Mark Dantonio acknowledges Michigan State has some momentum right now. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. They come off of a Legends division title and could enter the season as the Big Ten favorite. But they also lose a lot of star power from the 2011 team, namely quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and three-time captain, and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
Can Michigan State be a better team in 2012, or will the Spartans backslide in their effort to reload?
"There were questions as we left 2010," Dantonio said. "Can we replace Greg Jones and Eric Gordon? Could we replace our punter, Aaron Bates, or [wide receiver] Mark Dell? We were able to do that and progress, so there are great possibilities. Our football team is poised for that, but at the same time we need to guard against being complacent and understand we’re going to be judged game-to-game.
"It's important we bring our energy with us in everything we do, but there's no question we have confidence. There's no question we have continuity. We've built a great foundation to springboard us forward."
The next phase begins Tuesday, as Michigan State kicks off spring practice in East Lansing.
Dantonio discussed the spring and the future with ESPN.com earlier this week.
Dantonio is "very optimistic" the NCAA will approve wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett to play this coming season. Arnett transferred from Tennessee to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father in Flint, Mich. He appeared in 12 games for the Vols in 2011 and had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns. "It was a hardship because his father is ill," Dantonio said. "DeAnthony had success at Tennessee. He was happy at Tennessee. He felt like he needed to come home to be near his family. Every Friday afternoon he goes home. He's a great young man, and he cares deeply about his family and wants to be close to them and wants them to have the opportunity to see him play as well." The NCAA recently granted a waiver for Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer, to play immediately at Notre Dame. Carlisle transferred to be closer to his father, who took a position in Purdue's athletic department. Arnett is eligible to practice this spring for the Spartans.
If Arnett receives his waiver, he'll provide a big boost to a position that Dantonio calls the "most critical" to replenish. Michigan State loses its top three receivers -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- from 2011. The Spartans need to get Bennie Fowler and Juwan Ceasar healthy and have some immediate contributions from their incoming freshmen.
Michigan State has good depth at defensive end, so Denzel Drone will move to tight end, at least for the start of spring ball. Drone has made six starts at defensive end in his first two seasons and has recorded 28 tackles, five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He played a bit of tight end as a high school senior. "We can at least look at that position move in the first two weeks," Dantonio said. "He's played enough defensive end that he can go back over there and be a co-starter for us, but I think we need to put our best football players on the field, and if he can be one of those top 11 players, 12 players, 13, 14 players on offense, then we'll leave him there. If not, he'll be one of those top 14 players on defense." In another move, defensive back Dana Dixon will practice at wide receiver this spring but could return to the secondary "in a heartbeat," Dantonio said.
Defensive tackle will be a fascinating position to watch this spring as Michigan State looks to replace Worthy. Tyler Hoover, a starting defensive end in 2010 who missed all of last season with injury, will move inside this spring. Hoover is up to 297 pounds, Dantonio said. The Spartans also will audition a host of redshirt freshman defensive tackles and sophomore James Kittredge, a transfer from Vanderbilt.
Michigan State redshirted 19 players last season, a few more than normal, and the spring will provide a proving ground for several of them. Dantonio listed defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Lawrence Thomas, safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Trae Waynes as freshmen who could have played in the latter part of last season.
The Spartans are one of only four Big Ten teams to return their entire coaching staff from the previous season. It wasn't easy, as other teams made runs at both Michigan State coordinators, Pat Narduzzi and Dan Roushar, but both men stayed, in part because the school made a stronger financial commitment. "It was natural to me to be very concerned we would lose a coach or two," Dantonio said. "But it gives you a feeling that you’re doing things right here and there's a good working environment. Obviously, all of our guys, we’re going to do everything we can do to hold onto them, and some of that is financially-based."
Dantonio on quarterback Andrew Maxwell: "Very patient young man, as evidenced by him sitting here and waiting for his opportunity. Very poised, extremely strong arm, very athletic, he was a 6-7 high jumper in high school. He's got size. He’s got great intelligence. He's got a great demeanor among his teammates. The one thing he's missing right now is that experience of going out and doing it on game day on a consistent basis. Kirk always stayed the course and was never knocked out of a football game, so Andrew never had to take the reins of our football team in a critical situation. That's coming for him."
In terms of leadership, Dantonio said Maxwell's teammates already have accepted him in his new role. Dantonio also listed linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, offensive lineman Chris McDonald and running back Larry Caper as potential team leaders in 2012.