EAST LANSING - After just one day of fall camp, Michigan State coaches were reluctant to make broad statements about player development.Sophomore defensive end Denzel Drone is coming off a loud spring and is pushing for a starting job, behind Hoover and sophomore William Gholston. Drone is up to 6-2, 265 and playing with punch. He is also blossoming as a vocal leader.
"Without pads, it's like soccer camp out there," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
But coaches saw enough from Lawrence Thomas to believe the prized recruit could stick at linebacker. Thomas weighed in at 6-3, 275 a few weeks ago and is down closer to 260 now. Those are huge figures for the linebacker position, too big for proper mobility in most cases.
However, coaches are anticipating more shrinkage, and a steep slope of improvement from the gifted Detroiter.
"From what we saw yesterday, he's staying there (at linebacker)," Narduzzi said during Monday's Media Day press conference.
"He has middle linebacker instincts," said Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel. "He gets downhill. We have a good group of freshman linebackers but he is the one who looks like he has played linebacker for his whole life. He will get faster. He will get better endurance and I think he will be ready to go at linebacker; that's my opinion."
Thomas came to Michigan State ranked the No. 55 player in the nation by Rivals.com, and No. 1 in Michigan.
The Linebacker Rundown
Thomas began fall camp takes reps on the third string, as is customary with incoming freshmen at Michigan State.
Sophomores Max Bullough and TyQuan Hammock are the top two Mike (middle) linebackers. Hammock is also repping at Sam (strong inside) linebacker, behind Denicos Allen.
This is where it gets somewhat confusing.
Allen repped at 'star' (weak, outside) linebacker in the spring. But Allen was moved to Sam for the outset of fall camp.
Junior Chris Norman started at 'star' linebacker last season. There were plans for him to move inside to Sam this year, but he missed spring practice due to an arm injury.
"We have two new starters at linebacker, but if we moved Norman to Sam, then we would basically have new starters at all three positions," Narduzzi said.
The main difference between Sam and 'star' linebacker is that the 'star' goes out to the slot area against 3-receiver formations. In today's college football, 3- and 4-WR formations are the most common formations, hence the need for a linebacker (or a hybrid defensive back) to step out into space and be able to play the pass effectively, while also having the sturdiness to step forward and stop the run.
MSU emphasizes stopping the run first and foremost, thus the Spartans opt to keep a third linebacker on the field in regular down-and-distance situations. Last year, Norman played the slot area for Michigan State.
"We won 11 games with Chris Norman at 'star' linebacker last year, so that's where we're keeping him," Narduzzi said. "It's possible that we could move him inside to Sam at some point and get him oiled up at that position, but right now he is at 'star' and we are working with Denicos at Sam."
Coming out of the spring, Hammock was most commonly viewed as a Mike linebacker, and Allen was viewed as a slot-area 'star.'
But with Allen moving to Sam, and Hammock repping at both inside linebacker positions, Hammock vs. Allen at Sam could emerge as the key position battle.
"Having Allen and Norman on the field would give us the best flexibility," Narduzzi said. "But we are going to play TyQuan somewhere, whether it is at Sam or Mike, as a starter, or if someone goes down or someone needs a blow. TyQuan has a chance."
As for Norman, Narduzzi said it's time for the rangy, chiseled 6-foot-1, 227-pound junior from Detroit to shine.
"Chris Norman has got to be a Greg Jones and Eric Gordon type," Narduzzi said. "He missed all of spring ball, but Greg Jones and Eric Gordon never missed spring ball. But he went in yesterday and picked up where he left off, which is good; that's what we expect. He was good last year. He has everything he needs to be great."
Jairus Jones Update
Sophomore safety [db]Jairus Jones continues to surprise in his comeback from an Achilles injury, sustained in April.
"As Coach Dantonio has said a few times, J.J. is way ahead of schedule," Narduzzi said. "He went through the full run with the DBs yesterday; I didn't expect that."
Dantonio said in late July that Jones is expected to miss contact drills in August, with the possibility of returning in September.
Based on his quick progress to this point, no one would be surprised if Jones comes back sooner. But Jones is a player with little gameday experience. He edged into a role as the fifth defensive back in the nickel defense last spring. Even if he comes back sooner than expected, Jones will likely need time to get back up near 100 percent health.
"It will open the door for Mylan Hicks and Kurtis Drummond," Narduzzi said.
Those two redshirt freshmen are taking reps as second-string safeties.
Hicks is listed at 5-11, 191, but Mark Dantonio indicated at Monday's Media Day press conference that Hicks is up near 200 and developing nicely.
As for the new nickel back, Narduzzi said the Spartans will not begin work on third-down defense until Wednesday, which will be the second day in pads.
Sizing Them Up
Count Narduzzi and offensive line coach Mark Staten among the MSU coaches who have been impressed by the physical improvements made by Spartan players in the off-season. At Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in late July, Dantonio mentioned that the number of players benching 400 pounds and vertical jumping into the 30s had increased
"We are getting stronger and faster," Narduzzi said. "I guess that comes when you have a young team that is growing up. We had more P.B.s, Personal Bests; maximums have gone up at every position. There might only be about 10 guys that aren't stronger than they were in the spring."
Said Staten: "The number of guys that have reached into the 400s with the bench press and the 500s in the squat is amazing to me. The guys have worked as hard as any group that we've had, and that's a big compliment because I've been around a lot of guys here that have worked tremendously hard."
Defensive linemen are among those who have grown. Junior defensive end Tyler Hoover played at 275 last year, was listed at 290 in the summer.
"He is around 300 now," Narduzzi said of the 6-foot-7 junior from Novi. "And he doesn't look it. He moved well yesterday.
"And Kevin Pickelman, I saw him when I was walking up behind him, and I was like, 'Who is that guy?' He's all muscle. He looks like he had his neck removed."
Pickelman (6-4, 288, Sr., Marshall, Mich.) is listed as a co-starter with junior Anthony Rashad White at nose tackle.
The Rest Of it
"He was our d-line coach this summer," Narduzzi said, in reference to player-led workouts. "He wore the hat, so to speak. He is one of those guys that you think some day might be a coach."
Narduzzi said true freshmen Joel Heath and Shilique Calhoun performed well during the pre-camp conditioning test.
"Heath, Gholston, Calhoun, all three could have finished the last gasser backward," Narduzzi said. "The guy leading the pack on the last one was Joel Heath."
Mike Tressel was asked about his uncle, former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. MSU's Tressel said that he had spoken with his uncle a few times in recent weeks. When asked whether he thinks his coach will ever get back into coach, MSU's Tressel said, "He told me he is going to read a hundred books before he decides."
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