Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect Bennie Fowler’s correct year of eligibility.
As much as the 2011 season was a benchmark of success for the MSU football program under head coach Mark Dantonio, with the Spartans’ second-consecutive 11-win season, a trip to the inaugural Big Ten championship game and the first bowl victory in his tenure in East Lansing, it’s August.
That means it’s time for the pads to start smashing and helmets to get scraped up with battle scars in preparation for 2012.
The sixth-year head coach wants no part in reminiscing on an immensely successful season a year ago, and he, his players and staff all made that very clear during the Spartans’ media day on Monday morning.
“I think we are moving along,” Dantonio said. “When you talk about where we wanted to go when we first came here, what we wanted to try to accomplish, we said (we) want to build a foundation.”
Dantonio acknowledged that the loss to Wisconsin for the Big Ten title last season still stings, as his team literally was a play away from the long-awaited trip to Pasadena.
MSU heads into the season-opening Aug. 31 clash with perennial giant-killer Boise State returning a bevy of talent from a defense that statistically was one of the top 10 units in the nation. The defensive unit returns nine starters from last season and will look to maintain at an elite level to help ease the potential growing pains associated with breaking in a first-year starting quarterback and a batch of green wide receivers.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who flirted with bolting this offseason for another position before deciding to return to MSU, where he received a significant raise, said the national hype surrounding his group is welcomed in the locker room.
“I don’t see our kids with a big head,” Narduzzi said. “I see them looking to get better and wondering what they can do to make a big play here or there, or to be better fundamentally, and that’s what we strive (toward) every day.”
Unlike a year ago, when the offensive line was littered with question marks and uncertainty, the group is an area of strength for the Spartans heading into this season, with multiple guys listed as backups on the depth chart who have starting experience. The continuity and experience of the hogs will likely mean more carries and more yards for junior running back Le’Veon Bell.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 244 pounds, Bell is a load and a half and could be the ideal weapon for MSU to utilize while junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell gets his sea legs in his first few collegiate starts, although offensive coordinator Dan Roushar insists the play-calling won’t change much from 2011.
Entering this season, the wide receivers are the position group under the microscope, after the Spartans lost their top three pass-catchers from a year ago. Sophomore Keith Mumphery is listed as the starter at one position, while junior Bennie Fowler and sophomore Tony Lippett are penciled in as co-starters on the depth chart. Freshman Andre Sims Jr. and sophomore DeAnthony Arnett, a transfer from Tennessee, also are expected to compete for snaps.
“We’re not that experienced, I would say that, but we know how to play the game,” Lippett said. “We have the tools to play wide receiver … throughout this camp, we have to keep getting experience (and) keep getting reps and stuff like that.”
Dantonio said his team is looking forward to the prime-time matchup with the Broncos and will have to remain focused to defend against the multiple formations and offensive looks — 178, by his count from film — they will face.
“They’re going to be a very good football team,” he said. “They’ll be a great challenge for us in our first game. And we’ve grown a lot of respect for them just from the time since we’ve been watching them since whatever, January or February.”