MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL MEDIA CONFERENCE
August 6, 2018
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Good afternoon, everybody. First of all, I want to congratulate -- we had media days last, I guess two weeks ago. I just want to publically congratulate Khari Willis on his speech. I thought he talked a little bit about things that we had gone through, things that players and athletes go through on a yearly basis, I guess, and thought he did an outstanding job, and I just wanted to mention that.
Also want to congratulate Jimmy Raye on being inducted into MSU Hall of Fame. Tremendous quarterback here, the '66 national champions, a long, illustrious career as an NFL coach, as well. Congratulations to him.
Before I open up to questions, I want to reaffirm where we are at after four days of practice. Continue to see great leadership from our football team. Chemistry is excellent. Got a lot of players out there, a lot of young players, but a lot of players, and we're deep.
So it's a challenge to get everybody reps, but you know, ones, twos, and threes, we've got some very good threes working and it's important to get our freshmen the reps, as well, see where they are at.
I thought last year we sort of reaffirmed ourselves as a football program and now we need to take another step forward and our players are very excited about that.
I'll take some questions, and we'll sort of go from there.
Q. You have a unique situation. Normally when you're this young, you get a lot of guys reps and rest guys a little bit, but even your older guys are young. How different is that for you this season?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, I think we were such a young football team last year. I heard that we were maybe the second-youngest in the country, so we are still young. Got a very good senior class but it's probably a sophomore/junior dominated football team right now. They still have to improve and they have still got to grow.
Early in every season, it's about getting your feet back up underneath you; making sure you go back through everything that you're putting in and those type of things, and you know, play technique and fundamentally sound. It takes time to get to that.
But we are working a lot of guys so the reps are cut down a little bit. It just makes practices a little bit longer, but we are making our way through it.
Q. Can you talk about what Matt Allen needs to do to seize that starting center job and how have you divvied up those reps so far early in camp with those guys you mentioned earlier?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Right now Tyler Higby and Matt are probably working with the ones and the twos. Bueter has been, you know, a surprise. He's a freshman, redshirt freshman. And then you've got David Beedle messing around in there a little bit, as well, so we'll see how he's coming.
Really, it's Higby and Matt, and Higby has got a little bit more experience. We'll see what Matt does. What he has to do is not make mistakes, play at the point of attack, which is difficult to do at times. You know, we've got good defensive players, as well, but they have just got to continue to grade out the best, and we'll make a decision as camp goes throughout the process.
But he's still a young player, so plenty of opportunities and reps.
Q. With the events at Ohio State, raising a lot of questions, what is your personal policy on domestic violence, the protocols you follow, what is to be expected of you as a head coach and how do you handle that?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, as a head football coach, first of all, you know, there's a reporting -- there's protocol, who reports to us and who we report to, I guess is what I'd say.
Obviously if we hear about something, then we're going to report it to -- up the chain and if it goes the other direction, it will come up towards us, if we don't know about it.
My position on it is it's a problem in society. I talked about that the other day. It's something that cannot be tolerated, but it's inappropriate for me to talk about anything down the road there.
But you know, my policy is, if that happens, that we are going to separate them from the football program immediately, and -- if we know and let things sort itself out and see what happens.
Q. You've had what would probably be constituted as a very good team last year. What to you separates good from great? And you've seen 2013 when you probably had that -- where is this group, when you look at it, have to be there?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think last year's football team was very similar to 2013, and we are going to find out if this one is similar to 2014, really, because 2013, if you remember back five years ago, it grew: Who was the quarterback coming out of the first three games; who was going to be our tailback; who exactly -- Jeremy Langford was back. I think we had 12 returning carries, maybe, our entire running back situation. Our wide receiver situation was unsettled and we just got better progressively.
And that I thought that's what we did last year, we got better progressively, and now all of a sudden we have a lot of experience back, and '14 took off, and we had a very good football team in 2014, but we struggled -- lost I guess two games, is that right? We were ahead in both those football games, so we are going to see if we can rise to that occasion and compete.
I think this is a week-by-week type situation. I challenge our players to stay in the moment, stay focused on what we have to do. First game up is Utah State. That's where our main focus is and then we'll take it from there.
But the reality of the situation is, we're just beginning our camp, what we call first phase, and our focus is on getting better, getting reps, staying healthy, understanding the things we're putting in, understanding the new things we're putting in and just trying to stay on task.
Q. A lot of attention on Brian last year and the big year he had, his first full year as a starter. What does he need to do to kind of continue that progress? What are the specific things he's working on to improve to become I guess that elite quarterback at this level?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think first of all, last year, his first year as a starter the entire season, he got some experience the year before. He did start a couple games, or I think -- I know one for sure but maybe a couple and played a little bit in four games.
But I thought he sort of took off, and again, much like I just talked about, he got better and better as the season went. I think what he had to improve on is knowing where to go with the football, his reads, being consistent with that, and then also, a little bit of patience. He got out of the pocket. He made things happen. I think that's the beauty of it. He can't create.
I like his leadership style. I like how he handles himself in tough situations. He doesn't take himself too seriously at times, which I think is a good thing and if he has a bad play, he can let it go and he can line back up and go again.
Our players believe in him totally, so they have propped him up there in a good place I think, and I think it gives us a chance to win every time he takes a snap.
Q. Going back to what you were talking about, the 2013 comparisons, that defense that could overwhelm people at times? Where did that begin? So if a defense is going to get to that point to you, is it having those two corners -- if you look at what allowed that to happen, what was it?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, I think first of all, we played outstanding in 2012, so we had a lot of experience coming back. I think even when you go back to 2010 or 2011, you had a lot of players just like last year, that were redshirt freshmen or true freshmen in the two-deep.
So it's just like everything. If you're taught, and you're in your fourth year and you've been taught systematically over a period of time, you're going to play more on habit and I think that's what we've got to do.
As far as our defense, it goes from inside out or you could make a case outside in, whether it's the corners coming inside; you've got to stop the run and play well against the run. That's where it's always going to start I think on every great defensive football team and then you've got to put them in passing situations.
Obviously the game is played in space now. There's so many RPOs and things of that nature that puts a premise on, almost like option football, being responsible for A, B and C. When those things happen, things fall to the corners, so we have to be good in the back end, as well. That's just the nature of it these days. I think that's for every football team and every defense.
Q. What makes Raequan Williams special on the field and off?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Raequan is an outstanding young man from Chicago. Has had some tough situations with the loss of two brothers in the last couple years.
He's got a great personality. I think our players look at him as a leader. He's been playing since he's been a redshirt freshman. He's a very good athlete. He's an outstanding basketball player, very smooth athlete. I think he's scratching the surface really, to be quite honest with you, in terms of how good he can be.
I think he's gotten much better. I think he's poised to have a good junior season, but he can be a dominant football player. He's very charismatic, can laugh at himself, has fun. Players love him.
Q. Going back to the 2013 comparison, when you have those two corners back with experience in Josiah and Justin, doo they compare favorably to Trey and Darqueze, or is it too early to say that right now?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think both those guys are very good players and they are No. 1 picks. So I think it's a little too early to talk about that.
So I guess everybody got their pen ready; now would be a good time to say that Josiah had a situation, so he's out for probably two months. But we've got guys that can play.
COACH MARK DANTONIO: An injury-related situation. Two months or less, two months or more, we'll see.
Josh Butler has played a lot. I've been very impressed with Kalon Gervin. Been impressed with Tre Person, as well.
Shak Brown is another guy that is a redshirt freshman that I've been impressed with, as well. We'll be all right. We'll have five or six, and the two guys that just got here, Davion Williams and Chris Jackson, are very good players.
You know, really when you're looking at freshman out there, you're asking yourself: How is our freshmen, where do you see their future and can they play at this level. Every one of the defensive backs we talked about could play at this level and should be very good players for us.
Q. Just sort of following up on the news on Josiah, you talked about the difficulty this year of sustaining something. Once you reaffirm it, you have to sustain it. Have you seen signs early in camp, all the right signs, that it's sustainable?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: We lost Josiah in a non-contact injury, just non-contact.
And also lost Dillon Alexander with a foot situation and non-contact situation, just a drill.
So can we reaffirm ourselves -- can we rise up --
Q. Talking about the chemistry, do you see signs that this team is determined to sustain it?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, last year, we end up winning ten games, and I thought we played very well, but we can certainly improve in so many different areas.
I've said it all along: I think our chemistry and the relationships on the football team is very, very strong right now. They can speak a little bit more to that as they talk about it, and I think that that gets you places. That allows you to sort of regroup when things don't go so well. Allows you to forge forward when things are going well. I think that's a positive for us.
Q. Two questions for you. First, Weston Bridges was out there working the other day in practice and I know you said he was optimistic. When the pads go on tomorrow, will he be playing?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Yes, he's looked good thus far.
Q. When you look at your defenses since you've been here: Greg Jones, Max Bullough, Riley, and now Joe Bachie as good as any of them -- how important in your team, when did you come up with the fact that so much importance be placed on the middle linebacker?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think the middle linebacker in any defense is really the quarterback in your defense. A lot of times, you're still responsible for getting people lined up. Joe's got experience. He can run. He can play any three of those positions. He can run. He can adapt. Very hard worker. Is tough, strong. He's got everything that you really want.
Really, behind him, Byron Bullough, had an excellent spring. He's worked a little bit at the money, as well. Rachie (ph) comes behind that. Rachie (ph) He's worked at the Mike before; he's played star; he's played money. That gives us three linebackers at Mike really that have game experience as we move forward.
It's a good situation for us. When I go back and talk about the depth of our football team, you can look at that and really at the linebacker position, we've got nine players who can play for us on game day.
Q. I understand it's early in fall camp, but what exactly are you looking for out of your freshmen running backs, specifically, La'Darius Jefferson?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: You're looking at who is going to be the third guy or fourth guy; who is going to be a guy that can play a little bit and maybe get on special teams.
La'Darius is a guy who has not played running back. He's been an outstanding quarterback but he's run a lot from the quarterback position. I can't remember how many thousands of yards and touchdowns he's had. He was Player of the Year in the State of Michigan, and he's bigger. He's about 15, 20 pounds, maybe, heavier than he was at a senior. He's made some good runs out there.
We'll find out a little bit more tomorrow. We progressively have gone through this. We haven't tackled yet, but I mean, basically you've got to tell him don't tackle because sometimes it's happening out there. But tomorrow, we'll find out a little bit more.
Elijah Collins, same type of things, they have had some runs and they look good. But those guys are just learning. They are in their second day of helmet and pads, shells. They have got a ways to come, but they are both going to be very good players for us.
Weston Bridges has been exciting to watch, as well. He's looked good.
Q. Going back to that good-and-great conversation, what is the thin line between good and great and can you tell on August 6 if this team is ready to cross it?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think it's inches. I've always said that around here; you've got to find the inches. The difference between a completion and knocking the ball out is about two inches. The difference between overstriding on the offensive line and taking a six-inch step is the difference between success and failure.
So I think it's all across the board: Quarterback decision, throwing the ball inside after he scrambles; throwing the ball back across the middle. That's not good.
So it's decision-making and it's finding those inches, but collectively as a group, I think our guys are poised to do that, and excited to watch them. They have fun with each other, and there's a great deal of competition every single day.
But thus far what I've seen, whether it's been winter workouts or spring ball, our bottom line program of summer conditioning or the beginning of fall camp, our guys enjoy being with each other. That's the main thing I look at. They are fun to coach you and just look around and watch them, how they go work. They work every day.
Q. Can you speak to Kenny Willekes' development and the steps he look last year, and this year, how high of a ceiling is his progression this year? What can he do to get better?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Kenny is a guy who came here as a linebacker, fullback. When you watch the film, he came in as a preferred walk-on. You wondered, how did this guy not get a scholarship, much like Jack Conklin.
I think after a year, year and a half, he was on scholarship. He's 215 or 220 when he came here and now he's 250-plus. So he's in a position now where he can play. He understands what to do. He plays extremely hard. Very enthusiastic.
Brings enthusiasm to our defense, and you know, I think the sky's the limit. You can do anything, and he's a big, strong guy now. He can play at this level from a standpoint of strength. He's a very good athlete.
Q. When a running back like LJ Scott comes back, how much opportunity do you see for the second guy, whether that's Connor or whoever, and do you sort of have to force that second person in there a little bit just to get their feet wet a little bit when you know what LJ can bring to the table for the most part?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: First of all, when he decided to come back right at the Bowl game, I thought it was a big statement for our program. Obviously it's like getting a guy that you know he's going to be your guy. It's like getting a recruit when you know he's going to be your quarterback or your tailback, much like Connor Cook when he came back.
So you've got that, and now you've got to find the next guy, but you know, every -- he's not going to play every single play. We've got to keep our guys fresh. We've got to have a different look and we've got to have a change of pace guy, who that is -- Connor has been very, very good. He provides a lot of different things, but then who is the next guy, because we had a tendency to play two or three guys, and you know, there's always injuries that we've got to deal if guys are nicked up, things of that nature.
You know, we had three last year, and you remember, LJ didn't play the Michigan game last year, had a shoulder. Those things are going to happen. But we're very excited about his progress and where he's at and excited he's back. He should have an outstanding season.
Q. What's harder, to go from where you were in 2016 to coming back last year, or to now take that next step from very good to elite?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: You know, I talk a lot about handling success with our football team. You know, how do you handle things when you're up. You've got to talk about how to handle things when you're down, as well. That's a part of life that I think we've experienced both.
Handling success. They talk about it: Really, one of every ten teams out there that has had success, can do it again in the same type of fashion. You know, that's the odds.
We talk a lot about that. That's leadership; that's not taking yourself -- that's not being entitled. That's taking things one thing at a time and focusing on the present. I've already said, I think our football team has done that thus far.
We are not going to get too far ahead of ourselves. You know, I don't know the games that you guys have been at; most of our games are tight, so we need to play.
Q. You've talked a lot about the development physically of Colt Schuens (ph) as a left tackle putting on weight, building strength. A lot of questions about the offensive line going into last season were answered. Now the evolution of that line with the modern game, defenses you're facing and the offense that you have, what are you looking for out of your offensive line and how does that come together?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, Coach Staten has done a nice job with that and we've played a lot of guys. We've probably got, you know, probably eight guys that are capable of playing at this level and win with right now and that's a good problem to have.
So the question is, what are we looking for?
Q. What's you're looking for, cohesiveness --
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Cohesiveness, understanding of defensiveness, the calls, pass protection, being able to win at the point of attack, create seams for our offensive backs and things of that nature.
We run a variety of different personnel groupings and different formations and sets and movements, etc., so they have to understand where they fit in all those.
Q. What's your favorite part of the beginning of the season?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I'd say Media Day (Laughter).
Q. No, tell me the truth.
COACH MARK DANTONIO: I'm not sure. (Laughter) no, I think really the first day. The first day, it's exciting. You see, you finally get to see what the freshmen can do. You're out there with the football. You see how redshirt freshmen have progressed. You see your older players come back and see how people are intermingling with each other. I think's exciting to see. You get a sort a sense of where you're at.
Then you get to camp and you start figuring out, this guy has to play or this guy has to do this and we have to input these things.
Then you get into the dog days of it all, and just about when you're ready to cash it all in, because you're sick and tired of doing everything, game day comes or game week comes. It keeps you fresh, and I think that's what college football does for all of our players.
It keeps them fresh, looking forward to the next situation, next season to some extent; the next season being fall and then off-time, spring ball, those type of things, and they get an opportunity to grow.
Q. I think I know what you're going to say but I've got to ask, anyways. Have you been able to look at the totality of your time yet at Michigan State or are you not there yet? Where you can look at the ups and downs and beginnings and where you are now; have you been able to step back and look yet or are you still just too in it?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: We look back at things. I think that's natural. Coach Tressel cold me that his son, Logan is going to be a senior this year and he was a first grader when we got here. It sort of hit me a little bit.
But you know, we've got guys that stop by and see us that have played here. I was talking to Greg Jones the other day. Henderson was here, who is working at Florida State in academics. You get a sense when you talk to guys, Greg came in in our first year in 2007. So that was 12 years ago when he as a freshman.
So you do have to step back a little bit and say, oh, remember when. But it's a good feeling. We've accomplished some good things here. We've had a lot of great players come through here, great people and guys that are doing great things with their lives and that's what I'm excited about.
Q. Only 24.5 points per game last year, obviously you relied on your defense to win some close games. What's the feeling for your offense, given you bring back ten starts and you get all your receivers back.
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, we've got to have more production. I don't think there's any question about that as you go forward.
But last year, if you remember now, we had 12 catches; that's guys who caught 12 balls the whole season returning, whoever that may be. One guy might have caught four. I think Felton might have had six catches or something, nine maybe.
That's not the case this year. We have experience coming back at the wide receiver position, a lot of experience.
We have experience coming back at the quarterback and we have experience coming back in our tailback position, as well, with LJ and Connor. Our offensive line returns, as well, tight ends. We have, as you said, ten starters back and other guys who have played considerably. That's a good feeling. With that should come more production.
Q. With the new redshirt freshmen rule, is that an advantage or disadvantage for you guys, and is there any implement that you guys have planned for using it this year?
COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, I think it's an advantage for all of our players because it keeps them on course. If even if you're a freshman, you have to continue to progress, get stronger, understand -- you can't think you're going to go in the tank and think you're going to be redshirted and just go through the motions.
You could play them at the beginning of the year, if you got a head or an injury happened that they were in the mix, but I think that what you'll see is you'll see guys playing at the end of the year where there may be an injury or players have progressed and they are ready to play and win for you down the stretch or in a Bowl game, you get game experience going into the next season.
We'll have some freshmen, just like every year, we'll have some freshmen that travel and start to play right away and we'll have some other freshmen that get themselves ready, and we'll have some freshmen that will redshirt the old-fashioned way. We'll see how it shakes out and that depends on things game-to-game.
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