For Mark Dantonio, spring football 2010 was more about the way his guys interacted than the way they performed. From that perspective, Dantonio feels good about his Michigan State team after a turbulent 2009.
"The No. 1 thing I wanted to make sure we were able to do (in the spring) is build team chemistry and allow our leaders to take over this football team," Dantonio said after the Spartans' April 24 spring game. "I think we got that. We have a good feel for each other."
And if that doesn't sound like much, consider that chemistry and leadership were frequently blamed amid a disappointing 6-7 season, which was followed by an on-campus fight involving 15 players -- many of them no longer around -- that created unsavory headlines for months.
The leadership demands are being met, and then some, by junior QB Kirk Cousins and senior LB Greg Jones. Both were captains in 2009 as well, but Cousins was just a sophomore and starting for the first time. Jones often deferred to the seniors.
Now both are taking command. Cousins is a natural vocal presence, while Jones is a first team All-American who shunned the NFL for his senior season.
"I think whenever you go out on the field and prove yourself as a player," Cousins said of his increased leadership role, "then you have a little more authority to say what you want to say."
The Spartans leave spring with some of the same questions as a year ago. Will this team get enough pass rush from its front four? Will the offensive line become the run-blocking force Dantonio desires? Will the secondary improve after a dismal 2009 performance?
But if the intangibles are improved, perhaps Michigan State can pull out some of the close games in lost in 2009 -- and won in a nine-win 2008, when senior leaders Javon Ringer and Brian Hoyer were still around.
Spring football left no doubt: Keith Nichol is a receiver now. Nichol, who lost a close QB battle to Sam Bradford at Oklahoma in the spring of 2007, lost a close QB battle to Kirk Cousins last season. He then had to work at WR for the Alamo Bowl because of heavy attrition at the position, and this spring started to look like a potential force at the position. At 6-2, 220 and with extreme athleticism, Nichol can make plays downfield. He's still getting some QB reps and may end up getting snaps in the red zone next season as a dual threat.
There was a lot of talk that Michigan State would be switching to a 3-4 defense, but the spring game was all 4-3. Mark Dantonio has said, though, that the Spartans will use more 3-4 next season, in part because of their deep supply of quality LBs and relatively think ranks on the defensive line. MSU has gone with three down linemen in nickel situations for the past few years, but now the coaching staff would like to mix it in less predictably.
C John Stipek -- Highly touted redshirt freshman Nate Klatt was supposed to take over this position, but Stipek -- a fifth-year senior who started his career on defense -- made it clear the's the man. Mark Dantonio said Stipek is one of the most improved players he's ever coached over a period of time.
RBs Le'Veon Bell and Nick Hill -- Sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker head up the depth chart, but Bell and Hill both made serious impacts after graduating early from high school and enrolling early for spring ball. Bell is a potential goal-line answer at 225 pounds, while the 5-6 Hill is an open-field blazer.
DT Dan France -- A redshirt freshman, France was a surprisingly high pick in the annual spring game draft (in which seniors draft the underclassmen for the split-squad game). France showed strength and playmaking ability in the spring game and figures to find his way into the DT rotation in the fall.
CB Johnny Adams -- An exciting player as a true freshman in 2008, Adams redshirted last season thanks in part to a shoulder injury. He looked great all spring and has locked up a starting position opposite Chris L. Rucker.
LB Denicos Allen -- A redshirt freshman who played safety last season, Allen switched to OLB and had seven tackles and two sacks in the spring game. His speed gives him a chance to help at a deep position in 2010.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My players don't owe me anything. My players owe our football team, they owe each other. And I owe our football players my loyalty as well, it's a two-way street. I will always do the best I can for our players, whether they are here or not here. I will always try to benefit their lives as people, and do the best I can do. Doesn't mean we won't fall down. Doesn't mean I won't say something that will hurt somebody's feelings at some point in time. But I'm very proud of our football team, and I know that we have to continue to move forward in every aspect of our lives. Educationally, socially and athletically. But I will say that the attitude is right right now. The chemistry is right. And sometimes it's tougher to stay than to go. Very easy for them to go. Sometimes it's tougher to stay and take this, look at all the people in the eye, and be able to get back on the field and make plays when that's happened to you. And that'll be the test of a champion." -- Mark Dantonio, asked about WRs Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, who said they owed him for letting them back on the team after they were involved and convicted of misdemeanor assault in an off-campus fight.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: Michigan State figures to start fast and build confidence thanks to a back-loaded schedule, and the Spartans figure to score points all season with perhaps the best collection of offensive skill in the Big Ten. The question is whether a defense that yielded 120 points in its last three games will improve. The return of senior All-America MLB Greg Jones makes that possible, but pass rush and pass coverage are the concerns. A more consistent running game would help that defense, and it's possible with a number of promising young offensive linemen and a quartet of talented backs.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Kirk Cousins should be one of the best QBs in the Big Ten as a junior, and he'll be throwing to proven weapons Keshawn Martin, Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham -- along with converted QB Keith Nichol. Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will get most of the carries after both displayed plenty of talent as true freshmen. And tight end is loaded -- Charlie Gantt, Brian Linthicum, Dion Sims. The left side of the offensive line should be strong with T D.J. Young and G Joel Foreman, but the right side is unsettled and still up for grabs entering the fall.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Michigan State should be strong at LB, CB and DT. Jerel Worthy is a star on the defensive interior, Greg Jones and Eric Gordon are terrific senior LBs, and Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams are gifted corners. But DE is a major question, and incoming five-star freshman William Gholston may be a key factor immediately. At S, Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson hope to be more consistent after mistake-riddled 2009 seasons.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: Don't overlook the potential concern at place-kicker. Brett Swenson is off to the NFL after breaking every major kicking record at a school that has seen plenty of stars -- including Morten Andersen -- at the position. Walk-on Dan Conroy and redshirt freshman Kevin Muma are locked in a tight competition to replace Swenson. Aaron Bates is an All-America candidate as a senior punter, and Keshawn Martin could be the same as a return man.
ROSTER REPORT: Starting defensive linemen Jerel Worthy, Colin Neely and Kevin Pickelman all missed the spring game. Worthy and Neely missed all of spring ball after getting shoulder repairs, and both should be fine by the fall. Pickelman had a "slight sprain," according to Mark Dantonio, ruling him out for the game.
TE Brian Linthicum had minor knee surgery in December and was inactive for spring ball. Linthicum, the Spartans' top receiving threat at the position, should be OK for fall camp.
LG Joel Foreman missed the spring game with an undisclosed injury, but Dantonio said it's a minor ailment. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman RT Henry Conway was lost early in spring practice with a neck injury. Conway, who is expected to compete for a starting spot at the position, will be back for fall camp.