CHICAGO - The following is a transcript of Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio's address during Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days, Thursday at McCormick Place Hotel:
COACH DANTONIO: Thank you. First of all, it's a pleasure to be back here in Chicago. 2010 was a very exciting year for us. I think we took a big step as a program moving in the direction we want to go, culminating in a championship-type season.
With that being said, 2011 brings many more challenges for us as we look to continue to gain respect here in the Big Ten Conference.
Offensively when you look at our football team very quickly, I think you always have to start with the quarterback position. Provides a lot of leadership for us. Kirk Cousins is a young man that not only is he an outstanding football player on the field, but he brings a sense of calm and confidence to our football team, he's got great game management skills. Maybe more importantly than that, he has great locker room management. We have great team chemistry in our locker room right now. That's where it starts for us.
Offensively we have our running backs back. We have three of our top four wide receivers back, Keith Nichol, Keshawn Martin, and B.J. Cunningham, who is four catches away from being the all-time leading receiver at Michigan State University.
Our tight end position is strong. Offensive line, we're inexperienced but very athletic. We'll look to build on those things as we move to our non-conference schedule. Defensively we're a young football team. We have two seniors in our top 22 players. But I do think we bring a blend of experience there. Jerel Worthy anchors our defensive line. We have a lot of experience up there, we have numbers. Our linebacker position, we're going to miss Greg Jones, Eric Gordon certainly. But I think we've got very good players coming back. We won't lose one player, all are underclassmen. Very excited with Max Bullough, some of the other kids, Chris Norman, he sat out this spring, should be an outstanding player, some of the other guys, Denicos Allen.
Our Secondary should be solid as well.
Special teams, where we've won in the past four years, a lot of football games will remain solid with what we do, but also our kicker returns, Dan Conroy, who has had an outstanding season. And along with him, Mike Sadler is a young redshirted freshman who made a decision to come to Michigan State a couple years ago and sit one year. Tremendous talent, outstanding leg, very poised as well.
We're looking forward to 2011. I think when you look at us as a football team, we need to obviously stay healthy. Health is a big concern always. We have experience. I think we have a good mindset. We have the leadership intact. Our staff remains intact with the exception of Don Treadwell who went on to Miami of Ohio. We wish him the best. Staff is very strong. We're poised and confident.
I'll take some questions.
Q. 11-win season last year gives your program a lot to be proud of. Given the fact that did not result in a BCS berth, how does that serve as motivation to your squad this year?
COACH DANTONIO: What we talked to our football team about is we climbed one mountain, you think you're getting to the top of the mountain, you find out there's another mountain to climb as well. When you look at our football team, how we performed in the bowl game, we took a step backward. Our focus is on what we can do to improve the situation and what we can do.
We have to take out the BCS, what's going on in terms of just focusing on ourselves, I think, as a program, deal with what we can control. Some of the things are out of our control.
I think the championship game in this conference will be very exciting for everybody. I think that will propel that particular team onward and settle all the problems that were involved last year. I think it was a unique season with three teams being in the top 10 for a long period of time in the BCS, the top 10. We got left out there. But we can control our own destiny. If we would have played better in the bowl game, I could have answered that better. But it is what it is.
Q. It's tough to build a perfect college football team. To do it in five years isn't easy. It seems as though Michigan State's heritage is a physically punishing football team. In the same way, if you had difficulties in recent years with an Iowa or with perhaps an upcoming game against Nebraska, Ohio State, whatever the case might be, it tended to be on that physical level. Is that yet in your mind a fair critique and are you closer to achieving that?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it is. Every time we've lost a game, when I talk about lost it decisively, which has not been very often, maybe three or four times in these four years, it's because we've not won the game up front. I always just tell it the way it is. No reason to change right now.
So that's what we talk about when we talk to our football team after we've gone through that. We've got to win up front. Starts on the defensive side of the ball. Have to be able to stop the run, affect the quarterback if we're going to be successful on a consistent basis. That will always lead to turnovers.
On the offensive side of the ball, we have to limit our turnovers and have to have the ability to run the ball to be multi-dimensional. Those two things, when we have lost to Iowa, couldn't run it. When we lost to Ohio State, couldn't run it. When we lost to Alabama, couldn't run it. So those three scenarios played into it, whether it's 2008 or whether it was 2011. That really is the difference maker.
You have to do those things to take that next step, which is that next mountain that I'm talking about. When you look at our team right now, maybe this is the first time since I've been there I can point to and say defensively up front solid. Jerel Worthy anchors that. Should be a phenomenal player. Quick twitch guy. You build around him, Rashad White, Gholston. Tyler Hoover is up to 290 pounds. We have physical guys that can play that level up front now.
Our linebackers are a little bit more inexperienced as I've said, offensively inexperienced, but we've moved players over. We have numbers on the offensive line and more guys that bench press 400 pounds and vertical jump 30 inches than we've ever had across the board. All they need is experience. They're extremely athletic. You combine that with an outstanding group of running backs and the ability to throw the football as we continue to do, I think you have an offense that can be very, very good.
Q. I want to ask you about the divisional setup in the Big Ten. The Legends Division in particular, looks like you have several schools with great football tradition in there, great rivalries week in and week out in that division alone. Your thoughts about that?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, first of all, with Nebraska coming into the conference, I think it gives us, the conference as a whole, strengthens our brand, I think, as a conference. There's some pretty good football teams in that other one, too, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin. I think the thing you learn about this conference is it's very, very competitive as you move forward.
As far as the Legends side of it, we know that we'll have to play on the road at times. We're going to have to compete and win that conference. That will be our focus. We're excited about it. We've decided we'll embrace all different things we deal with in our program. This will be one of the things that will continue to strengthen us. Even now as we sit here and say this, recruits nationally continue to call, whether it's our football team or another football team, and because of the conference, set up, structure, it will only make us a better program.
Q. You mentioned the chemistry from last year's team carried over. How much did that help in winning all the close games you did last year? How much help could that be this year with a tough schedule? COACH DANTONIO: It should certainly make the difference. It did last year. When you look at our football team, you have to get breaks in close games, that's obvious, make great decisions as players and coaches. I think you've got to be able to handle adversity as you move through every single game. That's leadership and chemistry. We had that last year. That still exists on our football team and in our locker room. When you talk about Michigan State right now, we have some very good players coming back, but if you had to ask me what was the strength of our team last year, what's the strength of our team this year, right now it's the chemistry as a group of people, a belief as a group of people that propels us.
Q. There's going to be a few new starters breaking in in the offensive line group. Tell us what you expect out of that position group.
COACH DANTONIO: We lose three guys from last year's football team. We moved Blake Treadwell and Dan France over there. Dan France is a left tackle. Blake is battling the center position, offensive guard. He's an outstanding athletic. Travis Jackson, outstanding athletic, center. Chris McDonald, a guy that came in 265 pounds, ran a 51 quarter. Now he's 300-plus pounds. Joel Foreman anchors the offensive line, will be a four-year starter now for the first time, four-year starter on the offensive line since I believe 1988 when Mandarich did it. We're sort of set. Skyler is an outstanding player in his own right.
We have athletic guys up front. I can go on and name all the rest of them, but we've got some athletic guys up front. What we need to find is a blend of experience. I have a good sense we'll be fine on the offensive line, that we can make it work and be very good. That's where I'm at with it.
But, again, games will define us and we'll have to see where we're at as we move forward.
Q. You talked about your outstanding running back. Do you see Larry Caper or Le'Veon Bell getting more share of the carries than last year? COACH DANTONIO: Well, last year as we went into the season, they were all pretty much equal. Edwin and Larry were equal. Le'Veon was just coming into it, and Nick Hill, a true freshman, was coming into the mix as well. Larry Caper fractured his hand. Edwin took off, never looked back. Le'Veon had a great first half the season. As good as Edwin is, all four of those guys are very good.
So to me health remains the biggest thing. You have to stay healthy and be able to push your way through the off-season and the non-conference games.
Obviously, Edwin Baker, is a phenomenal player. I think the other guys are very, very good as well. I can see them having breakout years. If you look at 2009, Larry Caper was the featured guy. All those guys have the ability there and I think that's what makes us strong in that area. We have depth.
Q. With Jerel Worthy on the defensive line, the draft projections, looking ahead, how much can that sort of thing help in terms of recruiting when you start to generate that buzz, Edwin Baker, Johnny Adams as well?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, we don't want those guys to leave, obviously, okay? But I think it helps recruiting when you see young people that are having success and being recognized a year before they would be a senior. My message to our players are, Hey, if you play well, you're good enough to go, that's what you want to do, it benefits your life, that's what you should do. I'm happy for them and happy to help. But at the same time if we're talking about that, if Jerel's is going to be a top-15 pick, we'll be fine on the defensive line and win a lot of football games as suggested over there, so I'm good to go.
Q. You've obviously been close to Jim Tressel throughout your career. I'm assuming you had a chance to talk with him. I'm wondering your reaction of everything he's gone through?
COACH DANTONIO: Very heart wrenching for me and my family because we're close to Coach Tres. He's had a lot to do with my life as a mentor really since 1983, and that's a long time. That's a tough situation. As I mentioned out there, he's done a lot of good for college football. Every person he's come in contact with as a player and a coach, he's made a positive impact on their lives. To me, it's tragic. He becomes a tragic hero in my respect, in my view. Usually tragic heroes have the ability to rise above it all in the end and that's what I'll look for in the end.