Michigan State looks to flip the script; Hill enjoying healthy offseason

Updated: March 13, 2008, 1:26 PM ET

Step Class for Spartans

The message comes off as cliché, unless you know the history.

Mark Dantonio

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio is taking a new approach to offseason conditioning.

Mark Dantonio knows the history. At Michigan State, progress has been fleeting in recent seasons. Great Septembers are followed by miserable Octobers. National rankings disappear. So does national respect.

The Spartans were heading down a familiar path in Dantonio's first season as coach, starting 4-0 before dropping five of their next six games, all by seven or fewer points. Then, the all-too familiar script changed, as Michigan State won its final two games to qualify for its first bowl since 2003.

Dantonio wants things to stay that way.

"We took two steps forward last year, and we need to take another step," he said. "We need to finish games. We won seven; could have won 10, 11, but we didn't. We've got to be able to play when things are on the line, which we did at the end of the season.

"But we're not there yet."

After a season spent adjusting to Dantonio's heightened standards for performance and discipline, players were tested again this winter. During the Fourth-Quarter Program, a series of taxing 70-minute workouts that usually start at 5:30 a.m., each man received daily grades.

"We continued to put an emphasis on attention to detail and working through the mental toughness aspects," Dantonio said. "We're having fun with it, as much fun as you can have that time of day. There's been nobody who's been late, nobody who's missed."

The on-field work begins Monday as the Spartans open spring practice. Michigan State returns the starting backfield of quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer, but it must build depth at both positions and find replacements at wide receiver, defensive end, left tackle and other spots.

A defense that ranked 14th nationally in sacks (3.08 per game) and 11th in tackles for loss (7.69 per game) loses top pass-rushers Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. Dantonio has a potential sacking successor in transfer Trevor Anderson, who followed him from Cincinnati to Michigan State and sat out last season. Anderson earned All-Big East honors as a sophomore at Cincinnati after recording six tackles and 13 TFLs.

"He can offset a guy like Saint-Dic or Baldwin," Dantonio said. "Obviously, he knows our system, and he was a dominant player last year on the scout team. He's always been the type of guy, since I've known him, that whatever he's attacked, he's been successful."

No player had more success under the new coaching staff than wide receiver Devin Thomas, who led the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (2,590) and ranked among the top 15 nationally in both receiving average (96.9 ypg) and kickoff return average (29.1 ypr). Thomas' early departure to the NFL and the graduation loss of tight end Kellen Davis create major playmaking voids.

Dantonio will lean on Mark Dell, who started at wideout as a true freshman, as well as several young players. B.J. Cunningham redshirted last season but turned heads in practice, and Michigan State signed three wide receivers in February.

"Whether it's one, two or three guys picking up Devin's workload, we're going to have to accomplish that to be successful," Dantonio said. "There's opportunity there. Last year, we were saying the same thing.

"We're trying to make that next step, and I believe that we will."

King of the Hill

MADISON, Wis. -- The on-field numbers have always been there for P.J. Hill: a Big Ten-leading 1,569 yards as a freshman, more than 1,200 yards as a sophomore despite missing nearly three games, 29 career touchdowns, a yeomanly 544 carries. But in the weight room, Hill's statistics were sorry -- until this past winter.

P.J. Hill

AP Photo/Andy Manis

P.J. Hill is enjoying his first healthy collegiate offseason.

The Wisconsin running back had never been healthy for a complete offseason and missed all of spring practice last year after right shoulder surgery.

"I was always banged-up before, so I could never really bench that much," Hill said. "Now I'm actually on the bench and up at 320 [pounds], feeling pretty good. It's just going to keep going up."

Hill is used to talking weight, but now it's not only about his body (for the record, he checks in at a stable 227 pounds, down from 242 two years ago). Finally satisfied with both his size and his strength, Hill is primed for an excellent spring.

Given the footsteps behind him, he needs one.

The two-year starter is being pushed by Lance Smith, Zach Brown and freshman John Clay. Smith rushed for 436 yards on 71 carries (6.0 average) last season despite being suspended for road games after being arrested on battery charges stemming from an alleged fight with his girlfriend. Brown started the final four games last season and rushed for 568 yards and five touchdowns.

Clay, a two-time prep player of the year in Wisconsin, mirrors Hill in size (6-2, 231 pounds) and showed impressive burst in Tuesday's practice.

"P.J.'s definitely healthier and better, but for the most part because of No. 32 [Clay], No. 5 [Smith] and No. 30 [Brown]," coach Bret Bielema said. "He's a two-year 1,000-yard rusher, put up a lot of good yardage against quality opponents, but the bottom line is he hasn't been able to go through an offseason until now. It's not only given him physical confidence but mental toughness."

Despite an impressive résumé as the starter, Hill knows the spring is about reclaiming what belongs to him.

"It makes me want it more," he said. "It's always in the back of a player's mind that somebody else wants the job and they're out there working just as hard as you. It's all about who's going to work even harder."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.


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Chappell's Show

The spring was supposed to provide Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis with ample time to single out his next top target after James Hardy's departure to the NFL. Turns out Indiana will need every nanosecond of practice time it can get to figure out how to replace both ends of the Big Ten's best passing connection. Lewis' indefinite suspension for violating team rules leaves the Hoosiers in a bind for spring ball, which begins March 25. The sophomore will miss at least the start of practice, but coach Bill Lynch kept the door open for a possible return before the spring game April 19.

Backup Ben Chappell steps into the starter's role despite having thrown only two passes in college, one of which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown in a 31-28 loss to Northwestern. The team's only other returning quarterback, Teddy Schell, will miss spring practice after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow as well as a hernia operation. Mitchell Evans, an all-state prep quarterback from Ohio who switched to safety early in fall camp last year, will move back under center for the spring. Dustin Hass, the team's holder for field goals, also should get snaps. But spring essentially becomes Chappell's show.

He will try to build synergy with top returning wideouts Ray Fisher and James Bailey. Andrew Means, the team's third-leading receiver last season, will be playing for Indiana's baseball team.

Missing in Madison

Several familiar faces weren't in uniform Tuesday when Wisconsin practiced in the McClain Center. All-American Travis Beckum and fellow tight end Garrett Graham will miss the spring with injuries. Cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry are out for practice as they recover from ACL surgery. Defensive tackle Jason Chapman also is rehabbing a torn ACL, and linemate Kirk DeCremer will miss all of spring practice after undergoing back surgery.

"It's a little weird," senior defensive end Matt Shaughnessy said of the injuries. "Usually I was the youngest, and now I'm one of the only older guys."

Fortunately for the Badgers, all the injured are expected back by the summer. "Everybody's way ahead of schedule," coach Bret Bielema said. "We start our conditioning program the second week of June, and our goal is to have them involved in that."

Blotter Blues

Iowa and Penn State can't wait for spring practice to start. Both programs have made news for the wrong reasons in recent weeks as coaches Kirk Ferentz and Joe Paterno doled out suspensions and dismissals.

On Friday, Ferentz dismissed backup quarterback Arvell Nelson and wide receiver James Cleveland after both players were arrested on drug possession charges. This past fall, Iowa dismissed two other players -- running back Dana Brown and long-snapper Clint Huntrods -- after arrests. Nelson, who also had legal problems in summer 2007, had been expected to compete for the starting quarterback job with incumbent Jake Christensen and others.

Tight end Andrew Quarless became the latest Penn State player suspended and was charged with DUI on Thursday. Since Penn State's Alamo Bowl victory, Paterno has suspended six players: Quarless, defensive tackle Phillip Taylor, wide receiver Chris Bell, defensive tackle Chris Baker, linebacker Navorro Bowman and defensive back Knowledge Timmons. Taylor faces assault charges for his alleged role in a campus fight involving several players. Quarless led Nittany Lions tight ends last year with 14 receptions for 205 yards and three touchdowns.

Extra Points

• Michigan State running back Javon Ringer will miss most of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery, but coach Mark Dantonio isn't worried about the Big Ten's second-leading returning rusher. A bigger concern -- literally -- is finding the next Jehuu Caulcrick. The 255-pound Caulcrick was the perfect complement to Ringer last season, rushing for 872 yards and a league-leading 21 touchdowns. Junior A.J. Jimmerson has the most experience behind Ringer, but he'll have to beat out speedy Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, who packs a Caulcrick-like punch. "He's not as big as Jehuu, but he's a 225-pound, 230-pound running back that has good speed, good vision," Dantonio said of Leggett. "He's got to prove himself. It'll be exciting."

• It always seemed like a natural matchup -- two private schools trying to tread water in big-fish conferences -- but Northwestern and Vanderbilt haven't faced each other since 1952. That will change in 2010, as Northwestern visits Vandy to start a four-game series finalized in February. The Wildcats will host the Commodores in 2012 and 2014 and visit Nashville again in 2013. Before leaving to become Green Bay Packers president and CEO, former Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy tried to reshape the schedule to include comparable institutions. The Wildcats begin series with Syracuse next season, Rice in 2010, Boston College in 2011 and possibly Stanford in 2014.

• For Ted Roof, it must feel nice to be wanted. Roof has landed two positions since being fired from Duke in November after going 6-45 in five seasons as head coach. After first heading to Louisville to coach linebackers, Roof was named defensive coordinator at Minnesota on March 3. A former defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Duke, Massachusetts and Western Carolina, Roof takes over a Golden Gophers unit that ranked last nationally in yards allowed in 2007 (518.7 ypg). "We have our work cut out for us, but that's why they pay us," Roof told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Do I have something to prove? Certainly."