EAST LANSING - While there will be some expected tearful goodbyes exchanged between teammates and families before and after Michigan State's final home game at noon on Saturday against Minnesota, one of the Spartans' coaches may have the toughest time accepting a group of departures that have not only changed the landscape of the defense but of the program, as well.
Linebackers and special teams coach Mike Tressel had no problem, during MSU weekly position coaches session, admitting emotions would be high as he watched four players he's coached take their final stroll out of the Spartan Stadium tunnel prior to MSU's regular season finale.
Eventhough Tressel will get two more games with Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Kyler Elsworth and the presence of Jairus Jones, who converted from safety to linebacker and played a few games at the position before suffering a knee injury this season.
"It's a hit, there's no doubt about it,'' Tressel said. "Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, right off the bat. Those guys have made a ton of plays and have given a ton of leadership to this defense over the past bunch of years. When you add Jairus to the mix who started at safety for awhile and then moved to backer plus Kyler Elsworth, who may be our top special teams player on the whole team, if you take out our specialists, those are some good football players.''
In Bullough, Allen and Elsworth, the Spartans will have to replace a trio that will depart the program as members of arguably the best defense in Spartan history. And eventhough Jones was late to the linebacker party, before he got hurt, you could tell he was going to make his mark this season.
In that regard, Tressel's lament may be more about losing four quality, easy to coach and productive member of the linebacking corps.
Four of 18 seniors who will take their last stroll out of the tunnel on Saturday.
"There's no doubt, there's no doubt about it,'' Tressel said when asked about shedding some tears for the eventual departure of the quartet. "But you feel like you're losing someone you care about, whether it's one person or four people. Senior Day's hard, regardless. It's substantial, there's no doubt about it and it will be hard, no doubt.
"For me, as the linebacker's coach, this is as good a group of guys that I've had. And a lot of that has to do with the veteran leadership.''
It all starts up front
Co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Jim Bollman, despite his extensive background in coaching offensive linemen, would take no credit for the team's noticeably strong o-line improvements. But he did offer some insight on what the performance of MSU's offensive line has meant to the team's success this season.
"I don't know what kind of impact I've had on the situation but Mark Staten's done a great job coaching them. No question about that. But we did feel like there were some guys up there that we could work with for sure and they have continued to develop and continued to improve. And it's not done, we've got to keep doing that but that's been a good aspect of the improvement of the offensive football team because those guys have to give enryone else a chance. They've done that and that's been pretty steady throughout the season. Everyone else has improved as a result of those guys giving them a chance to do that.''
Despite taking no credit for MSU's o-line improvements or the Spartans' offensive play calls, eventhough he shares the responsibilities with Dave Warner, Bollman did have no problem talking about what has vaulted redshirt freshman Josiah Price into the Spartans best tight end.
"Josiah's a good athlete. He's an explosive guy and he's a very good receiver,'' he said of Price, who has 12 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns this season. "He had to learn a lot about the overall game and blocking in general but he's continued to do that. I think he really takes a lot of pride in what he's doing and helping the whole football team. He's a very unselfish guy. I look forward to and count on him to keep improving.''
Bollman would also like to get a chance to continue tutoring converted defensive end Jamal Lyles, who moved to tight end this season.
"He's improving all of time and certainly has great physical ability for the position. I'm not going prognosticate about anybody's future but he's a guy you certainly hope has a chance to stay at tight end because he really has some good quickness and footspeed and can catch the ball.''
Bollman also had this to say:
on Brad Salem's earlier season assertion 'that this offense stinks': "I don't recall some of those things and if that was the situation, I've erased all of that from my memory.''
on looking ahead to facing his former employer, Ohio State: "It's not the time to think or comment or answer that question either. But if you request to talk me (next week after the Minnesota game) I certainly will not refuse.''
on the arrangement of being a co-offensive coordinator "Everybody has chances to express their opinion. Sure, I know what's going on but when you're going through (and you) start planning, we all get together and share ideas. What did we do last week, what are we going to do this week, what do we think might work, might not work. You're always walking the line of, are you putting in to much, are you putting in too much that the guys can't execute, are you not putting in enough that things are too similar to what they've been? Those are things you have to keep asking yourself all of the time.''
While it will be impossible to replace someone of Bullough's character, knowledge, athleticism and leadership, Tressel said next year's open auditions to fill the roles played by both Bullough and Allen are pretty much already underway.
Of course, that's what all consistently good programs do and MSU is nor different.
There are several candidates to fill Bullough's shoes next season.
The early favorites seem to be redshirted freshman Jon Reschke and redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, who repped and played at running back this season before recently going to fullback.
"You need to have a guy that can make the adjustments,'' Tressel said. "Even Max Bullough two years is not the same as Max Bullough is today. So when you think ahead, you say, 'who's going to make those calls?'' So we'll experiment with different guys at that MIKE spot during bowl practice and certainly during spring ball.
"Darien Harris will get a look at MIKE. Shane Jones will get a look at MIKE,'' Tressel said. "We have to figure out who the best leader because I think they all can play ball.''
Speaking of Reshke, Tressel added that redshirted linebacker is back practicing and would have earned some playing time this season if he hadn't gotten hurt a little over a month ago.
"He probably would've. He had the learning curve where he would have been able to get on the field and he has the athletic ability to have gotten on the field but maybe it all works out best in the end.''
Of course, Tressel wasn't getting away from the last weekly regular season position coaches session without being asked about Max Bullough's contributions to the team's success during his tenure at middle linebacker.
"It's been fantastic because not only is he a really smart football player, a really intense football player but Michigan State football is as important to him as it is to us as coaches,'' Tressel said. "How often can you say that? I've been in it my whole life and here's a kid who it's just as important to and you don't see that that often. So, me coach him, I think he's coached me sometimes.''
In accordance with looking ahead to next season, eventhough MSU still has a lot to play for this season, Tressel weighed in a bit on who has caught his eye on the offensive side of the ball for the Spartans.
"Damion Terry's phenomenal, Gerald Holmes is phenomenal. Those two guys do a fantastic job and then I'm looking at skill as you ask me this, Dylan Chmura, in particular weeks where people focus on the tight end, he's done a good job as well. So as a linebacker coach and (with) the guys I'm facing every week, those three guys jump out.''
Gopher special teams special
Much has been made of Minnesota's proficiency on special teams as an aspect of the Gophers' surprising success this season. And Tressel couldn't deny that Minnesota's may be the best the Spartans will face all season.
"I would say that they have as much heart and effort in special teams as any team we've faced. They go hard and get after it every single snap. Their coaches have obviously instilled in them the importance of special teams and the importance of field position. You can see it in effort alone.''
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