MSU players after off-field issues: 'Trying to change perception'

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Leaders from the Michigan State football team said they spent an isolated spring season trying to diagnose the larger issues surrounding the program that finished 3-9 on the field last year and has had an offseason riddled with sexual assault allegations and other off-field issues.

Several players talked to reporters Friday afternoon on campus. They were the first members of the program to answer questions since freshman Auston Robertson was dismissed from the team and charged with third-degree sexual assault last week. Three other unnamed players and a staff member have been suspended since February amid a separate sexual assault investigation. Head coach Mark Dantonio said there were other players "red-locked" for off-field issues heading into the summer as well.

Those who met with reporters Friday said that while they believe the off-field problems are outliers and not a symptom of cultural issues within the program, the team did have some big-picture issues to address.

"If I was outside the program, I would probably think there was something wrong," quarterback Brian Lewerke said. "We're trying to figure it out. Obviously the stuff that happened is not OK. So we're trying to change that perception."

Veterans instituted weekly players-only meetings this winter in which teammates were encouraged to speak freely about problems that bugged them. Senior Brian Allen said the meetings lasted up to an hour and addressed a wide variety of topics.

Allen said the locker room was more filled with cliques last fall and that those groups grew more divided as the 3-9 season wore on. He said this year the team has tried to eliminate the problem by hosting team activities like a Friday night basketball game and mixing up who they sit next to while eating and who they spend time with outside of the locker room.

"People didn't trust as much as they should their teammates the previous season," Allen said. "We wanted to work on that. We're trying to actually be more of a family rather than just talk about it."

All of Michigan State's spring practices leading up to its spring game in early April happened behind closed doors, and no one from the team spoke with reporters until the final week of the spring season. Players said that isolation provided an atmosphere that allowed them to focus on football during practices.

The sexual assault allegations were discussed during the players-only meetings and in meetings with the coaching staff. Players said they talked about keeping one another out of bad situations and finding a way to come closer together as a team.

Senior linebacker Chris Frey said while the serious nature of those incidents was not lost on anyone at Michigan State, the players who remained with the team tried to move past them and work on re-establishing the success they had enjoyed on the field before last fall.

"We know it's a serious thing, but it doesn't matter on the field," Frey said. "We're still going to be the same team and go out there and do everything we can to better ourselves. It's always there, but if didn't faze who we are as a team. I think with the things that have gone on off the field it's only brought us closer on the field."