Back to back 11-win seasons entering 2012, and expectations for Michigan State were through the roof after his team defeated perennial SEC heavyweight Georgia in a New Year’s Day bowl. 2012 was a disappointment, finishing 7-6 after squeaking out a Buffalo Wild Wings bowl victory.
The similarities between 2012 and 2016, –– at least on the field.
The three-year starting quarterback had just departed, taking a bushel of talent on both ends of the ball with him. Each season saw the backup, a senior quarterback waiting his turn, lose their job at some point in the year to the up and coming freshman who would soon take control of the offense.
With a youthful resurgence, the 2013 Spartans recovered from disappointment. 2012 was different for the fan base, as the taste of success was still fresh on their tongues. It had been a long time since the Spartans were true contenders in the national spotlight. But 2013, led by sophomore quarterback Connor Cook and a mix of strong-nosed seniors and energetic playmakers, gave Michigan State fans a Rose Bowl win –– and just like that –– 2012 never happened.
2016 was different in ways, as fans had been so accustomed to victories under Dantonio that by the time his Spartans ended their dismal season, his job was being called into question. It’s also hard to ignore the three extra losses in the defeat column, but the team had their chances.
Regardless, the formula is there –– a redshirt-sophomore quarterback in Brian Lewerke given full control of the offense. Energetic playmakers in Trishton Jackson and L.J. Scott to match with the punishing style and grit of seniors Brian Allen and Gerald Holmes.
Flip it, and you have seniors in Chris Frey and Shane Jones who have played with the dominant defenses under Dantonio as well as the one that could only muster up 11 sacks last season. Sprinkle in the smarts and leadership of junior safety Khari Willis and the freshman who gained immense experience last year, and you could be working with a special unit by the time Big Ten play arrives.
It’s not Mark Dantonio’s first rodeo, but it will be his toughest bull to wrangle.
It is up to him and his staff now. Their recipe has worked for rebounding and recovering in both 2009 and 2012. But this offseason has been like nothing he has dealt with before. He had one of his highest-ranking recruiters suspended –– and eventually let go. He booted three of his top four commits from the past season for sexual assault. He failed to address the issue to the public sooner, holding a press conference almost a month later, still shying from responding the questions involving the investigation.
He got the first step right –– subtract the players, no matter their talent, who failed to uphold the character that you require from them. Now, he must navigate through the labyrinth of restoring his program’s image in the eyes of the public.
Now, throughout the offseason, it is getting the players right on and off the field. Dantonio said that the focus “has been extremely high,” in terms of on the field performance, off the field activity and in the classroom. That’s where in begins. Get yourself right off the field and you’ll see improvement and more chances on it.
The team is certainly younger, with only one or two seniors in the two-deep across the board, and zero of them at one of the biggest playmaking positions in wide receiver. But, that 2013 team only had twelve seniors. There are 13 on this season’s roster. And most of those seniors are the best –– or at the very least key contributors –– at their respective positions.
Dantonio said the biggest takeaway from his first week of live camp was “how many really good players we actually have.” It starts with Dantonio believing in himself and his team. Develop from there, but with talent, you can accomplish a lot.
More importantly, the chemistry seems to be there. Talent is great, but when talent blends together in the locker room, you win conference championships. You win Rose Bowls. You make College Football Playoffs. Dantonio described the team as “a group of guys who really enjoy being on and off the field together.” That phrase wasn’t very common during most the 2016 season.
“We bring up examples of this or that,” Dantonio said, referencing how he uses the 2016 season to motivate his players, “But more often than not, we talk about things in a positive manner and look to lessons learned in a positive manner, and not be direct. Our culture at Michigan State is good. You spend time around our team and our players, and you get the feeling of what’s going on good in college football and at Michigan State.”
That starts with the players, and with Dantonio having to dismiss four athletes for sexual assault and have numerous others transfer from the program, the responsibility to restore not only the program’s image, but the image of his men, fall on his shoulders.
Michigan State will compete in every contest if Dantonio can accomplish that. There won’t be games like Wisconsin or Penn State in 2016 where the team seemingly gave up once things failed to fall their way. They could realistically win 8-9 games, potentially even double-digit victories in the strongest conference in America and make it back to getting the national attention and respect that they lost.
“Every experience that you have here, whether it is winning a championship or going 3-9, it has to be used to go forward,” Dantonio said. “I’m not going to be defined on wins and losses. It will be by how you handle the program in the up times and the down times.”
There might not be a bigger down time for the rest of your career, Mark. Time to define yourself.