Monday afternoon, cameras flashed, chatter filled the media room and MSU head coach Mark Dantonio assumed to podium to face the press. It felt like football season.
“Our goals are all in sight,” Dantonio said to begin media day, which coincided with the first day of training camp involving helmets. “I think the most exciting thing about every college football camp right now is it sort of starts over.”
Sure enough, the return of college football is imminent with the opening kickoff against Furman taking place Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. Coming off of the team’s most successful season in recent history, qualifying for one of four playoff spots in only the second year after the tossing of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), MSU has a single focus.
“2016 looks to be an exciting year. We’ll look to go back-to-back,” Dantonio said, basing his newest season theme off of the aspiration to maintain the title of Big Ten champions.
However, the first released USA Today Coaches Poll foretold a different tale. Although the Spartans were good for a respectable 11th in the nation, rival Big Ten East competitors Ohio State (fifth) and Michigan (eight) were both rated higher.
The role of underdog is one that the Spartans are well accustomed to despite finishing in the top 10 of both the AP and Coaches poll in all of the previous three seasons.
“I mean, every now and then we’ll hear about it, and it is motivation when we hear about it,” junior safety Montae Nicholson said. “But our motivation comes within ourselves... Because we all have one common goal, and we all believe that we can reach that common goal if we work together and stick together and just block out everything else.”
The high turnover
The logical explanation for the drop in the polls would be the high turnover rate for the Spartans heading into next season. Only four offensive starters and five defensive starters from last season remain on the roster.
Offensively, the winningest quarterback in MSU history, Connor Cook, polished off his decorated collegiate career with a fourth-round draft pick. Three of his offensive linemen (Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donovan Clark) also went to the NFL, churning mass uncertainty around the heart of the offense.
“I would say, like everyone says, we are an unproven group who has not played together, but at the same time, we are a group that is going to work just as hard, if not harder, than the group before us, and we are going to play football as an entire group, just like last year’s group,” junior guard and returning starter Brian Allen said. “I am not accepting a drop off or anything like that. We have guys that are trying to make this team better.”
Cook’s top target last year, Aaron Burbridge, also leaves the team. At the second and third receiver position, several names glisten including seniors Monty Madaris and Matt Macksood. However, two four-star freshmen, Donnie Corley and Cam Chambers, could potentially assume the brunt of secondary responsibilities, primarily behind senior R.J. Shelton on the depth chart.
“They’ve done such a good job already, picking up on the pro-style offense because it’s really a lot to learn,” senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor said on the incoming receivers. “Once they slow down with their thinking and just go out and play, that’s when you really see their true colors, and I think they’ve got to that point already.”
O’Connor himself is the “headline guy” in the quarterback race. A fifth-year senior who once tussled with Cook for the first team, O’Connor has not sealed up the spot yet but does lead junior Damion Terry in the starter snap count.
O’Connor briefly appeared last year against Maryland before getting his brightest exposure in Columbus for a crucial grudge match with Ohio State when Cook was hurt. With little margin for error, O’Connor conservatively passed his test by leaving little up to chance, playing a safe game devoid of costly risks.
“There is no doubt it provides confidence,” O’Connor said about his performance at Ohio State. “Before that game, I had that confidence though, and we all had all the confidence in the world that we were going to win that game. Knowing we went out and did it against a great defense with a lot of now NFL players, though, provides confidence that we can go out and do it against anybody.
“I feel that if I continue to do things right, then I will be playing as much as I want to play. That’s the plan. We really look at it as competitions against ourselves though and not against each other.”
Defensively, Malik McDowell will be the only 2015 starter to again take the line for MSU. Most notably, R.J. Williamson, Shilique Calhoun and Darien Harris all graduated and will be replaced, leaving an unwelcome vacancy in every rank.
The Spartans will, however, have a fresh and multifaceted rotation at the linebacker position, as Riley Bullough captains a squad that was hampered by injuries last year. With the possible return of former All-Big-Ten, sixth-year senior Ed Davis from injury, a rotation of two units of players would likely ensue to accommodate situation-specific needs.
Dantonio on running back situation pic.twitter.com/iIF3SefA0C— Casey Harrison (@CHarrisonTSN) August 8, 2016
“We feel like we have a ton of depth at linebacker,” Bullough, a senior, said. “We feel like we have six or seven guys that can come in and play and start and play good football for us at a high level. So, that’s exciting. We’ll work through it as we get through camp, but right now after the third day, everything’s been going well.”
The special teams unit largely remains unperturbed by the tilting roster. Sophomore Jake Hartbarger will resume his punting duties while senior Michael Geiger enters his final season as starting kicker. However, with Shelton increasingly instrumental for the offense, the return game is up for grabs heading into training camp, as is the long snapper position.
“If you can catch the ball, especially on punts or kickoffs, then you’re going to be considered for the job,” Dantonio said of the return-man opening, mentioning Corley as one name that could be entrusted with the duty.
Only time will tell
Still, plenty of uncertainty looms over the program before the beginning of the season.
MSU’s grit and togetherness will be put to the anvil in just their second game with a road trip to the ninth-overall Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Fortunately for the Spartans, the two most influential in-conference games are at home, with Spartan Stadium welcoming both Michigan (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 19).
But despite any unclarity in positional breakdowns, the season’s goal is unambiguously defined. Springing up from “Reach Higher” and onto “Back to Back,” the new preaching has caught fire within the locker room.
“I have some goals that I would like to keep to myself, but obviously the big goal is back-to-back,” Shelton said. “We want to get back to Indy and win another championship. It hasn’t been done in 50 years, and that’s our goal.”