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MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY MEDIA CONFERENCE
September 1, 2009
COACH DANTONIO: Really quickly, it's another exciting year here in 2009. I think with every new season brings a new excitement, a new hope, new beginning, new players. So that's very, very exciting to all of us. I think we have Montana State coming in here, good football team, 7-5 last year, led the Big Sky in rushing defense, total defense, No. 24 I think in I-AA football in terms of total defense.
Outstanding players, Fletcher, one of the four, probably four top defensive linemen in the nation this year, and that in I-AA, up for the Cannon Award. Very active, lost some players in the secondary this summer and probably restarting that situation a little bit. Offensively, All-American guard in Hansen.
And more than anything, it's going to be an exciting atmosphere I think for everyone. I've heard the student tickets are sold out and that's what college football is all about. I think that's what makes them unique, maybe to any other sport, is so many places around the country right now, you have new beginnings and a lot of things going on. So we are very, very excited to play.
Quarterback situation, which I'm sure everybody is interested to talk about, so why beat around the bush, right? You know, we decided to go with our starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins will start the game, and we'll allow him to get into a rhythm in the game. Keith Nichol will play in the first half. We'll also allow him to get in rhythm.
Both of these young men, as I've said throughout the entire summer practices and spring, are outstanding young people. Both show good leadership skills. Both make plays on the field. They have had great summer camps, and we are looking forward to watching them compete and play in these early games.
What we'll do is as the situation dictates, we'll just go with it from there, and that's what we've said. I think both players have shown an extreme amount of maturity in dealing with situation. And I informed them of that decision Sunday night. And from at least my point of view, I don't think anything is leaked; you may know better than I do.
I think they showed a lot of maturity in dealing with this. Both will share disappointment in some point in time and both will share celebration, and we are looking for players that can handle adversity and move this team forward at that quarterback position. So that's where we'll leave it with that right now.
Our running back situation, we have a group of running backs, I think it's a position of depth for us. We lose a star player in ringer. We have two new freshmen that entered the scene. We will probably work these three guys in no particular order, Caulton Ray, Larry Caper, Edwin Baker. And those are the three guys that will take the majority of the reps at the running back situation.
But we have had a good camp. Camp is camp. You work 14, 15 hours a day; as a coach, you work about 16 hours a day. We've had some dog days where you sort of Groundhog Day; you get up and go again. But we have made it through and had a limited number of injuries, so we feel good about that and our players have worked extremely hard in getting ready for this season.
So we will kick off on Saturday and it will be a new beginning for 2009. So I'll just leave it with that and answer any questions.
Q. Will you use the same criteria you do in evaluating players in practice as do you in games, or does the criteria change from practice to games?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I think the criteria will remain pretty consistent in the fact that quarterback, as I said before, is so much more than just throwing a football down the field. It's about getting in the right play. It's about handling the huddle. It's about making the check at the line of scrimmage, going through your correct reads down the field to decide who to go to. It's about your steps when you're coming out of there to hand the ball off to somebody. It's all of those things.
We will look at mental errors, we will look at critical mistakes, we will look at opportunities to make plays and create plays. We will look at a sense of just being correct in every respect. And you know, we will sort of make decisions. It's tougher to make those decisions as games move along, but we can certainly make those decisions as we move forward. We are not going to sit here and say every week who is going to start. I don't think that's what we need to do.
I think what we need to do is allow for growth of our quarterbacks, and I've said this many times, these guys are sophomores, they have 36 games to play, and this is not a sprint. This is an endurance race. We are going to need both these players to be successful. It's important that we stay unified in everything that we do as a program, and that we give everybody an opportunity. And that's what we are going to do.
But with all that being said, Kirk will start the game and I think that we made the decision to go with him based on a little bit more of the intangibles to run the offense; he's been in the offense for two years and those type of things. But it's a very difficult situation. Kirk has also been named captain, and that's very unique in the respect that he's only been on campus for two years, but he is the same age as Greg Jones who is also captain.
We have a young football team; with that said, Keith Nichol received votes, as well, as a captain. So you go with it. And like I said before, I think it's a good situation and we'll be stronger for this situation, and that's the bottom line is how we are going to play at the end, what kind of quarterbacks we are going to have at the end of this season, and how we play as we mature throughout the season.
Q. At tailback you said there seemed to be a group of three or four guys that separated themselves, but what did Caulton Ray specifically do? We knew about him but he didn't receive as much publicity as some of the others. What did he specifically do to separate himself?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, Caulton first came and registered last year from Brother Rice High School, disciplined program, came in, did a nice job as a redshirt freshman. Last spring he took steps towards stability at that position for himself, creating situations and opportunities for himself. I think that he's carried on with that this summer. Coming out of last spring, I would say that he had the most consistency of any running back coming into this fall. That provided him with maybe a little bit more opportunity, a.
I think coming out of the fall camp, he's again proved himself to be probably the guy that will start the game. He does a nice job at pass protection, he catches the call very well and does a nice job with vision on the field, cutting ability. He runs behind his pads. He does not fumble the football. He has proved to be reliable.
Q. You touched on the fact that Kirk has been in the system for a couple more years than Keith, and that may have been the deciding factor. Was there anything else that he was able to do to distance himself in this race?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think -- we look at the good things our quarterbacks do and we correct the things that they have done negatively. I guess that when I look at these guys, they have strengths and weaknesses. We have talked about them. Both of these guys work hard to improve in their areas where they need to improve.
You know, I would just say that both the guys have been very productive this summer. So I can't give you a specific and say, this guy is doing this and I don't want to say, this guy does this better than this guy. I don't want to say that. I just want to be able to say to the general public and we have made the decision and this is who will start. I think things will bare out on the field and it will come clear as we move forward. If it doesn't become clear that, just means one thing; it means we are moving the ball offensively, we are productive offensively and that's a good thing.
Q. Sounds like you are still are open to the possibility that you might go with both well into the season. And I was wondering, if not, would you like to have a starter or someone -- similar to Notre Dame?
COACH DANTONIO: We are going to make decisions based on how they play. Again, these are young players. They have done a nice job in practice. They did a great job in the spring game last spring where there was a lot of public watching them. I think it's a different experience when you come on the field here in terms of having 75,000.
Kirk has experienced that opportunity here and did well last year. I think experience, when you go back, there's a little bit of experience in that respect. Keith has had that opportunity in a limited area at Oklahoma in his first year in a limited time.
But now he has an opportunity to do it here at Michigan State. So I'm going to allow their play to dictate where we go from here, and again, I just want to continue to say, our job is to provide an opportunity to grow.
You know, I wasn't going to flip a coin to decide who is going to start. You know, we had to make a call and it was a tough call. Probably the most difficult decision I've had to make in terms of who plays and who doesn't start, who starts and who doesn't start, since I've become a head coach. But I felt like we needed to do that and we needed to do that at a point in time where they could prepare themselves for their roles in both respects. So that's where we are at.
Q. As far as the running backs go on Saturday, do you plan on playing them similar to the quarterbacks as far as letting Ray get into a rhythm or will it be a little bit different?
COACH DANTONIO: Might be a little bit different, depends on what plays they are in. Depends on what their stamina level is, how long is the drive and those type of things. We seem to have moved people in and out of that position at times before when we had Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon both. Coach Enos does a nice job doing that and we will allow that to continue to work. I do want them to get into a rhythm; so it's not possible to say, okay, we have five running backs, we are going to give a guy three care he's apiece. We want a guy to get into a rhythm a little bit and show us what he's got. It's a starting point.
Q. You're rebuilding the right side of the offensive line and seems critical this season.
COACH DANTONIO: I think both our quarterbacks have good relationships with our players. They are strong leaders. It's very indicative of the vote to become captain. Aside from that, you have Keith and he's got a good relationship with our players. You know, our players on the offensive line, we need to be a cohesive unit. We need to execute. You know, there's no secret there.
That's what's going to make a great offensive line, toughness, execution, what we look for this n this first game is what I said the other day, you know, lack of penalties, good execution on special teams, fundamentals, those are the things that we need to look for as a football team and these are the things that are going to allow us to perform our best.
You know, Montana State will come here ready to challenge. I think it's important that we talk about Montana State, guys. I've been on a I-AA football team, football subdivision now, I've coached those teams. They have transfers coming in, we have a wide receiver from Oregon coming in, they have good players and they have been productive. They played Minnesota last year, as I said earlier, we were leading Minnesota at the quarter, down by two at the half, so they will be ready to go and they will be motivated.
Q. How do you feel about the progress of the right side of your offensive line? Where do you think they are at this point?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, you know, we get guys nicked up and they miss a couple practices or so, and then they come back. But Jared McGaha and J'Michael Deane will both play; play a lot, I feel. At the right tackle position, you have Brendon Moss and probably D.J. Young will play a lot, and we will see who plays well out of those four guys.
You know, again that, will be something that we figure out as we move through these early games, as well. But we need to be cohesive in what we are doing. They have the opportunity to have reps in that respect with the ones and twos there but those players are starting to make their moves. What are they going to become? That's not always up to me. That's up to them. They will be held to task.
Q. (Inaudible) what do you expect his role to be --
COACH DANTONIO: I expect him to continue to work extremely hard and wait for an opportunity. These decisions are made over the basis of 27 practices. So it's difficult. And again, you really are splitting hairs sometimes because it's very, very difficult to make these decisions, but he's come to work. He's come to practice yesterday. He played very well in practice. He worked extremely hard.
You know, this is all about handling adversity and if it teaches you nothing else when you're in college, is to be able to handle adversity and to be able to overcome your situation. Sometimes you have to face the brutal reality and the facts of where you're at and sometimes that's tough, but the only way to try and change that is to play yourself back in. But if he continues to work hard, you never know. There will be opportunities, and he's got to make good on those opportunities.
What we have to do is make sure that we are consistent at every position, whether it's pass protection, carrying the football, handling the football, lack of turnovers, those type of things and so we have to look at it all, assignment football. We can't just look at yardage sometimes. But he had a good first scrimmage.
Q. I just wanted to ask you about a couple of things on the depth chart. You had Ware or Weaver, and Cunningham listed ahead of Dell, can you talk about those two spots?
COACH DANTONIO: Ross Weaver has been elected one of our captains, as well. He's a guy that started here for two seasons. He's a very good player. Jeremy Ware had a good summer camp. They are either/or to me. We have started these guys back and forth throughout last season.
Our other corner situation is much the same. You have C.L. Rucker, you have Kendell, Johnny Adams. Kendell can play safety. It's a good situation. You'll see all of those guys playing. Right now that's how it's listed at game time, it may be listed differently but depends how they practice this week. It's a flip of a coin there.
As far as the wide receiver situation right now; Mark is nursing a shoulder, so you know, we are just going to let him see where he's at with the things. It's either/or.
Q. In a first-game situation, playing a team like Montana State, would you have more anticipation of things that they might not do that you have to be, I guess prepared for more surprises in a situation in a game like this?
COACH DANTONIO: I think in any first game, you look at anything that happened to you last year, first of all.
So we go back and look at all of the different things that happened to us, where we were exploited or what hurt us a little bit, and try to work on those things, whether it was in the spring practice or fall camp or now to look at things that they may do. And then you look all of the things that they do, from their past season. I'm sure they will have some new wrinkles, but we have to look across the board. So we have done that.
We have prepared for this football team just like we will for Notre Dame. I'm sure there will be some things that we have to adjust to, offensively and defensively, special teams, that's the nature of it. With this being the first game, you don't know sometimes, especially personnel things. But we do the best we can in that area but we try and leave no stone unturned.
Q. How do you get a fair evaluation of what you have in the tight end position in these games? Seems like you have so many about the same size and a lot of different abilities.
COACH DANTONIO: Tight end has become a position of strength, as well, for us. We have basically had four that are capable of playing. We will probably look to play Garrett Celek, again, he's nursing a little with some injuries. Whether he plays or not will be a game-time decision.
But you know, as far as how Charlie has played, Charlie began has played and Brian Linthicum has played and Dion Sims, those three guys will see the field a lot, and we have quite a few different personnel groupings that allow them those opportunities. It will be exciting to watch them. They catch the ball very well. They are tough. They stay after it. Their assignment conscious and it will be interesting to see how that all plays out but we will continue to play all of those players, all four.
Q. Looking at left tackle, what has Young showed you? Was he able to receive a scholarship?
COACH DANTONIO: D.J. right now is not on scholarship. The intent is to put him on it at midseason. We had no attrition this year. And so at this point in time, as we sit right now, he is not. Again, adversity, get an opportunity to play, he's shown that he is a player here and he'll be rewarded for that at a later date.
As far as how Rocco has performed, he nursed the shoulder a little bit coming into camp. He has missed a couple of days doing that, he's back to full go and practicing, so I see no problems with Rocco.
Q. Glenn Winston (ph) is on the chart as a returner, is he up to snuff?
COACH DANTONIO: He will play given the situations that he's in, but he will play when we want him to play. It's not going to be -- he's going to play when we want him to play, like any other player.
Q. How much do you have to -- none much us have asked about Montana State as much as you want us to; how much do you have to preach to your team that this is a real game? This can't Cal, but this is a team that can ruin your season right away. Do you have to sell your players on that as Thursday and Friday creep up?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I really don't think we are going to have to sell our players on that. Going out in Spartan Stadium for the first time is an exciting event for us. Some of the guys have not been on the field before. We have some redshirt freshman that are going to be on the field that have never been on the field before. They are going to be excited and motivated to play, and they are going to be motivated to play with a lot of attention to detail and enthusiasm and those type of things.
Hopefully we don't underestimate our opponent. We never have at this point. But I guess as the head coach, you are always concerned about things. Montana State played, as I said, Minnesota very tough. The score was lopsided in the Kansas State game, it got out of hands. But if you look closely it was 7-7 in the first quarter, and they played with them and they never quit playing, and that's the thing that was impressive to me. Their linebackers are very active, No. 31 very good player, Gazzerro; Price, No. 34; Fletcher, No. 47 very good player; offensive line, 76, Hansen, good player, quarterbacks, two quarterbacks, 16 and 12, they will start 16, the right hander, got a tailback that's run for some yards. Last year they were No. 1 in their conference against the run and they were No. 1 this their conference running the football.
So Coach does a nice job. Coach Ash does a nice job. I think he's a good coach. Everything that you see on the field is done with an attention to detail and they are a well-coached football team.
Q. When you put together this depth chart as you will throughout the season, how difficult do you anticipate it being compared to your first two years here, knowing that you seem to at least appear to have more players in the mix vying for different spots?
COACH DANTONIO: I think we have more players in the mix right now, when you look, for example, at tight ends or the defensive backs and that should prove, you know, helpful to us as we go down through the long run. But these guys all got to this point because they were sort of forced into duty last year.
So that's a positive thing for us, but I think, you know, we'll probably play three freshmen this week, not four. Probably play four freshmen this weekend. We'll play Chris Norman, who has done an outstanding job, No. 10 and you'll see him show up, very outstanding football player, he's been a great one here. He'll play at linebacker and he'll be involved in special teams and you'll see Dion Sims play, tight end, actually your two running backs play, Caper and Baker.
So those are the four that probably will have an opportunity to show a little bit. Then you add that to the depth that we have already, red-shirt freshman that will be in the niche, Jerel Worthy is a guy that's going to be playing. I can't really think of all of the other ones right now. But he's the one that has caught my eye as a red-shirt freshmen that you'll notice him.
So Ishmyl Johnson is going to play, and Ishmyl is I think ready to go. Talked to him the other day, first game in about a year and a half, so you don't have to sell him on the excitement part. We have a lot of guys who have not been in this situation before who will be jacked up to play.
Q. In the summer, the quarterbacks told us you put them through a little bit of a question and answer, what if you're the guy, what if you're not the guy, just to see how they would react. Did you get the kind of reaction out of Keith that you would have liked to see even though he wasn't named the starting quarterback?
COACH DANTONIO: Absolutely. You know, and Coach Warner did that, our quarterback coach. I did look at their answers there. And again, the way that they have handled this has been extremely mature. That says a lot about the type of people that we have. It's a tough deal. Everybody wants to be the starting quarterback, you know that. The main thing is, who is going to be the starting quarterback at the end of the season, how is it going to play into next year; this is a long-term thing, and I don't think it's fair to base these decisions on, you know, summer camp. Guys maybe get hurt, those type of things.
But in terms of how they handled it, you expect disappointment. There is disappointment, but there's maturity there. And that to me shows wisdom, on both sides, in the way they both handled it, which is what you want from your quarterback.
Q. Another guy who was banged up a little bit during camp was Kevin Pickelman and he still ended up getting the starting job. What did he show you late in camp? And also on the freshman situation what does it mean to your program to apparently redshirt most of this class?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, on the second question, we have an outstanding freshman class; 22 guys came in. It's a huge thing for us to be able to redshirt our players. We have defensive linemen, offensive linemen that are being redshirted, a couple wide receivers as well. It's a huge advantage for us to have these guys who can help in graduation, because by the time they get to their fifth year they will have graduated and will also help in their maturity but they have done an outstanding job. They are going to be a very good football team by the time they are juniors and seniors and they will have a lot to do with that.
In terms of Kevin Pickelman, you know, he's making his way back in terms of what kind of player is he, high motor. Another guy that's played limited the last couple of years but figures to be a starter for us, high motor guy, weighing about 275 now, and we'll look for him to have great things here this year.
COACH DANTONIO: Mac (indiscernible) is a likely redshirt.
Q. Who does a freshman have to do in your eyes to make it on the field for the first game?
COACH DANTONIO: First of all he has to have athletic, I don't want to say, ability, to do it. Some positions dictate that you have to move people off the line, your core strength, those type of things. 18- to 22-year-olds, and competing with a 22-year-old wide receiver, defensive backs, their skill level is more on the same plane I think.
But they have to show an attention to detail. They have to be able to show consistency, and that's the biggest thing. They have to be able to play every single play with a high amount of detail, being able to understand the check system on offense, being able to adapt to the different lineups on offense as to run, and the routes on the defensive side of the ball and being able to run our scheme and being involved in the different pressures and all of the different fronts and the checks and those type of things.
So a lot of it goes beyond the true physical ability and goes into the X's and O's of it, and being able to handle that. And sometimes it's just that you're in a position of need. If you're in a position of need, you're likely to play earlier and I think that was the case maybe in '07, let's say. We were in a position of need at certain positions that we played our guys.
Q. What do you look for in the rest of the team to see their response to the starting quarterback or to see if this is something that could go on for several more weeks with Cousins starting?
COACH DANTONIO: We look for execution, pure and simple, ability to move the football and score points. As I said lack of penalties and lack of unforced errors and I say up forced errors, jumping off-sides, quarterback center exchange problems, those type of things. So you need to at least start with that.
And that's where it all begins. The first day out, your first game back, I think it all starts with the simple things and we have to build from there. So we have to do the simple things well and at a rapid pace.
Q. How do you envision splitting time between the two quarterbacks? Do you have a certain number of snaps or series in mind or anything?
COACH DANTONIO: No. I don't have that in mind. I'll just know when it's right. Our quarterback coach will know wits right but I want our quarterbacks in a rhythm. It's important that they move the chains, too. But it's not like if we don't, we are going to get yanked. It's not going to be like that. We are going allow opportunity. We'll know. When they get to that point, then we make a change and allow the other guy to get to that point and then we'll come back with whatever we feel.
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