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MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL MEDIA CONFERENCE
December 16, 2015
East Lansing, Michigan
COACH DANTONIO: Just to begin, I guess we're in the midst of planning. Obviously this is a big week for us practice, etc., getting our feet back up underneath us.
Alabama has an outstanding football team. I think we all understand that. Defensively they are No. 1 in their conference and ranked one, two or three in a variety of different situations and categories and everything. Derrick Henry, obviously Heisman Trophy winner, almost 2,000 yards rushing. He leads the nation in touchdowns, which I think, 23, so he'll be an outstanding opponent and will be a challenge for us to stop.
We are going to focus on the moment, basically, as we move through the process here, and that moment is preparation right now. So with that, I'll just take some questions. That's usually the best way to do this, and we'll go from there.
Q. Just prior to 2011, I asked Saban about Kirk Cousins and the MSU passing attack. He said, "They are stubborn" and that you guys, even if they shut your run down, you wouldn't go away from it. How important is balance in this game?
COACH DANTONIO: I think any time you play football in general, you've got to have balance. You've got to be able to throw the football in this day and age, there's no question about that. But you also have to be able to run it. And that's going to be a challenge.
But we've got a good offensive line. We've got good backs. We've run it against some good defenses in this conference and in the country, and it's been sort of a staple for us. So we've got to be able to continue to, I believe, stay balanced, as you said, but not make mistakes, not beat ourselves and shrink the game sometimes when you need to, but also, you need to always be on the plus side of the change.
You know, you look at with Alabama secondary and their coverage schemes, very, very good, very sound, great technique, you really look across the board at their defense and they are going to play 11 different defensive players up front. They are going to play a variety of linebackers. Obviously No. 19, Ragland, is a tremendous football player. So is Robinson, up there at No. 86, and back end, Jones, No. 5 outstanding corner. Safety is very, very good.
Everywhere you look, you're impressed. I'm a defensive coach by trade and so when you look at their defense, you see guys playing with great techniques and being very successful with what they do.
Regardless of that, we have to be who we are, too. We can't become something we're not.
Q. Rush defense is a huge strength for your team; how big is it knowing that your rush defense has been able to shine against some of the best attacks in the country this year heading into this game?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, it gives us confidence, I think as a football team, every team that we could possibly play in a College Football Playoff, or for that matter, in a big six game, much like we've done these last two years, we're going to have good football teams. We have to understand that we are in that hunt, as well. This isn't new ground in terms of playing in one of these games, first time in a playoffs, but we played against good football teams in the past, great offenses, great backs. Going to be a challenge. Just a big-body guy, Derrick Henry, very physical.
Excited that I was at the awards ceremony. I was able to see him up front and personal, up close and personal, so you could see how big he is. He's a physical running back and well deserved of the Heisman Trophy and everything he's been able to accomplish.
Q. Your team is not only preparing for Alabama this week but they are in exam week. How are they balancing everything out and what are you preaching at this time?
COACH DANTONIO: You have to get good grades and get ready. That's a little bit of a challenge, but we've been able to work through that and our guys have stayed busy and we're going to get our lits (ph) in and we are going to make sure that we are at the exams and prepare for that and also make sure that we practice.
We've moved practice around a little bit to be able to allow for those opportunities. You know, it really has not conflicted as much as I would have thought, really. Our guys have been there and prepared; wide awake.
Q. What separates Connor as a quarterback in the pocket from other teams? And he's taken some criticism for attitude, what happened with Archie Griffith or his pro prospects over the last few weeks. Is that stuff fair?
COACH DANTONIO: First of all, what happened at the Big 10 Championship game, very difficult to hear up on that stage, because I could barely hear what was going on.
And I don't really think that he realized, who Archie was at that point in time. He was standing behind him and the whole thing was just sort of, got out of whack there a little bit. A lot of excitement. It was minutes after the game. Very exciting time for everybody involved.
So I think that that was -- there was a lot to be made out of that. It was certainly not intentional, and he apologized the next day to Archie personally.
But as far as -- he's a pocket quarterback, and the first question, you guys always throw these three or four questions at me.
I think what separates him in the pocket, he's got a great release, he's big, he's tall, he's a very confident player. He throws to guys who are open and he can fit the ball in very, very tight windows as we've seen throughout the year. I think he's having his best year as a senior. He's played on a big stage in big games and he's been extremely successful.
So those are the things that sort of separate him I think from maybe the guy.
Q. Some of the guys are saying the first couple of days of practice this week have been pretty intense, a lot of hitting like camp; is that something you're pushing or from them?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it's both. We're making sure it's structured and controlled, but I don't think there's any question, with a week layoff and then anticipating what's coming, our guys are getting ready. They know they have to tackle well. They understand that they have to play great technique to be successful this game. So they are working at their craft, but they are also very excited about the opportunity.
Q. Is that any different from last year's Bowl preparation?
COACH DANTONIO: Tough for me to say. Tough for me to say that without thinking back. I had not really thought about that, just try to stay in the present. We've always had great Bowl practices. Our guys come to work. There's no lack of work here.
Q. Can you talk about the Big Ten versus SEC aspect and how you're carrying the banner and whether you think the Big Ten has caught up with the SEC?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I think there's great parity in college football. I don't really look at it. I look at it like Michigan State versus Alabama. We're carrying the Big Ten Conference, I guess, the torch a little bit. But I think it's more about personal matchups. I think that every Bowl game has that. It's about the individual matchups that you have to win -- the conference is not winning it but that particular team is winning it.
Q. You mentioned the 11 rotation they have on the defensive line. Is there any benefit because of all the changes that you had to have and go through through the season?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, we can play eight guys up there, and we feel good about playing all eight. And I think that's something that we're going to have to do as well, because they are going to be fresh, and we need to be fresh, as well. I think we will do that. I don't think there's any question that we'll do that, as well.
Q. Can I ask about Jack Conklin, how he's been such a key leader going from a walk-on to All-American?
COACH DANTONIO: The guy came, we knew he was a good player. We basically said, if you walk on first semester, we'll put you on, much like we've done with Cole Chewins this year. He's going to be an outstanding player, as well.
And then Jack has really just took off. He started as a red shirt freshman for us. He's been a dominant player, he's extremely athletic, he's extremely smart. He's played in a lot of big games for us and he's got a lot of game experience.
So this again will be a great challenge for him individually, as well, as well as all of our guys up there. They have got some mens; they have some big guys up there, very physical players, and they can play.
Q. Wondering how your enjoyment level has changed over the years; now you have all these demands on your time and you have about six of these wonderful press conferences you're going to do in the next couple weeks. Has your enjoyment level changed?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, enjoying this one. I think that we're comfortable, if that's the word I want to use. I think we have played well, especially these last three years, especially these last six years, we've played well. And I think that our players are a little bit more used to being on this stage and performing well in this environment. And that's what has to happen. If you're going to take steps in your program to get to where you want to go; where we wanted to go at the very beginning of all of this was to win championships.
You know, as crazy as it sounds, I stood there and pointed at the ring that I had on my finger the day I was announced that I believed it could happen here, because it had happened here in the past. That was a little bit of a reach forward, but I think you have to do that. I think you have to be bold and you have to dream big.
And if you're going to attract great players here, they have to understand that they can play at a marquis time and they can play on a big stage and they can play with the very best in the country and that's what we have been able to do and we've got players doing that.
Q. Do you wear the ring --
COACH DANTONIO: No, I don't wear them. There's always one to go, the way I'm looking at it.
Q. Can you just talk about the Bullough family and what they mean to Michigan State football throughout the history of the program?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, the Bullough family, you go way back to Hank and Henry and the things that he's been able to accomplish here, winning the National Championship as a player, being involved with Duffy and with George Perles later on and the things he brings from a history standpoint. Very, very Green.
And then you have Shane, and you have Chuck coming after that, playing for Coach Perles. Again, Big 10 Championship players, and now you have Max who is now playing with the Texans and obviously I think he's a three-time all Big Ten player, first team all Big Ten player and now we have Riley and then Byron.
So from day one since I've come here, I think those guys came, I guess Max came in 2010. And Byron is a red-shirt freshman. So you've got a another three years. So I don't know, what's that, about ten, 12 years with bull as on our football team. So it's amazing what they have been able to accomplish here at Michigan State and what Michigan State means to them.
So you know, they are great role models for our football family in terms of how you approach football here at Michigan State.
Q. I heard some Special Forces in Afghanistan found a way to get the Big 10 Championship over the Internet, and I heard from a lady not going to the Bowl because she's having surgery on a brain tumor and she's upset about missing it. Do you talk to the players about getting bigger than just a game; how do you relay to 18- and 22-year-olds how people in so many diverse areas that this means so much?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, when I came here back in 1995, and Jim Cotter, who was then the assistant admissions director at the time, we had him in to talk to our recruits. I remember him talking to them and at the end of it, talked about our committees, and what he said -- and I said that in my first conference, the quote is: "Give me a place to stand and I can move the world." I believe that you could do that from Michigan State. I've said that to our players on a number of occasions and they see it happening.
Because this is such a global world, environment, that I think that sports moves people, it's a people driven business and when you're playing at a high level or you're competing for high stakes, it captures everybody, from here all the way around the globe, I think those things are happening and it's very exciting and our players need to understand that and as Churchill said, with success comes responsibility so hopefully we understand that, as well.
Q. Calhoun's on-the-field performance is critical to your success. Can you talk about his personality and what it means to your program off the field?
COACH DANTONIO: Big personality. He can probably run this press conference better than I could. You guys have seen him in action.
I think he enjoys playing football. He comes to practice and enjoys practice. He enjoys messing around, having fun with the game. He's a dynamic football player. But just as important, I think he's a dynamic person. He's made a decision to come back.
Last year when I sat there on signing day and said, hey, our two biggest recruits, the two guys that have the biggest impact on our football team that we recruited this year, Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun mand one of those reasons is to play in this type of game at this type of moment. It's exciting to see those guys accomplish their dreams and their goals, to be in this position, but we need to go beyond this game, too and they understand that, as well.
Q. You talked about believing what was possible here when you first took over as the head coach. At that point did you look back at all on what you had been able to accomplish during Coach Saban's tenure up through the 1999 season as evidence of what might be possible?
COACH DANTONIO: Yes, I did, because I had seen it happen here. I saw it become a 10-2 football team and ends up with the Citrus Bowl, Bobby Williams as the head coach for that one, but beating Florida, ended up I think No. 10 in the nation at that point in time. Poised to sort of take off.
But you know, I think the continuity in staff has helped us immensely and then the structure, the facilities, the upgrades in facilities, and we just kept sort of pecking away. And you know, we found a way to win and we found a way to get to the Bowl games and eventually we found a way to win the Bowl games, which we have done the last four times against great opponents, I might add.
And then found a way to win Big Ten Championships and I guess these last three years, I guess we're 36-4. So I guess maybe fourth best in the country or something like that.
So we found a way to move forward, and when I think all of that was pointed, like I said to the past; the fact that Michigan State has been successful in the past, to me gave me great evidence that it could happen again. And also, the people that we knew here, the landscape, I understood the landscape here when I came back.
Q. You mentioned a process often when you talk about Michigan State's evolution in the College Football Playoff team. What about that 49-7 loss, your fourth straight Bowl loss and since then you've turned the corner and learned how to win. What did you take from that? What changed as far as the culture of Bowl games for your program?
COACH DANTONIO: Like Coach Tressel used to say when he looked down that table when I was an assistant, he said: "We've come a long way but we're really not quite there yet, are we."
And you know, at that point in time, things sort of snowballed in that particular game but they had a dynamic football team that many felt could have challenged for the National Championship, but they lost their SEC Championship Game. We weren't ready yet. We weren't ready for that scope yet.
So we'll see how far we've come from that particular moment. But you know, that was in 2010, so this is a completely different dynamic now.
Q. What do you do different?
COACH DANTONIO: We need to block better, tackle better, catch the ball better, throw the ball better, all those things we need to do better. And we need to understand who we're playing against and get ourselves ready mentally.
Q. Clutch performance in the Big 10 Championship game but going back to Western Michigan in the fourth quarter, you put the ball in his hands a lot; how did he earn that trust so quickly to be put in those big spots?
COACH DANTONIO: I think what we've tried to do, we have four good running backs that have played big moments throughout the last number of years. So try and put the running back in there that's hot, and I've felt like at that point in time that LJ was the guy. I just had that feel. So that's the guy that we pushed forward. And he, you know, he responded.
So that's the way we've always tried to handle it. We've done it with Gerald. We've done with it London and we've also done it with Delton, maybe not this year, but we've done it with Delton in the past, as well.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the safety question. What's realistic for R.J. in this game, how is he practicing now and how much can he be involved and talking to Demetrius earlier, trying to figure out if he missed a snap this year on defense. How durable and versatile has he been for you guys? So there's two questions there.
COACH DANTONIO: If Dede came out, it was because a fast-paced offense or tempo-type thing where we just rolled him. But he's been a mainstay back there for us.
And then I expect R.J. to be full go. Now, we will not have played a game, but he looked very, very good this week thus far. And we're working him back into it but he looks very good and he looks active and he looks ready to go. He has such a great deal of experience that he's going to adapt very quickly in that area.
Q. You talk about all the success you guys have had in recent years and 11-win seasons and these big Bowl wins. How do you maintain the identity of the chip on the shoulder, the underdog mentality, the stuff that framing has worked so well for this program; does it make it more difficult when you have success like that?
COACH DANTONIO: Everybody keeps saying we have a chip on our shoulder all the time. Maybe it's because I don't smile up here often enough.
The chip on our shoulder is relative to us, how we play, how we respond. Has nothing to do with who we are playing against, because we have a great deal of respect for everybody we play against, but the chip on our shoulder is for -- it's just we need to get ourselves ready to play. And we are constantly saying, it's about who we are and about how we play.
So that mentality has to be relative to, you know, excellence in performance. You've got to be able to play at a very high level when you play against these teams.
So you've got to challenge yourself to be at your best when your best is needed. That's what we tried to do on every occasion. So we come in with the mentality, you know, the same type of mentality that Alabama comes into it with or any of these great football teams; that they expect to win and there are always going to be doubters out there from every angle, whether you're here or whether you're on another football team.
So we challenge ourselves. I think that's where the chip comes from, or if you want to say a chip. But we're going to be mentally ready and I think from my standpoint, that's a coach's job is to get your guys mentally ready. Know what to do, do it to the best of their ability, make sure that they are rested mentally and emotionally so that they can be at their best and charged.
Q. You've talked a lot over the last couple years about chemistry. A guy like Jack Allen who has been so successful, but we see bits of his personality here and there, but the guys talk about him and how important he is and how much fun they had with him. Can you talk about guys, especially him --
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, we have a whole team of those kind of guys. I think every football team does. That's what makes football so unique. We have 115 guys and 115 different personalities, and you know, all I could say is that they are characters, but they are fun to be around. Whether I'm sitting there talking to Jack about his pet python or I'm talking to him about, how do you feed that python and things of that nature. Then he goes into some story or whatever it is. But he's got a great sense of humor. He keeps people loose but he's a very intense guy and he's a guy that takes challenges on. He takes challenges on. So I think that's one of the reasons he was elected captain.
Q. Your thoughts on Bubbles the cat --
COACH DANTONIO: No, I heard that you guys were talking to him about Bubbles. I didn't know he had a cat. I didn't know they could co-exist, the python and the cat. I guess they can. I guess they both eat mice.
Q. There have been comparisons to this team with Ohio State, championship team that won close, tight games. Do you think it's almost as simple as when you win close, tight games, then you're capable of winning more close games because of that experience; one begets another?
COACH DANTONIO: I think there's something to be said for when the game is on the line, you've got to make a play. And if you've made plays before, when it's on the line, then you get added confidence that you can do it; that you've seen it happen and it can be done.
So I think there's added to that -- would I rather win them by 21, and just smile on the sideline, walk up and down, yeah, I'd rather do that. But the nature of this game is, as I said earlier, there's a lot of parity in college football, and it makes games tight, and anybody can rise up and play with anybody else. We've seen that across the board, across this country.
So the nature of it is that you've got to play well down the stretch. We've been able to do that. A lot of close games here but we also have to make them close, too, one way or the other. Got to play throughout I think every single play.
Q. When you review Alabama's games and have watched all of them this year, they lost to Ole Miss but they have been held tight a few times. Every team that has, has done two things: They have made them have to go to Coker's arm and that team has also to throw down the field so they can't stack the box. How important is it to make Coker throw and for you to throw down the field?
COACH DANTONIO: From a defensive standpoint, I know that you've got to pressure the quarterback, you've got to stop the run, got to play well on third down and you've got to win situations, tackle in space and all those different things. Big challenge I think is creating those third down situations.
Obviously if he's third and ten, it's better than being third and two. So you've got to create those situations on the early downs, but Coker does a nice job. Is a good football players. They have guys surrounding Derrick Henry, tight ends, very good offensive line. They have got players.
So again, it's going to be a challenge, at every Avenue, special teams, everything, great punter, at every AVENUE, they have got a great football team so we are going to have to prepare on every respect, really.
To just conclude, really, we're looking forward to the Cotton Bowl. I think the Cotton Bowl is an outstanding experience. Had an opportunity last year and played it on January the first. I think it's a little bit ironic that we have an opportunity to go full circle and now 365 days later, we play on December 31 at the Cotton Bowl.
So with that said, we'll look to complete our circles and we'll move from there. FastScripts by ASAP Sports ...
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports