Biggest Changes so Far with Spartan Football Under Mark Dantonio

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Biggest Changes so Far with Spartan Football Under MD

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I often get asked, “What is the biggest difference so far under Mark Dantonio?” Of course, you could talk about the unity of staff and the discipline with a purpose. Those two areas are immense. Let’s take another direction today however.

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One of the biggest areas is the speed. I had dinner with a prominent member of the University last evening and they said to me, “It just seems like these kids fly.” To which I reminded them that our team’s speed isn’t even close to an Ohio State yet.

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It amazes me, with only two classes of recruits under his wings, how much speed Mark Dantonio has added. With the 2009 class, to borrow a line from Emeril, it takes it to “Another notch.” Under JLS and even Bobby there were fast guys for sure, but Dantonio takes another route. He wants speed at every position. He wants to see our guys flying around like he saw Tressel build at Ohio State.

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I know that some are tired of the Ohio State comparisons, but they are germane. They are what Dantonio believes in and it is the exact same model that Tressel used. When you watch Ohio State play they have speed everywhere. Does anyone remember the critics of James Laurinaitis? “He has speed, but not a lot of anything else?”  Where are the pundits now that he turned down the millions of being a certain NFL first round pick and came back?Â

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Mark Dantonio is building much the same way. Devin Thomas exploded on the scene last season, but now there are a myriad of guys who can.  The debate during the JLS years was simple. JLS wanted little guys who had speed. He once described it to me, “I want those little Smurfs that are hard to see and catch.” Dantonio isn’t looking for Smurfs. He likes the big physical guys that have speed. He hasn’t backed down. He hasn’t taken the approach that he can only have big or fast. He wants both and has gone head to head with the Tressel’s and other programs that the JLS years backed down from in competition for those recruits.

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Mark Dell had a very good freshman season, but with a year of experience under his belt will step in and go to the next level. He has to learn to hold onto the ball better, but he certainly doesn’t lack speed or size and most of all heart. BJ Cunningham could very well be the surprise player that may rival Devin Thomas stepping up last year. Again, big and fast, and then there is Fred Smith. Dantonio and staff make it very clear that freshman can earn a spot, but nothing is given. Well, Fred Smith is so good that he already is penciled in as the opening day guy. Who knows if he is the first on the field (although they do see him as the starter), but when the plays count he will be on that field.

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Those are receivers. We expect that…right? Now the Spartans are going after the blazing speed everywhere. Blake Treadwell (2009 OL recruit) runs the anchor leg of his school relay team and Chris Norman, much like Fred Smith, will step on the field at MSU with a spot.Â

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The second big area where things have changed is an eye on the future. MSU doesn’t waste scholarships. You hear talk about how many numbers they want and let’s be realistic there are ceilings. The funny part, however, is even if in any given year the Spartans want 22 kids (that number was only used for this example and is not a set number from the program), if they can’t get 22 that they see as future players and contributors, they would take 16. They would also go as high as 25 or so if they were accumulating talent (and of course the numbers were available). “I find it funny how these recruiting sites can say what we are going to do when we don’t know. This is like a chess match. We look for guys that can keep balance in numbers for sure, but we aren’t saying no to players that want to come here and can make us better,” was what recruiting coordinator Mark Staten told me recently.

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I know that there have been years at MSU where some guys were taken because the Spartans, “Needed numbers,” and not because they thought they could play here.

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Think about this Spartan Nation. When was the last time MSU red shirted players that were good? Guys that could have stepped on the field and been starters? Sure they have when they had a QB (Hoyer waited for Stanton) and when guys were injured. I am talking about healthy able and talented players? How often did the fans moan that MSU had nothing left in the tank when young players hit the field? Think about this.

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Last season BJ Cunningham was not ready at the start of the season to play. After a few short weeks the staff had to spend considerable time in meetings asking themselves if they should take off the red shirt and play him. Dantonio could have got himself some immediate help by simply playing Cunningham. He chose not to. Look at the late season losses. Does anyone not think that Hoyer could have used the help? Cunningham’s talents would have had him in as a starter including the bowl, but the coaches weren’t willing to trade marginal success today on the future.Â

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I talked with Dantonio about Cunningham after the season. I asked about keeping him red shirted when he very clearly could have played. “Those sometimes are tough choices. You have to really look at getting a few games out of him where he very clearly could have helped, or being disciplined and getting an entire season out of him. You have to look at what is best for the young man and the team. We could have used him, but now we have him for an entire season.”

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So what now? The Spartans lost a lot on the DL, but with Dantonio employing the Tressel approach that plays a lot of players to gain experience we come in with a deeper team and a better team than last season.

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We have guys that are ready to step up. Sure we lost Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin, but with no disrespect to them, Trevor Anderson is more proven right now than either of them where last season at this point and even last year at ANY TIME would have started ahead of them, while he sat and watched due to transfer rules. We add great athleticism with Tyler Hoover and the Spartans have guys who have already taken snaps and have experience.

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This Spartan program isn’t where it is going to be. It also is a long way from where it was, thanks to Dantonio’s commitment to the future and his craving for speed. Spartan football will still have growing pains, but you have to love where it is and better yet, where it is going.