Coming in at No. 6 in the preseason rankings, expectations for MSU football have never been higher. Four 11-win seasons in five years, two top-5 finishes in as many years and success on the recruiting trails will do that for a team.
For starters, a little more than a month after their season concluded the Spartans finished National Signing Day with the No. 22-overall recruiting class, according to 247Sports.
On top of that, on April 25 a record crowd of 48,000 showed up as the White team defeated the Green team 9-3 in MSU’s annual Spring Game.
Camp began last Saturday with a conditioning test everyone passed, including the freshmen in their first practices as Spartans.
“Well, we’re in day three of practice, the first day of shells today, so I thought things went very, very well. (Everyone) paid a lot of attention, just getting ourselves back into football shape a little bit,” head coach Mark Dantonio said at Football Media Day on Monday. “But today a little bit more active. Things speed up a little bit for everybody. Young players are taking strides.”
Despite their recent success, the Spartans are not satisfied. The approach to the summer, the training camps and the upcoming season has been the same — reach higher. That also just so happens to be the mantra for the 2015 season.
“We won 11 games, we ended up No. 5 in the country, we did what we did, but the fact of the matter is we lost two games ... if we win either of those games, I think we are a little farther along,” Dantonio said. “We didn’t succeed in those two games so we didn’t reach our goals, and that’s the bottom line.”
Dantonio has built his team with a permanent chip on its shoulder. For a team that has every right to soak in the spotlight for a bit, there is no complacency or room for error.
“We’ve always come to work in winter workouts. We’ve always come to work in our bottom line program, summer camp, and I don’t sense any complacency at all,” Dantonio said. “I think our guys have goals in mind, goals internally, what they want to do, and I think right now in summer camp ... I think our guys are motivated on those. Now we need to be able to stay motivated, too.”
This team is motivated by more than its championship goals. Being overlooked in the past still fuels the Spartans.
“A part of being fueled is the national championship, but we still look back on the past and understand that we have been overlooked,” fifth-year senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “We can always get back to a point where people say ‘That’s just Michigan State.’ So that’s our fuel, trying to not to be the perception of the old Michigan State.”
The 2015 football team has 20 redshirt seniors. The leadership that comes with that leads to lofty goals. Teams normally shy away from stating their expectations verbally, but this MSU team has made their goals clear — playoffs or bust.
“A benchmark for us is going to be certainly getting to the playoffs and all those type of things, that’s where our goals are,” Dantonio said. “Our seniors because they’re now into their last turn, their last three or four months here, and they understand, and I think the urgency of the situation, what has to happen and what they have to do to lead because that’s been the nature here, I think, of what we’ve tried to do.”
“We’ve had great senior leadership, and probably our seniors have always had their best years. When we’ve had big years, our seniors have had their best years, and that’s a positive.”
Boys of the summer
Despite not being able to work with the team for a majority of the summer, Dantonio knows his guys have been hard at work and it’s shown in the first few days of camp.
“I think our players worked extremely hard in our bottom line program, which is, ‘Hey, you’re getting it done or not getting it done at the end of the day,’” Dantonio said. “Got a lot of players lifting a lot of heavy weight, a lot of players running extremely well. We look like we’re in shape.”
Redshirt senior linebacker Darien Harris believes the veterans on the team went the extra mile in workouts and preparations this summer to gear up for a season where the playoffs and a national championship are ultimately the goals.
“A lot of hard work (this summer), we know that the ultimate goal is to do better than we did last year, so we went into the summer hoping that we could do some things that we didn’t do last summer. Going that extra step, going that extra mile,” Harris said. “Overall, it was a really good summer for us, the veterans, and when the freshmen came in they came in working hard, which we were really pleased to see.”
It’s that leadership from Calhoun, Harris and the other veterans that builds the foundation for success, according to Dantonio.
“I think the leadership has been very good early in this camp from our senior group, and that’s always extremely important,” Dantonio said. “I think there’s great direction within our program at the ground level, which is, again, that’s at the player level. When you have that at the player level, I think that gives you an added advantage, especially in games on the field because players lead on the field.”
2014 first-team all-american and fifth-year senior Jack Allen stated that the team ran harder than they ever have before.
“All summer the o-line has been working hard, the whole team with 7-on-7s and drill work. We’ve been running a lot, I would say this summer we ran more than we have in past summers ... Wouldn’t you say Don?” Allen said, looking for reassurance from teammate and senior offensive guard Donavon Clark.
This team won’t be satisfied with past results and after a summer of hard work the Spartans will continue to put in the work to improve every day.
“If you look at our basketball program, I don’t think Coach Izzo has ever been satisfied,” Dantonio said. “I don’t think (being satisfied) is the makeup of a coach or the program, or any real program, any championship-type program or program that’s won a lot successively.”
“We’re going to come to work every day, that’s all I can tell you. We’re not going to take things for granted.”
The first game of the season takes place on Sept. 4, when the Spartans travel to Kalamazoo.