News and Notes from Michigan State Spartan Football...Post Camp Edition!

Hondo S. Carpenter

News and Notes from Spartan Football…

With the breaking of camp on Thursday there were some things that were not shocking at all and some new details that have emerged that were. Without any doubt or hesitation, I can tell you that this was the fiercest and toughest camp out of Mark Dantonio’s six at MSU. At the same time, as physically challenging it was also one in which he did put his foot on the brake more.

He challenged this team. He rewarded good physical practice that also had a strong element of mental awareness and toughness by making the next two-of-day a skins only or staying inside for a meeting. It was the best camp yet and that says a lot.

On Thursday, the team went live in special teams, something rarely, if ever done, in a team camp. That was the physicality that head coach Mark Dantonio craves. They also came through that final scrimmage with “No new injuries” according to Dantonio. That is good news, but with the depth they have allowing them to go live, an injury would not have been a season ender as in the past.

Here is another great detail that may have been overlooked. Before camp they give the players an interval test. Basically it is a test to judge the shape they are in.  The same they give to start camp. After a long and brutal camp, Dantonio was thrilled to say “All passed” when he reissued it on Thursday.

Here are some observations of the three captains from a head coach’s perspective.

  1. Max Bullough MLB brings something to the table that very few players can as a captain in that he is nearly a 4 point student in the classroom, practices like it will be his last day on earth, and is a terrific football player. When your captains are your hardest workers on and off the field and they are your best players that is a good sign. Dantonio described him as, “Fierce warrior, not intimidated by anything.”
  2. Andrew Maxwell QB is one of the most surreal people I have ever met. Maxwell is much more soft-spoken than Bullough, but no less a leader. He is so calm, doesn’t get rattled, and whereas Cousins was a much more rah-rah presence in the huddle, Maxwell is more of a calming factor. He is the perfect ying to Bullough’s yang in personality ONLY. One area, that is much underrated because he is so mild mannered with Maxwell, is that like Bullough he is such a hard worker. He has learned to not fear Coach Mannie, he embraces the torture he hands out, loves film study, and works like an ox. Every member of this team from O to D knows that they can call Maxwell for anything and he is there. He isn’t liked; he is loved by his team. Dantonio said it best of Maxwell when he said, “Calmness, efficiency.” BINGO
  3. Chris Norman OLB could be the most popular member of this team. With so many young players pushing him for playing time, he takes his time to teach them and to make sure they are the most prepared to play his spot. One player even said of Norman earlier this summer, “He is almost like a dad on the team. He won’t say a lot, but he won’t hesitate to correct you or ride you if he don’t like something.” When MSU, several years ago, had the Rather Hall incident I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the effect it would have on this team. It angered Norman. He is so appreciative of this program and this staff and even the fan base that he vowed to never let that kind of thing happen. He became more vocal; took a more commanding lead. He is quick to run up to a freshman on either side of the ball and offer advice if he feels they are going in a bad direction or simply need a friend. Quick to hug and to scold, Norman has coach written all over him. Dantonio said that he brings, “Senior leadership, he has traveled every game of his career…maturity.” Dantonio has so many close relationships on this team. I do not think any closer than Norman. It is a father/son respect and true genuine love. The birth certificate may not say father-son, but Norman has his personality, attitude, and they share a close bond. They act like a father and a son and they share the same approach to life and football.

I did find it amusing that with the physicality of this camp, there wasn’t one person who wasn’t willing to admit that, “They are ready to play someone else.” That was a Dantonio quote. Maxwell said, “It’s time to lineup against something else, anything else.” Bullough said, “Ready right now. Let’s do it,” and Norman said, “I think the mindset of this football team is let’s go live up to expectations. Until you do, they are just that: expectations. It is a long season, a marathon, not a sprint, but we are ready.”

Dantonio admits that the playing group is figured out. 90% of the depth chart is done. The other 10% he knows who is in the playing group, but just trying to figure out who plays first. On the DL, for example, you could have any of three guys start opposite of Anthony Rashad White on the DL. Red shirt senior Tyler Hoover, I think, has the best shot, but next week in practice will be the test. He is the seasoned veteran and coming off a frustrating injury shortened 2011, in the past Dantonio likes to reward the effort of a senior. Not saying it is a done deal, but if they were playing today I would give the nod to Hoover. 

Micajah Reynolds (more on him later) is a redshirt junior. A career that was hampered by an undiagnosed medical issue and the frustration that it brought has been rectified. He has worked so hard. He has been a beast. Because of the struggle, he could also be in the mix for the starting role. Not because of the struggle, but because he has fought back and is playing at such a high level.

James Kittredge is a redshirt sophomore with no starting experience at MSU and that is why I think he is NOT going to get the nod. Having said that, what a super kid and what a great player. He is relentless. He is powerful and he has a football IQ that is through the charts. 

One thing I do know is that MSU has THREE starting quality DTs fighting for the number one spot on the depth chart, several more with the talent and ability behind them, and NO MATTER who gets the spot they will all play, and play at a high level.

Just a short note on the three DT battle. They all know that they are battling each other for number one and they all are the biggest cheerleader of the others. They battle, but they are a band of brothers. It is pretty cool to watch.

Longtime readers/listeners/viewers of Spartan Nation know that I have spoken about Macgarrett Kings, the WR out of Florida, since he popped up on the Spartan radar in recruiting. They would love the older guys to allow them to keep him as a redshirt, but I think he will play. He is explosive, mobile, plays hostile, and has great hands and disciplined route running. He is special. The one thing he has extra going for him compared to the other true freshmen is that his WR class was so big, it would be nice to create some space in that class for future recruiting and scholarships.

If Demetrious Cox was not a true freshman there wouldn’t even be a discussion of where he sits on the depth charts. Jairus Jones has looked amazing, Kurtis Drummond and R.J. Williamson are battling, but Cox is a star. I have said time and time again since MSU was recruiting him that I expected him to be a starter come the Big Ten campaign and I maintain that. He is a future NFL player and Jones having an outstanding camp allows the staff to keep him “Battling” for playing time.

The third freshman who will play is Taybor Pepper. I have written a lot about him, so I won’t regurgitate it here. I will say that when the season is over, he will be the outstanding true freshman performer of this class. Long snapper isn’t sexy, but he will battle for the best one in the Big Ten this year.

Mark Dantonio likes to find You Tube videos, sayings, anything to motivate his players. With each year you can tell his expectations go up with what he keeps repeating. This year he can’t get away from the saying, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” He knows that potential for greatness with this team. He can see it and sense it and he has preached personal responsibility and the importance of sharing this moment at this time with the squad.

Mark Dantonio is solely keyed in on Boise now. When asked for a thought he didn’t hesitate and said, “73-6 (Coach Petersen’s record) is one thought.” This game will be a battle, but don’t think for one second there isn’t great respect from the perspective of the Spartans for Boise.

Dantonio added, “Every aspect indicates extremely well-coached, tough-minded, aggressive.” I have said before that this game already has a BCS feel and it can’t get here soon enough.

Mark Dantonio keeps reminding his team that they are 30-4 at Spartan Stadium since he arrived. He wants to remind them that they have a tradition at home they must defend.

Dantonio is sold on sharing the load. It is his personal philosophy that the more people you can get with a vested interest, the more people you have buying in. This is the third year in a row that he will use a three captain set with a fourth rotating among the other nine eagles.

The 2009 season was not a good one and the biggest reason was not talent, but it was leadership. He has NEVER said this, but I believe the reason we have seen the three captain set since that season is that he might have been able to squeeze one or two more wins out of 2009 had he had a valve to let off some of the issues and pick an additional leader. Using the Eagle concept (12 true captains), he has avoided the downfall of 2009 and the team is better for having more guys being the leadership team.

Dantonio gave his players essentially three days off; Thursday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. His staff got one and a half days. He took one off. If he does anything, unlike a lot of other head coaches, he leads from the front. He is respected in his program top to bottom because of that. 

The Spartans will practice at night “Throughout the week” according to Dantonio. A great move to get the team ready for the magic of what will be Friday night vs. Boise.

Bennie Fowler might have had the best start to finish camp as anyone. Jairus Jones and Micajah Reynolds would push him for that award, but he is healthy. He also will compete for all Big Ten if he can stay healthy. WRs are a unique group. So many of them are prima donnas and Fowler isn’t. He and I have a standing joke that he doesn’t want me to get a picture of him when he is smiling. He always says, “Come on, you have to make me look mean. Not nice.” Sorry, that is impossible to do. He is healthy and playing the game he loves and the game that he has been blessed with so much, natural God-given ability. Get ready for big things, from the smiling assassin. How’s that Bennie?

Dantonio, on at least two occasions, remembered back to the 2007 camp that Devin Thomas had and eventually used to spring board to the NFL after his junior season. He has said that Fowler reminds him of Thomas this camp because of his “Big plays,” and that he has had a “Great fall camp.”

This coming week will not only be a monster week with the kickoff, but also because there will be some young men and families that will go from being a walk-on to a scholarship athlete; a reward earned and not given. Watching guys earn those are one of the best things every year.

Mark Dantonio has tried a lot of guys as the holder on field goals. A lot! I like the use of Tony Lippett, but whoever wins it, Mark Dantonio assures us that they will be a “Playmaker.” Although most don’t really grasp it, he is a river boat gambler and a play maker at that spot is gigantic.

It is funny that a punter only gets mentioned when he stinks or makes a mistake. Neither of those things signifies Mike Sadler.   The fact he doesn’t get talked about tells you how good he is. Dantonio bragged of his future Rhodes Scholar by saying, “Sadler is solid. Great go times and great hands.”

So what has Dantonio learned about his 2012 squad with camp officially over? He is in love with the fact that they have “Toughness, chemistry, great leadership and talented players.” He isn’t trying to hide it anymore. Take this Spartan Nation: your head coach is as fired up as you are.

Lastly, a side note on Micajah Reynolds. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. There is a lot of pressure when you are from Mid-Michigan and choose to play here. He battled a lot of whispers, but stayed true. They found a medical issue and after a battle were able to address it. He never quit. Sure he had down days, but he didn’t pout and through it all has made his career about something other than him.

He hasn’t been perfect, but none of us are, especially at his age and in this spotlight. He told me earlier this summer that he was going to have a great camp. His reason wasn’t about Caj, it was about Dantonio. He told me, “I want to play well. I want to make my coach look good. Coach D didn’t make a mistake on me and I want to prove him right.”

As camp broke on Thursday I told that to Dantonio. He broke into a wide grin. He was visibly moved and touched as he always is when his players mention him in that way. He cares and it moves him. He said of Reynolds comment, “That is a good thing.” He hesitated and said, “He makes his coach look good.”

I take great criticism because I love to take the Spartan Nation behind the scenes and not just let you know what is happening, but the people and the humanity behind it. Dantonio told me in 2007, “If I come here and win games, but don’t make this about changing lives and about helping people then I have failed.” He meant it that day. He means it today and he lives it. Reynolds could be bitter. He could be angry, but he isn’t. It is a testimony to his character, his coaches and to the family that MSU football has truly become.

On Sunday I will give my season predictions. Who knows what will happen. Football is a game of inches, bounces, injuries, and more. What I do know is that in six Spartan seasons with Dantonio I have never seen a better football team, a closer football team, and one where even the coaches weren’t struggling to control their enthusiasm. I can’t wait.

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