Dienhart: This Michigan State team is motivated

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The Spartans looked impressive in practice Sunday, though they may be showing some “camp legs.” Still, this is an impressive-looking team that is loaded with athletic ability. More vital: It’s a motivated team coming off a 7-6 season. It was a spirited workout that moved efficiently. Mark Dantonio wasn’t as hands-on as some other head coaches I have seen, opting to rove from spot to spot.

[ PROGRAM ALERT: Watch the Michigan State Preview Show at 8 ET Saturday on BTN/BTN2Go ]

The top three quarterbacks all had their moments. Andrew Maxwell threw well, Connor Cook is a mountain of man who moves well for his size and Tyler O’Connor showed an ability to throw on the run. Dantonio has said he will play Maxwell and Cook. It will be interesting to see how it works out, as MSU did the same thing with spotty results for much of 2009. I didn’t see the Spartans run any read-option, but they have shown it in the past. I asked quarterbacks coach Brad Salem if we will see more of it this fall, but I didn’t get the impression that will be the case. Still, stay tuned.

The running back situation remains fluid. Is there a No. 1? It’s Riley Bullough for now. I came away impressed after being a bit skeptical upon arrival. He is a nice blend of power and speed—which Dantonio likes. Jeremy Langford could be the best of the bunch, but he needs to show more consistency. The guy is uber-talented and ran hard today. Assistant strength coach Lorenzo Guess told me that Langford is the fastest player on the team—and it’s not even close. Freshmen Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams showed a burst—and some power. And Dantonio always likes a bigger, physical back. Nick Hill is a tough water bug. There are lots of options, as the staff likely will play a raft of guys to see if someone emerges.

The offensive line was banged up last season, which was a reason for some of the offense’s struggles. The starting five looked good today, with Jack Conklin at left tackle; Blake Treadwell at left guard; Travis Jackson at center; Jack Allen at right guard; Fou Fontoi at right tackle. Conklin is an interesting story, in that he arrived as a walk-on. The son of a local high school coach, Conklin is big and athletic who o-line coach Mark Staten told me would start as of today. Allen could be the best of the bunch. The former wrestler plays with a defensive mentality. And what makes this crew good is its versatility. Allen, Dan France, Treadwell and Donavon Clark all can play multiple positions.

[ TWITTER: See our guys' tweets from Michigan State practice ]

There may not be a better trio of starting linebackers in the Big Ten than the Spartans’ triumvirate of Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones, who looks like a defensive tackle. He moves frighteningly well for his size. Darien Harris and Jarius Jones also are key players who showed good athletic skills. And some true freshmen could crack the rotation, with guys like Jon Reschke and Shane Jones looking good today. These guys all can run and hit. Impressive.

The receiving corps was oft-criticized last season. By some accounts, there were 66 drops. Everyone is back from a unit that looked good today. The experience of last year has to pay some dividends this season. It was about growing up and learning how to work for most of these guys. Today, the coaches ran in myriad wideouts, including Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Andre Sims, Aaron Burbridge, Magarrett Kings, Jr. and DeAnthony Arnett, among others. Fowler made some nice grabs and may be the bellwether. He told me he caught 100 balls a day over the summer; and some days he caught 150. Burbridge could be the best of the bunch. He has a nice burst and goes and gets the ball. He has grown up mentally, I am told. Wideout coach Terrence Samuels has worked hard with this group to improve it. And the work shows.

Tight end has been a key position in this offense under Mark Dantonio. But it may not be a big factor this season after Dion Sims turned pro early. Andrew Gieichert ran with the “ones” and looked good at times. Josiah Price also saw reps. But there doesn’t look like a difference maker in the group as of now.

[ INSTAGRAM: See all of our photos from Michigan State practice ]

Michigan State lost five games by 13 points last season. And a reason for that was spotty kicking. Well, the Spartans may have found a great weapon in true freshman kicker Michael Geiger. The kid from Toledo, Ohio, showed a big leg after arriving on campus rated by some as the No. 1 kicker in the nation. Marcus Rush told me Geiger has a good disposition for a kicker. He could be a real weapon who has 50-plus yard range.

The defensive line is as big and athletic as any in the Big Ten. End Shilique Calhoun is all man off the edge as Williams Gholston’s replacement. Undersized-but-tough Marcus Rush showed a good burst. He is a fast disruptor and veteran presence. The spots inside need to be watched. Lawrence Thomas didn’t practice due to injury. Not sure what totally to make here.

[ VIDEO: Watch Bennie Fowler sign the BTN tour bus ]

The secondary will be one of the best in the conference. The corner duo of Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes is formidable. Likewise the safety tandem of Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond. Demetrious Cox figures in on nickel situations. Keep an eye on true freshman corner Darian Hicks. Lots of speed and talent in the back end. If Ohio State’s Bradley Roby isn’t the top cover man in the Big Ten, Dennard is. He showed fearlessness today, is fast and tough. Love him.

Watch our Curtis Blackwell interview:

Watch our Isaiah Lewis interview:

Watch our Marcus Rush interview:

Watch our Andrew Maxwell interview:

Watch our Connor Cook interview:

Watch our Darqueze Dennard interview:

View our tour schedule and relive all the stops:

SCHOOLS
PRACTICE
SHOW ON BTN (8 p.m. ET)
Indiana
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Monday, Aug. 12
Ohio State
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Tuesday, Aug. 13
Penn State
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Wednesday, Aug. 14
Michigan
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Friday, Aug. 16
Michigan State
RECAP | TWEETS | PICS Saturday, Aug. 17
Purdue
Monday, Aug. 12
Monday, Aug. 19
Northwestern
Tuesday, Aug. 13
Tuesday, Aug. 20
Illinois
Wednesday, Aug. 14
Wednesday, Aug. 21
Wisconsin
Thursday, Aug. 15
Thursday, Aug. 22
Minnesota
Friday, Aug. 16
Friday, Aug. 23
Nebraska
Monday, Aug. 19
Saturday, Aug. 24
Iowa
Tuesday, Aug. 20
Sunday, Aug. 25

**

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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2 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (2 Comments)
shookwriter27 on 8/11/2013 @ 11:19pm EDT Said:

Look out for Michigan State.

Doug on 8/12/2013 @ 12:01pm EDT Said:

should have a top 5 defense again, if they can just score some damn points….

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