With talent to match tenacity, Mich. State O-line could drive playoff push
EAST LANSING, Mich. — There were rules for the Michigan State offensive line’s annual paintball outing in July. Everyone had to wear shorts. And no one was permitted to wear sleeves. These were in fact the only rules because this was a list conjured by Jack Allen, an angry cannonball of a center whose 3.3 grade point average and subversive sense of humor make him a really bad person to put in charge of paintball.
So there is a picture of the group, expressionless on the grassy expanse of the paintball range, with goggles and facemasks and rifles and arms spilling out of cutoff shirts. This is the before.
There are no pictures of the after.
There were a lot of welts in the after.
“Well, I don’t know,” Allen says. “What’s the point of going and getting shot if it’s not going to hurt?”
We are accustomed to this sort of thing from any offensive line. We are also accustomed to a certain level of brawling cruelty from Michigan State in particular, a program founded upon trench dominance that has won 11 or more games in four of the last five seasons. We are even accustomed to the Spartans running deeper with malice than most teams, as they deploy seven or eight linemen on any given weekend. More significant, and so much more portentous for this fall, is how this line is unlike any of the others before it.
It may be the best and most athletic group of Mark Dantonio’s tenure and one poised to catch the eye of a league that bizarrely has ignored it every spring for the last nine years. Michigan State has not had an offensive lineman drafted into the NFL since 2006. A program buttressed by player development somehow has not developed the brand of grunts coveted most at the next level.
That will change next spring: The Spartans’ line is a group that can rely on physical gifts as much as ornery dispositions this fall. That conveniently doubles as the ideal foundation for a team aching to reach the College Football Playoff and shake loose any lingering doubts about the existence of a national power in East Lansing.
“It’s definitely something that drives us,” says Jack Conklin, the redshirt junior left tackle who almost assuredly will end the NFL snubs in April. “Everybody who plays here wants to play in the NFL. We know if we’re playing well, and the offense is playing well, we’ll get that shot.”
The last Michigan State offensive lineman to hear his name called on draft weekend was center Chris Morris, and it took until the seventh round before the Oakland Raiders selected him. Why the number of drafted Michigan State linemen isn’t higher is perhaps both easy and difficult to measure. “I think you get into this ‘numbers’ thing when you get up there,” Spartans offensive line coach Mark Staten says of the NFL. “They want them to run a certain 40, they want them to be so long, they want their hands to be so big. A lot of times here, our guys have played outside those numbers. It’s kind of an anomaly. But it’s changing.”
Michigan State’s preferred demeanor has remained constant. “We want to punish you,” Staten says. And the Spartans, generally, have always been big: The line and tight ends in 2007, Dantonio's first season, had an average height of 6'6", and seven players on the initial two-deep for '15 are 6'3" or taller. (Three offensive line recruits for '16 are also all 6'3" or taller.) But the nimbleness in those frames has evolved some. Size and sheer brutishness isn’t sufficient alone, even for a program that revels in it; rage is useless if a defender blows past before you can apply it.
The offensive line of '15 may trump any of its predecessors in pure athleticism. “My take on the thing is, the guy should be able to play some defense in high school,” Dantonio says. “He has to be athletic enough. If you’re an offensive tackle, you’re playing against the best, fastest, quickest, biggest guys. You have to be able to move.”
Says Staten: “I like those athletic guys. We also got those big, strong, hit-you-in-the-mouth guys. But the athleticism allows them to do it with more velocity.”
The program needs not look far for the archetype: the 6’6”, 325-pound Conklin, who no one expected to be the archetype of anything.
His story is well-worn—a zero-star recruit from where else but Plainwell, Mich., no big-school scholarship offers, set to attend prep school until Dantonio presented a grayshirt plan—but it grows more irrelevant by the day. Conklin could be Michigan State’s first lineman selected in the first round since Tony Mandarich—yes, Tony Mandarich—in 1989.
Conklin’s blend of athleticism with raw power should be impossible to ignore. It was his speed as a high school senior, in fact, that caught Dantonio’s eye on film. He has not lost a step, either. Just ask the loathe-to-admit-it teammate who Conklin races on a regular basis as part of a never-ending competition.
“He runs like a gazelle,” Allen says. “I’ll beat him in a (sprint), and we’ll go to the next station kind of running, and—whoosh—I’m like, how the hell is this happening? I just beat him in that race.”
But Conklin doesn’t set himself in a three-point stance to begin a track meet with defensive ends. His considerable reach (he has an 84-inch wingspan) and innate strength are more useful there, and they make more lasting impressions. “He’s got some shock to him,” Spartans quarterback Connor Cook says. Conklin led the Spartans with 113.5 knockdowns in 2014, including 10.5 in a game against Ohio State, when he mostly matched up with Big Ten sack leader Joey Bosa.
Frequently enough, Cook overhears teammates complain about reps against Conklin. Most of the complaints are about how they hurt particularly bad. “I’m sure he could blow up the weight room,” Cook says. “But then he probably could get like two-, three-hundred pound bales of hay, grab them, throw them over his back and load them onto a truck.”
It is precision, though, that consumes Conklin. A subpar spring game in 2013 may have been the moment upon which his career hinged; that night, he created a list of imperatives for self-improvement, which included a better diet (he eliminated fried food, pizza and a good deal of carbs), honing his steps and understanding defenses to the point where he could sense blitzes based on a safety’s position. (He would start 13 of 14 games that fall in his first season of action.) For this year, Conklin is concentrating on a quicker first step on his kick, aiming for better depth on the back end of it, and getting to the second level of defenders more swiftly. Staten wants Conklin’s feet more consistently involved, too. “When he brings his feet and his lower body,” Staten says, “you see him just annihilating people.”
To be sure his mechanics are flawless, Conklin regularly communicates by telegraph: He will tell Shilique Calhoun, the Spartans’ gifted pass-rushing end, exactly what he plans to do. He then invites Calhoun to test him on a perceived weak spot. If Conklin is working on his jump sets, Calhoun may try an inside move to beat it; if Conklin is tinkering with that kick step, Calhoun might take a few hard steps upfield and then cut inside. “When I go into practice and go against Shilique, I want to have it be the hardest possible,” Conklin says. “So when it gets to a game, I’ll already have tested myself in the worst situation.”
“He’s constantly trying new things to better his game,” Calhoun says. “When someone thinks they understand him, he changes up and shows you, ‘This is what I do in my off time. I find new ways to be better than everyone else.’”
Dog-eared as his walk-on history may be, it is at the root of everything for Conklin and won’t leave him. He ultimately may be the perfect individual to end that NFL draft snub streak because he may be the perfect Michigan State lineman: athletic, brawny and moved by the inescapable feeling that nothing is ever good enough.
“I try not to take anything for granted that I have here,” he says. “I’m not where I want to be. I haven’t reached nearly what I want. I don’t want people to be surprised by what I can do. I don’t want to be the kid, ‘Oh, he was a walk-on, he’s all-Big Ten now, good for him.’ I want to go even farther.”
Every year, the Spartans offensive line designs a group T-shirt, typically adorned with each of their surnames. This year, the group elected to go with nicknames instead. It fell to Staten to gather each nom de guerre. Some of them he knew; Conklin is “Meatball” because he’s part of The Meat Squad, comprising the four linemen in his class. Some of them were less…predictable. “Like ‘Inmate 429,’” Staten says. “That’s one of our guys. I just learned that one.”
When it came time to catalog the nickname for Allen, the senior center and alpha personality of the group, Staten was stumped. Somehow, after four years, he didn’t know it. So he asked.
“Just ‘Jack,’” came the replies.
However Michigan State’s line evolves, the program will do well not to drift too far away from the Just Jacks and the unembellished world they inhabit. To be clear, in 2014, Allen earned All-Big Ten honors and a spot among six Rimington Trophy finalists. He led Michigan State with 18.5 “dominators.” (A “dominator” involves very specifically putting a defender on his back and landing directly on top of him.) He is a talented player who may prove to be the best center in college football this fall. If his 6’2” frame is not exactly the professional ideal, there are few other areas in which Allen comes up short.
“He really has been, for a long period of time, a little bit of the glue,” Dantonio says.
He really has been, for a long period of time, a little bit different.
There are three Allen boys: Jack; Brian, the middle child, who is a sophomore guard with the Spartans; and Matt, a high school senior committed to follow both brothers starting in 2016. All will pass through Michigan State’s walls but only after destroying their own. Wrestling was the clan’s other dominant activity—both Jack and Brian won state championships—and the basement of their Hinsdale, Ill., home featured a mat positioned under a hanging light bulb. As a result, the drywall of the basement often featured large dents and gashes. At one point a friend of Matt’s crashed back-first through a wall, which incensed John Allen, the family patriarch.
“Because it was like the third time that year,” Brian Allen says.
“When were in the prime of the fighting time, my Dad would let the basement walls get a few of them,” Jack Allen says, “so he could get the guy in and just get them all done.”
Seemingly nothing in Allen’s existence falls outside the context of battle or the urge to dispatch an enemy. The family trampoline, the one with netting around it, became “The Octagon.” Within the last year, his mother, Leslie, baked 100 cookies for a family party. Jack and Matt found them and decided to see who could eat the most. They called it a draw at 35 apiece. (Later, Matt went back inside, ate another cookie, and declared himself the winner.)
Allen likes to pulverize competition. But he is predisposed to laughs borne of thinking a little oddly; once, when the stoic Dantonio walked out on to the field to deliver his standard post-score fist-bumps, Allen snaked a hand to Dantonio’s face, yelled “Snail!” and jogged away.
But he is no goof-off. Conklin lauds his linemate’s organization, noting how often Allen studies practice video on his iPad. “People don’t understand how smart a guy Jack is,” Conklin says. In the film room with Cook, Allen goes beyond examining defensive fronts and will identify coverages as well. The Spartans’ quarterback was sacked just 11 times in 2014, a number he in part attributes to the line’s ability to process defensive changes efficiently. Cook says he has often found himself sensing that he should go to the hot read off a blitz, that he should get rid of the ball quicker than he’d prefer…and instead he’s comfortable, with as much time as he needs, because Allen redirected his linemates to new responsibilities that they tended to flawlessly.
“It went to the point when Kirk (Cousins) was quarterback, if this guy blitzed, you were hot no matter what,” Cook says. “The O-linemen wouldn’t cover for other people or they wouldn’t go beyond their responsibilities. As soon as (Cousins) got the ball, he’d have to throw to the tight end because the tight end is looking and he’s hot. We’ve gotten to the point where there are some hot situations but not nearly as many as there were in the past.”
Allen’s savvy and ability will be more helpful to Michigan State winning than anyone’s wingspan alone. But so, too, will his mindset. He does not trade in ambiguity. “I don’t want a guy to come up and shake my hand at the end of the game,” he says. “That’s kind of like the ‘I did it’ (moment), when the guy hates me so much he doesn’t want to even see me after. Because I’ve been such a prick out there.”
If Conklin represents the perfect Michigan State lineman, Allen represents the balance Michigan State must strike moving forward: As tantalizing as prospects with coveted measurables might be, the program must not wander too far away from the linemen who view things in black and white, who view every snap as an opportunity to kick someone’s teeth in, who surrender a couple inches but nothing else.
“There’s not really a trick to being an O-lineman,” Allen says. “You gotta have a little something wrong with you. But other than that, it’s just hard work, persistence and toughness. And then going out there and kind of being an ass-kicker.”
Conklin is a list-maker, and among his current goals are a spot on All-America teams and the Outland Trophy. There is a reason that voicing these desires for individual accolades is copacetic: Dantonio insists his players “dream big,” as he puts it, that they believe they are capable of performing at the next level or being the best in the country at their position.
Extrapolate that to the program itself, and it is fine that the Spartans have been good up front before—Dantonio points to 2007’s unit as a “great offensive line”—but there is plenty of room for growth. Now, a little less than a decade into its coach’s tenure at East Lansing, a little less than a decade into developing talent to meet championship expectations, Michigan State has a group that can sustain a playoff push while also catching the eye of NFL beholders.
“It’s taken some time to get where we need to get,” Dantonio says, “but I think really the last two years, we’ve been very, very good.”
In the offensive line room, a bison skull hangs above Staten’s desk in the front corner. It was a gift from a Michigan State graduate from Conklin’s hometown who wanted it to look over the big men—“It needs a name, doesn’t it?” Staten said—and it is décor befitting the space’s main tenants.
There’s also a bobblehead of Alan from The Hangover that used to talk before its batteries ran out, as well as a dry-erase board listing the five goals for the offensive line each game: winning, allowing no sacks, gaining more than 200 yards rushing, averaging four-plus yards on first downs and out-toughing the opponent.
But there may be some redecoration to display each lineman’s running tally of knockdowns and dominators. Conklin and Allen bet a steak dinner on who would win more internal offensive lineman of the week awards in 2014. At the end of the year, Conklin claimed victory, 4–3, only to have Allen check the records and note that the final score did not include the Cotton Bowl.
Allen sent Conklin a picture of the grades for that game. It forced a tie, four weekly honors apiece. Thus the competition has been carried into to 2015, with a requisite increase in the winner’s take.
“Steak dinner and ice cream,” Allen says. “Maybe Cold Stone or something.”
In the evolution of Michigan State’s offensive linemen, it seems likely professional salaries may subsidize the wager. But the bet is more important than the payoff because the bet is in service of a team aiming to do more than it has. Allen and Conklin, with the others, can push the Spartans into the playoff and into the national consciousness for good. These are people who play paintball in shorts and sleeveless shirts. They are predisposed to leave a mark.
|Sept. 4||at Western Michigan|
|Sept. 19||Air Force|
|Sept. 26||Central Michigan|
|Oct. 10||at Rutgers|
|Oct. 17||at Michigan|
|Nov. 7||at Nebraska|
|Nov. 21||at Ohio State|
|Nov. 28||Penn State|