and win, which has been the case here. I mean, that's been the case here really since I've come. We've been extremely competitive, and games hang by a thread. When you find the inches, you win the games.
So the focus is to find those inches every single game. You've got to go deep into your depth chart to find the inches sometimes. You also have to find those players that are going to give you those inches. That's what we've been able to do here. That's been the plan.
But we play a very competitive schedule. We play in a very competitive conference. Win the east is what we need to do to get to a Big Ten Championship game, and that's when things start to happen for you. So our goals are high. They always will be high. I'm not going to sit here and say we need to win X-amount of games. But our goals are always going to be extremely high and it's going to come down to how you play in the third and fourth quarter. Sometimes just in the fourth.
That's been -- if you really look at us last year, that's what happened. How did we play in the fourth quarter? We couldn't close out games or we couldn't finish, or we couldn't get those inches.
Q. Secondly, there's been so much talk about last year, this year your weekend, what are you most pleasantly surprised by with this team?
MARK DANTONIO: This week, you're saying after one weekend? I think I'm most pleasantly surprised by how many good players we have, quite honestly. We lost some players. We lost some good players. We lost some other players who weren't going to play for us. We've got some very good football players in this freshman class. You're going to see guys like Matt Dotson play. You're going to see guys like Kevin Jarvis and Jordan Reid play. You're going to see Cody White play and Hunter Rison play. You're going to see Antjuan Simmons play, and those guys. You're going to see Jacub Panasiuk play. That's just right off the top of my head.
Those are true freshmen that are football players and very good football players. There are other guys too that I'm probably missing, but it looks like those guys are taking a step and filling some of those positions that are probably a little bit light in terms of depth. Jack Camper as well, probably.
Q. You made the remark early in the off-season that you felt like a first-year coach again after what you went through last year and trying to build that up again. I'm wondering, are there similarities to when you first came here as far as the road you see ahead and the task that you have to do?
MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I think there are some similarities. We do not have an experienced football team. Well, I should take that back. We have experience but we're young. So I don't know how that shakes out. We had a large group of seniors last year so we were going to be young anyway you cut it. But because of that, I guess you would say, okay, I feel like a new coach, but we have I think 15 committed guys right now. All are outstanding players and students and very impressed with those guys, impressed with their trust.
We have a young group of people, that when you look at our defensive line situation, we have one senior, two. We have one senior in the two-deep. When you look at our linebackers, we have one senior in the two deep. Maybe two, maybe two. One is on the fringe.
So we're young. Offensive line, one senior. Running backs, one senior. Wide receivers, zero seniors. Tight ends, zero seniors. No specialists, is zero seniors. So you have a very young football team and that bodes well for the future.
Now you've got to grow up fast and that's the exciting thing, because when you're around youth, relatively speaking, there is a lot of excitement because people are doing things for the first time and they're having opportunities to play a little bit earlier or maybe they've gotten a touch of things last year. I think those things are exciting for our players to grasp and to be able to move forward with.
Q. Coach, how much does this program flourish with the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality when people are writing them off? With hindsight being 2020, did your guys get away from that last season, and is that back?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, we're going to find out, but I've always thought the chip on your shoulder comes from the competitive nature that you have as an individual. It's not spoken against a particular opponent. It comes from within. You bring it forward every day you come to practice and every day you go to a game. That's what we need to have and that's what we've had. As far as last year's football team, we had extremely high expectations. They should be high. Coming off of three years of what I would say maybe three of the finer years they've had at Michigan State history, maybe, I think 36 and 5.
So the expectations needed to be high. We ran into some problems, and I've talked about this before, whether it's injuries or whether it's, you know, depth issues because we had some young players playing or whatever the case, we played some good football teams and we didn't get it done. But I sense that our attitude has always remained that we're going to win with toughness, we're going to win with effort, and that's where we will always start.
If they call that a chip on the shoulder mentality, you win with toughness, you win with effort. The same way Coach Perles won here. Same way. The same way we won when they came here with Nick Saban, same way. And the same way we won when I came here personally as a head coach. So those things will remain intact, I can assure you of that.
Q. When you feel like you're coaching to prove yourself in a different way than you have in the past few years in your job security and making a point about what you've built here in the past?
MARK DANTONIO: I don't feel -- I think anywhere, first of all, in college football -- in college football you're always going to be a little bit under pressure. That's the game. That's the game that we play. Didn't have a good year last year, so here they all come.
I feel like I'm a good football coach, I feel like I have good coaches here, I feel like our players believe what we do and we're all in. That's the first step. I feel like we're supported by our administration, and we'll take it from there.
But I'm secure in my life. Like I said before, I'm not going to be defined here in the end by how many wins and losses we have. Inevitably you're going to be defined as how you handle the program in the downtimes as well as the up times. I'm going to do my best and do what I think is right.
Q. You talked about the offensive line and how they're going to need a lot of help with senior leadership. Who are you going to be looking forward to -- I don't know if you can name names -- but who is going to be there to kind of step up and who are you expecting to take a big, major role?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, Brian Allen has done a great job with that. Brian Allen will continue to do that. He's an outstanding football player. He's in his fourth year of playing, got a lot of experience. Fluctuates from 320 to 310, just depends on how much he eats at lunch, I guess. Cole Chewins, Tyler Higby's a young player that's coming. David Beedles, a younger player right in the middle there, a red-shirt junior that have experience. As I said before, these guys are all big, they're athletic, and they all bench 400-plus pounds and they're all very, very capable and they're well-coached.
Brian will do a great job leading it. Chewins is probably another guy in that area, but leadership, we're young. When you're young, that positional leadership can go in a lot of different directions. Anybody can come forward because there's room, there is room for that to grow.
Q. Is there anybody on the right side that you're looking specifically towards?
MARK DANTONIO: On the right side of the offensive line?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, we have a red-shirt freshman in there right now, Luke Campbell and David Beedle. But I think really the entire offensive line is together on that. Brian Allen can play right guard, center, left guard. So he's pretty -- he can adapt.
Q. Lewerke didn't have too much time to show what he could do before his injury last season. What have you seen from him that's given you the amount of confidence that you've expressed in him this off-season?
MARK DANTONIO: He's making good decisions. He's got a live arm. He's big. He understands he's bigger than he's been. Understands the offense, and he can create. Probably in terms of creating with his feet, he's probably as good as we've had since I've been here in that area.
Q. You talked earlier about the issues in the fourth quarter last year. Seemed like there was a little bit of a depth issue up front on defense. How are you looking? Have you identified the guys and do you think he'll be deeper and have a better rotation?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, we were playing with young players last year up there. So we had injuries as well up there. So when those things happened, it started to head south a little bit probably. So we need to get more pressure. I think we're working and doing that. I've been impressed with some guys up there.
Hunt's been here a year and a half and he's still a red-shirt freshman. He's 6'5", 265. Kenny Willekis, reminds me a lot of a Marcus Rush, a long-type player that we've had here in the past, very active. Brandon Randle there, an extremely athletic guy, he can get off on pass-rush. He's a slippery guy.
Trying to think. We've got quite a few guys. Dillon Alexander is back. Bowers is back, Demetrius Cooper is back, he's playing well. So, there are numbers there on the inside. Raekwon Williams is a true red-shirt sophomore.
Panasiuk's into his freshman year. So when you talk to a guy and he's in there as a true freshman. He's just trying to get his feet on the ground and get off the snap. Now he's a much more powerful player, much more powerful point of attack because he knows what's going on. Gerald Owens is 300 pounds now. Here's a guy that played tailback when he came here. Big tailback, but he nevertheless was a tailback, so he's playing much better. Naquan Jones is a 325-pound guy who was an outstanding high school player. He's a red-shirt freshman, so he has four more years left. He's really just touching it. He's starting, but he can be a dominant player for us.
So we have guys in there. The key will be how we play with each other consistently and generate a pass rush, stop the run at the same time. It gets complicated in there.
Q. We talked about Brian a lot, but can you talk about the competition or describe how it's breaking down behind him?
MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I think Damion Terry has been good so far. I think both those guys missed spring. Damion couldn't go any live snaps. Could throw halfway through spring, and Weaver missed the entire spring with a back situation. So both those guys are playing and are doing some good things.
Again, it's early. We've not scrimmaged yet. We've gone some live reps, but not as many as we probably have in the past. Again, must stay healthy. And then Rocky Lombardi is a freshman, and he shows some things. Just depends on when you're watching him. He's like any freshman. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good. But he's got ability, there is no question.
Q. Since the defensive guys are in the room now, I'll ask an offensive question. Wide receiver role, you just mentioned not a lot of older guys there. Will we be pleasantly surprised? Will fans see those guys take a big step this year or are they still freshmen, like you just kind of mentioned?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, I think Felton Davis has great ability. Trishton Jackson, you saw what he did in the spring game. So I think he can be a very productive player. Cam Chambers, the guy was red-shirted last year. Cody White, Hunter Rison, as I've said, Darrell Stewart has big-play ability, Brandon Sowards is back after having a broken foot in the spring. He missed all of spring.
So probably leaving somebody out, but we've got guys there and they catch the ball very well and they've made plays.
Q. When Brian Allen got here, you talked about him as a true freshman. Probably going to get to play because of Jack's influence prior to his arrival. How much was Mike's influence on Jacub? Because clearly you've made it clear Jacub's going to play this year. How much of Mike's influence do you think prepared Jacub?
MARK DANTONIO: I think it's pretty significant when you have a brother that plays and they're able to be in their ear and see them all the time. They can talk about the difficulty of playing here. Difficulty in playing with players of this size, the transition, not so much to Michigan State, but to college football. I think that's the biggest thing. The transition to college football and they can tell you what to expect. They can tell you firsthand, and they can stay in your ear about it on a constant basis, whether it's through text or calls or in person. I think that allows you to transition a little bit faster.
Certainly there are going to be some things just relative to our defense, terminology or whatever. Let's not forget we've had more time with our players this summer as well, which has helped our guys as well.
But I think that brother relationship goes a long way in terms of how true it is.
Q. How frustrating can the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality from the fans and the media be at times when you're in your position?
MARK DANTONIO: I go around this state, whether it's walking into Home Depot or whatever, okay, and I feel extremely supported in this state. There is not one person that's come up to me and said something in a negative fashion. It's always been, Praying for you. It's always been supportive, very supportive.
Our Spartan fans want to win. They want to win, and I want to win just as bad or worse. So, you know, it's been fine. It's been good. Whole Foods, Home Depot, Meijers, where else do I go?
Q. McDonald's maybe? Just checking?
MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, McDonald's, just for breakfast on occasion.
Q. I'm wondering how often or how much do you feel compelled to reference with your team the lessons of last year? Do you bring up examples and say this is what we can't repeat? How often does that happen?
MARK DANTONIO: I think everything that you have, you use. Every experience we've ever had, whether it's winning a championship or going 3 and 9, I hate saying it, it's got to be used as a way to go forward. Everything that we've experienced off the field has to be used as a way to go forward in a positive direction. If you use it in that regard, those things can be positive reinforcement.
If you use it as negative reinforcement or fear factor, then I don't think it's good to do. You have to say these are the things that we gain knowledge of. You have to talk about some of the things that went down last year, and you have to, you know, change some of the ideas, maybe, that I have or we have or whatever because there's always going to be lessons learned. There's lessons learned and that's part of experience. That's part of the growth process we're all going to experience. I don't think you ever stop growing.
I'm sure there was some point in time where you guys figured out how to use Twitter or maybe you didn't six or seven years ago. But I certainly did. There is always that learning curve we're going to experience everything we do. That's the way we've chosen to go.
So, yeah, we bring up examples of this or that. But more often than not, we talk about things in a positive manner and look to lessons learned in a positive manner, and not be direct. Our culture at Michigan State is good our culture is good. You spend time around our team and our players, and you get the feeling of what's going on good in college football and at Michigan State.
We have outstanding young people here and they're going to do a tremendous job. We are at the JDRF Walk before practice on Saturday. 12 to 15, I think 12 or 15 guys with our 12 best players, our 12 leaders were at the JDRF Walk. It wasn't our 12 guys at the bottom of the depth chart. We took meeting time and went over and did that. It's a positive for Michigan State football, and we'll continue to do things in that area.
Q. Jake Hartbarger is a guy with a cannon for a leg. Is he a guy on a team where you are very young and it's in a little bit of a rebuilding mode, not total, where his cannon needs to come? And now that he's entering upperclassman status, you expect to see that?
MARK DANTONIO: It's interesting, because if you look at our special teams, we're extremely better in special teams unit. Not so much a kicker, but a punter, snapper, and all the players that play on the punt team and all the players that play on the kickoff team and all these different areas, we're an extremely experienced football team. We lose RJ Shelton, we lose our kicker, but other than those guys, the majority of our players are back and played a lot of football and started on those things.
Jake has outstanding ability. Yeah, he needs to be a big foot. He has the ability, but it's like a golf shot. If you try too hard sometimes, I do, things don't work out, okay. But I think he has great ability. Great ability. I think right now he's punting with a lot of confidence.
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