MSU embarks on a new season, attempts to open fresh slate in 2017
As the Spartan football program opened its first preseason practice, the fresh squad looked akin to its predecessors.
The players were in their jerseys, helmets, cleats, almost the whole nine yards. Just the pads were missing, but those are reserved for Friday.
Ah, yes — football is back.
On the last day of July, the Spartans took the first step in the long marathon known as a college football season. Hundreds of practice hours loom ahead for MSU as it looks to reshape a tarnished image. Head coach Mark Dantonio’s means to restore the program’s perception is the 2017 campaign, a campaign yearning to be kicked off.
But to begin, the Spartans must pay their dues on the gridiron.
“The first day of practice always sees everyone come out with their best foot forward, as we always do,” Dantonio said. “Tough to judge people when you’re in shorts and things of that nature. But I thought we did a lot of things out there and came back healthy.”
The Spartans can now flip the script after a disastrous 2016 and subsequent offseason. A 3-9 season was followed by two separate sexual assault probes, which led to the dismissal of four players from the program.
Attrition also plagued MSU, with players leaving the program for unrelated reasons. Key contributors unexpectedly departed, leaving the team in deficient position.
And whilst the practicing Spartans have the same appearance of old, the comparisons stop there.
The team will rely on a fountain of youth to guide them through 2017; just 12 seniors are listed on the official roster. The leadership, too, has a specific emphasis on a “player-led” team.
“Coach always tells us a player-led team is better than a coach-led team,” safety Khari Willis said. “When we step up, we’re going to more than likely bring somebody else with us. So that’s been our M.O., just to step up, players lead other players."
Among a secondary littered with question marks, juniors Willis, Grayson Miller and Matt Morrissey are relied upon as leaders. Elsewhere, the defensive and offensive line are filled with new faces attempting to leave a lasting Spartan legacy.
Following a season where players believed there was a lack of leadership, the core of MSU’s players have taken it upon themselves to improve.
The linebackers bring a lion’s share of experience compared to the rest of the roster. Chris Frey, Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell are all battle-tested as they're viewed as leaders in the locker room.
Thus far, true freshman Antjuan Simmons has been one of the benefactors of the veteran crew.
“They’re literally like older brothers,” Simmons said of Frey and Bachie. “They see you doing something wrong, they’re going to come over and they're going to coach you up and show you how to do it right. If you’re doing something good, they’ll slap you on the ass and say, ‘Keep working hard.’”
The team's youth is amplified by a number of true freshmen spotting the roster. While they have yet to officially make their mark, some will see the playing field come this fall.
Of course, with a new season comes an up-to-date motto. While 2016’s “Back2Back” fell way flat, Dantonio has another one of his almost prophetic sayings — “The Best Start Here.”
“Coach D (adopted the motto) this year,” Dowell said. “All the guys are buying into it right now. It’s just about everyday coming out and having the best focus that you can have and put it in forth.”
The Spartans are looking at one practice, and inevitably one game, at a time. MSU begins 2017 with Bowling Green on Sept. 2, but before that it must navigate all of August and preseason camp.
“Every year brings new opportunities, especially coming off a year like we did, there’s tons of opportunities that we have at our hands,” Dowell said. “The schedule that we have, we just have to come out everyday ready to play. And then see what the year holds.”