In his latest endeavor, Dantonio is bringing a change of philosophy, while also having to rebuild the psyche of his newest football team.
So far, the smash-mouth, defensive-minded Dantonio sounds like the man for the job, and Michigan State will continue to be a needle in the side of the Notre Dame football program in the future. However, it's obviously a rebuilding project, and the Irish should be favored for the first time in the 2007 season when they host the Spartans on Sept. 22 in the fourth game of the season for both teams.
"One thing, they're not going to be a finesse team anymore," GoSpartan.net publisher Mike Fowler stated. Michigan State (4-8) lost eight of its last nine games to end last season, finishing 4-8, eventually costing head coach John L. Smith his job. "They are going to be more of a physical team, back to what Michigan State used to be back in the 50s and 60s. Dantonio wants to get the team back to the days of Duffy Daugherty, George Perles and Nick Saban.
"I think the team has responded very well. The new staff hasn't had to come in and run a lot of guys off. Guys want to have the success, and they didn't have a lot under John L. Smith. They are really buying into what Mark Dantonio has been telling them.
How can they not. Dantonio was at Michigan State for six seasons as the secondary coach, and was on Saban's staff in 1999, helping the Spartans finish No. 7 in the final polls with a 10-2 record. Dantonio moved on to Ohio State for three seasons, where he was the defensive coordinator for some of the best defenses in the country. When the Buckeyes won the National Championship in 2002, they ranked 2nd in the nation in scoring defense and third in rushing defense. The following season, Ohio State led the nation in rushing defense, and was ninth in total defense. In three seasons at Cincinnati, he went 18-17 and made the team very competitive in the Big East conference. Last season, the Bearcats beat No. 7 Rutgers, 30-11 en route to a 7-5 record and a Bowl Game while playing the nation's second-toughest schedule.
The Spartans have a some holdovers from last year, but it is a very young team.
"It's a big rebuilding project," Fowler said. "They can be .500 this year, and I think that will be a success. The back end of their schedule is very tough, so they will have to get their wins early in the season. A couple of upsets and they can go .500 and maybe make it into a bowl game."
***OFFENSE: As Dantonio tries to build the defense the way he wants it through recruiting, he has the players in his system on this side of the ball to run the offense the way he wants it. To keep a young vulnerable defensive unit off the field, the Spartans will try to grind the football with two experienced running backs and four returning starters on the offensive line.
"It will be more of a run-oriented controlled passing offense," Fowler said. "Emphasize the run a lot more than they did under John. L. The offense will be pretty good I believe. The defense is where they will have concerns."
Another reason why emphasizing the run will be key is because Michigan State graduated quarterback Drew Stanton and his top three receivers from last season. Junior Brian Hoyer (863 yards passing, 4 TDs, 3 INTs), who played in eight games last season including one start, will take over the signal-caller duties.
"Hoyer is going to be the guy and they don't have much behind him," Fowler said. "So if he gets hurt, they'll be in trouble. Connor Dixon will be the backup.
"The loss of Drew Stanton and the receivers is going to hurt, but that is one of Michigan State's deepest positions. They have done a good job recruiting the receiver position, and I don't think they will be hurting at that position."
The Spartans are definitely not hurting in the backfield. Junior Javon Ringer (497 yards, 1 TD) looks to be the starter, and 6-foot, 235-pound battering-ram Jehuu Caulcrick (426 yards, 6 TDs) will spell him. Both should see improvements in their numbers this fall with the spread offense and Smith gone. Sophomore A.J. Jimerson (140 yards, 2 TDs) will also see some time.
Center Kyle Cook is gone, but the rest of the offensive line is intact. The left side will be tackle Mike Gyetvai (6-7, 323) and guard Peter Clifford (6-7, 319). The right side will be tackle Jessie Miller (6-6, 306) and guard Roland Martin (6-5, 318). Senior John Masters (6-5, 265) has won the center job where he played a little bit last season. Rocco Cironi (6-6, 295) is primarily a tackle, but could play guard in a pinch, and is the top reserve heading into the fall.
"They just don't have a lot of depth on the offensive line because John L. didn't recruit a lot of depth," Fowler said. "So if they have injuries, they will have problems."
Smith did do a good job of recruiting the receiver position. Once a highly-touted recruit, senior Terry Love (18 rec, 234 yards) is ready to take over the go-to receiver duties. T.J. Williams (25 rec. 281 yards, 3 TDs) will also start, and Devin Thomas (6 rec. 90 yards, 1 TD) should step into a more prominent role with the graduation of Matt Trannon, Kerry Reed and Jerramy Scott.
In Smith's offense, the Spartans did not utilize a fullback. Dantonio is looking for his guy at this position, and the early favorite is converted tight end Dwayne Holmes.
Smith did use a tight end in his offensive package, but the position was hardly utilized. That will also change. Kellen Davis (12 rec. 125 yards 1 TD) and Eric Andino (2 rec. 15 yards) will see more passes come their way.
"Kellen Davis is probably one of the best tight end prospects in the Big Ten if not the country," Fowler said. "But he hasn't got too many balls thrown his way."
***DEFENSE: Given Dantonio's track record, this will eventually be the staple of the team. This season, that will probably not hold true. It will be a long way back, as the Spartans ranked 88th in total defense last year, and 100th in scoring defense nationally.
Dantonio likes to bring a lot of pressure, and that will be frustrating for him at times with a young defensive line. Senior defensive end Ervin Baldwin (6-2, 252) is back. He led the team with just four sacks last season. Jonal Saint-Dic (6-1, 260) could start at the other end. Justin Kershaw (6-4, 253) moves from defensive end to tackle. He had 26 tackles last season. John Stipek, who barely played last season could be the other defensive tackle. Dantonio is hoping incoming freshmen Antonio Jeremiah and Ryan Wheat push for playing time at tackle and really contribute in the fall.
The Spartans have experience at linebacker, but there is still a lot of unknowns. Fifth-year senior Kaleb Thornhill (68 tackles) was hurt the whole spring and didn't practice, but the middle linebacker should be ready for fall camp. SirDarean Adams (46 tackles) moves to the weak-side spot after playing the bandit position last year, which is basically a safety/linebacker combined. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to always being in the box. Eric Gordon and Adam Decker will compete for the strong-side spot. Fowler said that Gordon had a good spring.
The secondary was really the Achilles heal of the defense last season. The unit ranked 109th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense.
"That is going to turn around this year," Fowler stated, citing the secondary as the unit's strength.
The team's leading tackler a year ago, Otis Wiley (94 tackles, 6.5 TFL) is back at strong safety. Nehemiah Warrick (45 tackles, 3.5 TFL), the cousin of former Florida State standout Peter Warrick, is a returning starter at free safety. Kendell Davis-Clark (39 tackles) won the starting cornerback job halfway through the season and returns to his post. Opposite him will be sophomore Ross Weaver, who was out all of last season with a broken ankle. Fowler says Weaver would've started last season. Safety Travis Key (42 tackles) and cornerback Ashton Henderson provide the secondary with depth.
***SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game is in good hands with sophomore Brett Swenson. The freshman All-American made 15-of-19 field goals last season, and connected on all his extra point attempts. True freshman Aaron Bates will likely handle the punting duties.
Fowler isn't sure who will return kicks. It's all up in the air right now heading into fall camp.
***Overall: The beginning of the end for John L. Smith last season was Notre Dame's frantic 40-37 comeback victory that turned the Spartan's 3-0 start into a 4-8 finish.
This is a game both teams have to have. Of Notre Dame's first eight games that includes Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC, this is probably the most winnable game.
As Fowler said, the Spartans will need a couple upsets if they hope to become bowl eligible. They could be 2-1 or 3-0 when they come to South Bend, and a win here would make the postseason a real possibility.
"If Notre Dame can stop the run, they will have a real good shot of beating Michigan State," Fowler said.