EAST LANSING – The off-season has been uncomfortable but productive, Michigan State football players said Friday, the final day of classes for the spring semester.
There were weekly players-only meetings. Sometimes, there was nothing to say so they would go lift weights. Sometimes, things got heated and emotional and they would talk and argue for an hour.
They hope that push and pull leads to more cohesion this fall, especially after a disastrous 2016 finish and the chaotic off-season that followed. Their goal is painted on the concrete pathway leading to their practice field: “1Focus.”
“People were genuinely open and just saying what was on their minds,” senior center Brian Allen said. “There were confrontations in those meetings – and I don’t think they were bad confrontations. But we came out of the meetings that guys were closer and kind of thought, ‘OK, he looks at it like that, I look at it like this, but we’re gonna come together and go about it this way.’
“I think we did a great job coming together in tough times.”
Friday was the first time players on last season’s 3-9 team spoke to the media since the Spartans’ final game, a 45-12 loss against Big Ten champion Penn State on Nov. 26.
Members of the team’s leadership Eagle Council said the off-season meetings were positive..
“It wasn’t tough to hear the truth. It’s not tough to hear the truth. It’s a good thing to hear the truth,” sophomore defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “And it got us a lot better, and it brought us a lot closer.”
That Penn State game epitomized the Spartans’ season filled with injuries on the field and issues off it. A second-quarter injury to quarterback Damion Terry sapped the final pulse from a team that also played that day without suspended captain Demetrious Cox. MSU’s lack of depth allowed the Nittany Lions to turn a close game into a rout in the second half.
Since then, it has been one issue after another for the program.
- Three unnamed players and staff member Curtis Blackwell have been suspended since Feb. 9 after an alleged sexual assault in January. Defensive end Auston Robertson was dismissed from the team Friday after being charged in a separate alleged sexual assault and was arraigned on Tuesday.
- Linebacker Jon Reschke announced he was leaving the program on Feb. 24 for making “an insensitive and totally regrettable comment involving a former teammate.” Offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa also left the program before the spring semester began.
- Dantonio also confirmed that an unspecified number of other players had been put in a “red-lock” situation throughout the spring. That forced the Spartans to have a true scrimmage rather than drafting teams as they normally do for the spring game.
“You want to think that you’re gonna stay true to everything you know when times are tough,” junior safety Grayson Miller said, “but nobody in the program had faced times that tough. … There has been a lot of negativity. But at the same time, you’re just gonna go with the guys that are there that day. I think it’s brought us closer in a lot of ways.
“You know what? You can’t dwell on guys who are there or not there, whatever it may be. Those are their situations. So whoever’s on the team that day, that’s how we’re gonna roll.”
The Spartans opened their 15 spring practices Feb. 25, and players were not given the opportunity to talk with the media until Friday. Dantonio was quiet from signing day on Feb. 1 until addressing the first sexual assault allegation on March 28, four days before the Green and White scrimmage. The 11th-year coach only spoke about how his team’s spring workouts went after that April 1 game and has not met with reporters since.
“We’re working, we’re continuing to push forward,” junior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “My message would be to stay patient. Even though it’s in the dark somewhat, sometimes your best things brew or start in the dark.”
Dowell said that focus is on “re-establishing our Michigan State culture” and having a “reaffirmation into what Spartan football is.”
Brian Allen – whose older brother, Jack, was part of two Big Ten titles – said he and his current teammates need to learn from last season’s mistakes and problems. To do so, he believes they have to look beyond 2016 and focus on the teams that went 36-5 with three top-6 finishes from 2013-15.
“It’s not that we want to do that because of the success that they had, it’s because that was the right way and that’s why they had the success,” Brian Allen said. “Whenever something happens, we want to look at ourselves … and hold ourselves accountable to live up to those kind of expectations and not hurting the foundation that they worked on to get us where they are.
“Those guys really are the reason that we’re where we are, where we were and where we need to get back to.”
For the nine players who spoke Friday, it almost seemed cathartic for them to talk publicly again. To not be behind closed doors. To address what they have been doing since November.
And to talk about football.
“Everybody knows why we’re here,” Williams said. “We’re here to win games.”