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August 10, 2010

Mark Dantonio

THE MODERATOR: To preview his fourth season as head coach, head coach Mark Dantonio.
COACH DANTONIO: Well, welcome back, everybody. I know you had a chance to visit with our coaches a little bit today and our players. I think I answered a lot of question at the Big Ten meetings.
I thought our guys came in very well. Yesterday we had our first day of practice. I think any time you have your first day of practice, it brings back a lot of memories for coaches and players. Some seniors going into their last go-around. Some first-year players. Exciting to see guys out there the first time. Made quite an impression on us just in shorts. Good retention from our older players, guys helping coach the younger players. That's all very positive.
I think we had some great strength gains physically. The tangible things we see physically from our players this past season I think, I remember Coach Manning talking last night, we probably have maybe six players bench over 300 pounds, we have 57 players bench between 350 and 470 pounds. I thought when you hit that 350 mark bench press, you're in that capacity to be able to play with quickness and play with about anybody. Between 350, 470, that's quite an accomplishment.
The squat, 50 plus guys are squatting over 500 to 550 or beyond, some in the 600 range, quite a few. Good speed.
Top to bottom when you look at our football team, our fourth year here, I'm very excited about the opportunities that we have in front of us, very excited about our upcoming team. Top to bottom, I would say it's probably as talented a team as we've had. Certainly we've lost some good players in the past three years, but we have more depth. That should show and carry over.
With that I'll probably just open it up for questions. That's usually the best way to handle this thing. So questions?

Q. What are you most concerned about your football team as you start camp?
COACH DANTONIO: Certainly I think when you look at it, you have to address the kicking situation. Who is going to be our kicker? Over the course of a football season, if you have your kicking unit, field goal, extra point unit put up between 85 or 100 points, 110 points, you're going to have a good football team. Brett Swenson has been money these last three years. That falls to three guys. All three of those guys kicked yesterday. Dan Conroy, Kevin Muma and Mike Sadler did a nice job. It's first day out. We have to put pressure on them and see how they respond. That would be one concern.
Rebuilding our offensive line on the right side obviously would be a concern. But we do have some guys with some game experience back, so that's a positive there.
Beyond that, linebackers, we should be fine. Secondary, we should be fine. We've got guys in the right place. Quarterback situation is solid. Wide receiver depth is very, very good, along with tight ends. Our runningback situation is very solid.
I think, as I said before, stand by what I said, we should have a good football team.

Q. Some of your players were talking today winning the Big Ten championship, getting the school back to the Rose Bowl is something on their mind daily. Do you like that?
COACH DANTONIO: Absolutely. Absolutely. I've always said from day one in coming here, you expect to win championships. With that being said, it hasn't happened in a while. You set yourself apart.
When you look at what has transpired here in the past three years, you have to win the close games, you have to finish. But those possibilities are real. When you look at the 2008 season, I don't know what we were picked that season. To go in the last game with a chance to win the championship, that's what you have to shoot for every year: to play the last game for a championship.
That's a goal of ours, as it is a goal of 11 other teams right now in the Big Ten conference. It's a challenging goal. But you go into every game feeling like we can win, and I believe that.

Q. In using the new star position, 3-4, can you talk about what the staff talks about with making those adjustments? What goes into the changeover in some of those things?
COACH DANTONIO: Our star position really is a Will linebacker position, a weak side linebacker position. He's an adjustor at times. Can also carry over into nickel packages where he can be a defensive back. It can be a linebacker in a three linebacker 4-3 scheme or it can be a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
The bottom line, I've said this over and over, we have to get our best football players on the field. Whatever that allows us to do, we need to be able to be comprehensive, to be able to satisfy that goal.
Certainly we have more experience in the 4-3. The 3-4 lends to certain things against certain type of spread teams. We have to see an experiment a little bit as far as the future goes. We have to see how that I guess transitions when we play a game. It's one thing to do it in practice; it's another thing to do it in a game.
I do think there's a place for it. We've worked at it, so we should know where we're at here early in the season with it.

Q. You've talked about team chemistry a lot in the past week. How much of a difference do you think that can make having great team chemistry this year as opposed to last year, previous years?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, it's not necessarily that our past teams had poor team chemistry. What I'm excited about is the things that are coming out of the weight room, what Coach Manning has said, the things when I talk to our football team, to our players. I'm excited about basically the youth on our football team and the older guys, the experience, how they relate to each other a little bit.
It's not to detract from the other football teams. I thought we had great team chemistry in '07, '08, '09 as well. There's a little bit of a different feel with this football team. Maybe it's because it's primarily guys, made up of guys who came in with this staff, have been here for a longer period of time. But everybody seems to be moving in the same direction.
Usually I think when some negative things may have happened to you, whether it's losing a close game or something else beyond that, as we all know, I think that has a chance to make you a little bit more cohesive as a football team in the end. I think that's what you see happening. Hopefully that will translate into further success.

Q. Coach, talking about turning a negative into a positive. How have you seen your team collectively, individually, do that from last year's incident?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, we've had an outstanding semester grade point average-wise. I would say that's the first indication of that. I'm not talking summer class, I'm talking in the spring. I thought our winter workouts and our spring practice and our bottom line conditioning program, which is the summer conditioning program, I thought all three of those facets of our football program were done with a lot of enthusiasm, with an attention to detail and with a certain amount of focus I guess is what I'd say.
So when you look at those aspects, all you can do is read off of sort of what's going on. Hopefully we haven't had anybody in problems, to my knowledge. But it happens all around us. It's about choices.
But when I talk to our players individually and when I talk to our players collectively, they're all saying and doing the right things right now. I'd say that's the biggest indication to me.
Again, you're going to be measured right out there n that field in a lot of ways, success or failure. I realize that, too.

Q. Can you identify the top position battles for starting jobs going into camp and just evaluate how that is at this point?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I would say one of the top battles is wide receiver. Four guys there that have played for us, are sort of expecting a lot of playing time. They're going to get it. If you say you're going to put the first two guys out there, who are they going to be, depends on how they practice this fall.
When you look at our runningback situation, we have two guys. We'll use both those guys, Baker and Caper. You have two young guys playing very well based on their indication from last spring, Bell and Nick Hill. You have to see who will be the third, how that falls into place.
Certainly kicker is a position of competition. The right side of the offensive line is a position of competition. Tight end battle. Charlie Gantt is going to be outstanding. But we have again a position of depth there with guys who played with Linthicum, Celek, Dion Sims, so four guys.
When it's that kind of a situation, you have to have good fall camps going into it. That's pretty much the case at a lot of the different positions. Defensive end is the same thing. We have probably about four guys playing pretty well.
We'll see how it all shakes out. Going to have a lot to do with who stays healthy and how they play in these next two, three weeks.

Q. Last December, Keith Nichol accepted his new role as a receiver. Is he now defining himself in that role?
COACH DANTONIO: I think he's defining himself in that role but he's also defining himself or we define him as a play-maker, a guy we can use in so many different areas. We're not going to box ourselves in and say, Okay, listen, you're a receiver, this is all you're playing, you're going to be out here. You have to be able to play a variety of positions at the receiver position. You also have to be able to move in there and play some quarterback. There needs to be some things we do with you. He has to be a guy that can make plays for us. We have a number of guys like that on our team.
But as I said at the Big Ten meetings, throughout the spring, he's too good of an athlete not to have on the football field. His role is going to expand. Too tough of a guy not to have on special teams. He's 223 pounds, one of our best athletes, has quickness, explosiveness. He's tough. He has all the intangibles that go along with that. He's going to be an outstanding Spartan for us.

Q. You mentioned this senior class is the one you came in with. Can you talk about that and maybe some of the expectations that go with that, knowing this is your team pretty much.
COACH DANTONIO: It's the fourth-year seniors are our team right now. So you have guys like Greg Jones, even Kirk Cousins you can put in that capacity because he's in his fourth year with us. We probably have about six players, six very good players. Charlie Gantt is a very good player. Marcus Hyde, Josh Rouse, guys I can think of, Colin Neely, guys that have been here on the past staff, they're very good players and good people.
The majority of our guys that are coming, the seniors, so you have guys that played their first years, Greg Jones, C.L. Rucker, I can't remember all of them, but those guys that got on the field that first year, they're the actual seniors.
It's exciting to watch them finish their last year. But it goes by quick. A lot of them are walking around today saying, I can't believe this is our last fall camp, media day, whatever it is, the last time they have a chance to stand up and talk to our football team, those type of things. It will be exciting for them, too.
I don't know if I'm answering the question or not.

Q. How about expectations from you?
COACH DANTONIO: Expectations? I expect to win every football game. Not ashamed to sit up here and say that. That's my expectations. We have talent to be able to play with anybody on our schedule. What we have to do is minimize mistakes, create opportunities for us in the other areas, special teams and on defense, and take care of the football. If we do those things and can play to our abilities, finish the game, we will have an outstanding football team.
But, you know, there's good football teams in this conference, too. We have to be able to play consistently, I would say, as much as anything.

Q. A year ago you had two quarterbacks. I don't know if you'd do that any differently again or not. Do you sense in Kirk that because he's your quarterback as opposed to a year ago that he plays with any more confidence? What has he learned from adversity from last year?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, first of all, last year's situation, you have to win the quarterback battle. When it's very close in the spring, you have two guys with almost identical stats and everything in the spring game, you see guys make plays throughout the scrimmages, you have to allow that battle to continue. I feel that's the correct thing to do. As the year progresses, you try and make decisions that are best for your football team.
His first year as a starter, 12 games, I thought he did an outstanding job. Elected captain from his peers. Tough to lead as a captain when you haven't been the starting quarterback. That's tough. You get thrown into an environment where you're trying to make sure you're right. It's difficult to lead others at times. He did a nice job doing that.
I think he's more comfortable with his position now. I think he has a great control of our offense in terms of what things he can do in there, the things he can create. He has suggestions, he has more ownership in that area. I think he's more at ease in his environment. I think when that happens, you can be more successful.
With that being said, you have the other situation, just asked about Keith, you need to have an opportunity for him to get on the field as well.

Q. Mark, you're going into your fourth year now. Are you more confident going into this season than you were in the previous three seasons? If so, why?
COACH DANTONIO: I've been confident going into every season. I don't think I've ever sat here and said we're going to lose the first three games out of the box. I don't think I've ever said that. I've always maintained we have an opportunity to win.
Good to see you here, Drew. Glad to see this day is relevant to you.
I think as far as the confidence goes, you see your players, you see them more often, you find out more about them. It's human nature. You're going to be around them more, find out how they react in tough situations. Brian Hoyer in '07 first year starting was different than Brian Hoyer in '08 as a player. Experience gives you that. Being on the field for the second time in a position of leadership gives you more experience. So you're better at all positions, not just the quarterback position.
So expectations I think are higher for us. I think they're higher because of the way we've reacted to things. I think they're higher because I know we need to win back some respect. I understand that. We'll make our way through that.
Again, I don't know if I'm answering the questions, but I'm getting better.

Q. In the backfield, are you concerned you really have four guys with experience or do you feel that will lead to better communication because those guys will probably get more snaps together this season?
COACH DANTONIO: No, these guys have been in the program for four years basically. It's their fourth year. We have some outstanding freshmen coming in. When you watch them yesterday, when I watched them, watched the film on them, they're excellent athletes. We have some guys. Jairus Jones is going to be an outstanding player for us at safety. Weighs 203 pounds, moving well. Dana Dixon, redshirt freshman. Pat White.
We have some guys that have been in the program that are playing that are ready to go, they're active, they want to play, they have confidence.
You know, it's about making plays on the ball, it's about tackling in the back end, eliminating big plays. That's what we have to do. We have to do a good job at that, a better job.
I think we have talent. Got to stay healthy.

Q. Trenton Robinson says he watches film of the mistakes last year because he wants to feel awful; he doesn't want to forget that feeling.
COACH DANTONIO: That's good.

Q. A lot of guys mentioned today taking ownership. For you, do you see maybe more than ever before there's a sense of ownership?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I do. Sort of the word of the day today in our meeting was 'focus.' That's a small word, means a lot of things. I always have an assistant coach come up and talk a little bit about that aspect.
'Focus' has to do with mastering your fundamentals, mastering what you do regardless of what it is you do for a living. That's what begins to happen.
Trent was on the field for the first time last year. He had to concentrate. I have a puzzle that sits on my table. There's eight pieces in the puzzle. For a third grader. I always say, When you come here, you're trying to take those eight pieces and put them in there like this.
First time out there starting on the football field in front of a national TV audience or whatever the case, a lot of things are on the table, you're just trying to make sure you don't mess it up.
When you go past that, you go beyond that, you start learning how to adapt, how to make changes, how to communicate better, how to play the position at a higher level.
I said last spring every time I walked by Trent, You're playing safety to the fifth power, okay, in my mind. He had an excellent spring practice. It's one day of shorts, but it looked the same in terms of his footwork, his effort, attention to detail, concentration. That should pay off on game day.
That's what playing one year as a sophomore gives you: gives you that experience. There is nothing you can do that takes the place of experience.
When you look at our football team, we have 16 guys that are full-time starters back, I guess. But when I count 'em up, some guys that have played significant amount of snaps for us, significant football, traveled, played in games extensively, we're looking at 30 plus guys. When you're the coach of that, that gives you a great deal of confidence.

Q. You're a defense guy. Last year had to drive you a little crazy from that standpoint. What does the defense have to prove this year?
COACH DANTONIO: I think what we have to do is be consistent. We have to take the ball away better. Trademark of a great defensive football team to me is affecting the quarterback, takeaways, eliminating big plays. That is the three biggest things we have to do on a consistent basis.
When you look at us in terms of affecting the quarterback, 30 sacks, second in the Big Ten, we have to be more consistent on those run-pass downs. I said that in Chicago. Takeaways, they have to come in bunches. You have to make the play on the ball in the deep part of the field, get the ball tipped to you. Sometimes the ball is going to bounce this way or that way. Takeaways are huge in a football game.
Turnovers, what a big difference they make on a football game. You can't give them the easy one. Got to play well in the red zone. Those are the four things I would look at. We have to get back to doing those things. We did those things better, more effectively in '08 in terms of red zone defense than last year. Those are some of the things you deal with. Some of the things you deal with is a little bit of a learning curve. We lost some players and we had to respond.

Q. Did you take that personal last year?
COACH DANTONIO: I take everything personal. If we can't run the ball, I take it personal. I take it all personal. I'm sure all our coaches take everything personal. I'm not a defensive coach, contrary to what people believe, okay? I want our football team to succeed. So I go in the defense room, they say I'm rooting for the offense. In the offense room, they say I'm rooting for the defense.
But special teams obviously weighs in a big part of this, as well. As a defensive coach, yeah, sure, I'm going to try to do what I can do. But I think we all take everything that happened personal.

Q. With some of the positions still in question - kicker, offensive line - how important is it those are decided quickly or is it something that you can play a game or two and still be working on it?
COACH DANTONIO: I think you can play a couple games, especially on the offensive line, work people in there. Kicker. They've got to work themselves out. You can't make the wrong decision. You can't bag a couple of guys and say, They can't play. You go with these guys, you're stuck. You have to allow things to take its course.
I think that's the beauty of this game. A lot of players play it. There are a lot of guys out there playing in that football game throughout the entire game.
So you give people opportunities in scrimmages; there's nothing like the real games. You give people in opportunity in practice. You want to make sure every one of our players has an opportunity to succeed, play up and get involved. I think competition just makes our football team better.
So they'll be decided when it's locked down, I guess. I can't tell you anything other than that, you know. We select the guy who is kicking for us. He's 4-4 in the first game, he's going to kick the second game. You know, that type of thing.

Q. You talked about at the start your team being stronger in sheer numbers with the bench press and all that. How much of that is just four years of having that program in place and how much of it is willingness of the group to get in the weight room and do that?
COACH DANTONIO: I think a couple of things lend to that. First of all, Ken Manning does a great job in our weight room. He's been here since '95. He's one of the masters in terms of strength and conditioning in this country. Our guys have bought into that program. They work extremely hard. That's number two. The third thing is that you got to recruit this, too. It doesn't just happen. Have to recruit guys with size, explosiveness. We've done a nice job recruiting. We have two top-25 classes in here. This freshmen class looks to be outstanding, one day in shorts. You can see the guys can move, they're athletic, good skill level. That's very exciting for us.
All those things I think are a factor. But it's got to start with the hard work that comes from the player, and then there's got to be a program in place. That comes from Coach Manning. Then you have to have that tangible natural resource to build on. That's recruiting and that's guys here. You got to stay the course. You can't leave. You can't be interrupted. You got to keep making gains.

Q. You talk about earning respect back. How do you quantify that? When this season ends, how do you know that Michigan State has respect back?
COACH DANTONIO: I think you quantify that in three areas: socially, academically and athletically. Obviously you have to win on the field, got to play hard. I think we played hard. You got to come ready to play every game and you've got to come focused. I think we have done that. But you've got to finish. You have to finish. You have to win. That's just the way the world works. That's number one.
I'm not necessarily going in order.
Number two, we've got to stay right as people. We have to make good choices as people and represent this university in a class manner and we have to be gentlemen. The sad thing is 95 guys can be doing it right, one guy not doing it right, it affects all of us. But we have to understand that. We live in a fishbowl. We have to make sure that we stay focused and out of trouble and make good moral choices, the right choices. That's not always easy to do. But we need to try our very, very best.
The third thing is, we have to continue to try to work towards graduating our players. If you look at where we're at in terms of graduating our players, 18 out of 21 guys who were seniors in '08 graduated. The other three are working towards it. In '09, I think all of them have graduated but two. They're currently working towards it. Swenson hasn't. But he's in the NFL football, and he's over a three point. I think you have to measure yourself in those three areas.
You just can't quantify it as we won some football games and it's all right. I don't think that's what we're here for. One of the goals we have as people is when we walk out of here, that our players are self-sufficient men, can take care of themselves, raise a family. I want to stand by that.

Q. Going back to the position battles a little bit. McGaha and Deane are two guys who competed at guard. Now for time at tackle. Is that pretty even right now? With the right side, is this McDonald's job to lose at guard?
COACH DANTONIO: Chris had an outstanding spring. He has to continue to perform well. He's in his third year of football, intelligent athlete, 300 pounds. He's ready to play at this level. I expect great things from him this year.
At the right tackle, you have McGaha, Deane, David Barrent possibly there a little bit. Different people working in there. Antonio Jeremiah is in that somewhere. We'll see how that all shapes out. We've got some guys in there that are working.
But I can't really say. We've been through one day of shorts. Those guys certainly have the experience. They should know what they're doing. They've come in, passed their run test, got to stay healthy.
The one thing that's sort of nagged J'Mike is he has to stay healthy through two-a-days. That's probably the biggest thing for him.

Q. Tom Izzo talks about his favorite teams are player-coached teams. Can you do that in football? Off of last year, are you banking on more players taking over this team?
COACH DANTONIO: Absolutely. I think that's a great statement. If you have player-coached teams, you're getting that level of empowerment on the field or on the court. If you got that, the coach stands on the sideline. I run out there, you think I'm going to make the tackle? We got to make tackles, we got to make plays on the field, be in the right position, make the right throws, call the right plays based on the check system, got to make the catch, pick each other up when we're down. When adversity starts to turn, you've got to be able to turn it back, snatch things back from the other football teams.
Those are intangible things and things that come with confidence. I think our level of confidence is very good at the leadership level. I believe that. I see the things that our players have done in the off-season. I see how they respond. I see how they interact with each other.
You know, there's a crispness to what we're doing in terms of whether it's a ball coming off a quarterback's hand or a ball coming off a punter's foot. There's an exactness to what we're doing. Those are good messages, I think. I would totally agree with that. They have to be coached on the field by the players. They have to take that role of leadership.

Q. Do you have any plans to try some position changes, moving some guys around a little bit?
COACH DANTONIO: No, not really. C.D. Rucker will make the transition from defensive back to corner. So he's working out there at corner. We did that yesterday. That's something that he wanted to try to do. He's been in the spot, that fifth or sixth wide receiver spot. He's a 10 500-meter guy. He has toughness. We'll see how he transitions to that. That's the only guy I can really see right now.
Drew Stevens, we've moved him to the F position. Coming off a knee injury. He should be ready by the end of the month. That would be the only other transitional player in that situation.

Q. You talked about depth on the offensive side of the ball. How much of a luxury is it for you as a coach to have that many solid players at virtually every position on offense?
COACH DANTONIO: It's a great luxury because if a guy gets hurt or goes down, obviously you can put somebody else in that can play at a high level. I think it also keeps things competitive. That's probably the biggest thing. If you're competitively seeing a guy behind you make plays, you know, it sends a message.
I think the one thing we really haven't talked about is our freshmen group. I tee Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey running routes. Those are players with big speed, that catch the ball very, very well. Our freshmen runningbacks look very, very good. I think those are two positions you can play a young player if we decide to go in that direction with injuries or whatever.
You look at our secondary, Mylan Hicks, Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Kurtis Drummond all look good. William Gholston had two huge plays yesterday. Looks like he can play linebacker. Runs very effectively. Max Bullough you've seen. I'm just touching on guys. Rashad White came in, he's 315 pounds. I think he squats 660 or something. But, you know, didn't even breathe when he ran the 20 interval tests. Very athletic.
Two defensive ends, Rush and Calero, very good players, very active. You watch Mike Sadler punt or kick the ball, pops off his foot. Solid, our punting game for the next four years, beyond this year. He'll have competition here, competition at kicker. The ball pops off his foot. Joe Boisture is still learning at wide receiver. Travis Jackson, Skyler Schofner, Mike Dennis all look very athletic. But, you know, it's time spent on the offensive line sometimes.
I don't think I'm leaving anybody out. But our freshmen class is a good class.
All right, guys. Thank you very much. Great to see you guys here. Go Green!

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