EAST LANSING - Sophomore linebacker Denicos Allen finished the first one-third of Michigan State's spring football season with a bang.
The day before yesterday's Jersey Scrimmage, Allen levied a hard hit on running back Edwin Baker to stop him for a loss in a goal line situation on the last play of practice.
"It was a read, I had a run-through, it was open and I took it," Allen said.
Allen had a good hit on Baker earlier in the day as well.
"I hit him high, not low, I wouldn't try to take out one of our running backs," Allen said. "It was just a stretch play and we met; it was kind of a standstill with a nice pop, we kind of popped each other."
Allen was sure to give Baker credit for playing strong. Allen wasn't bragging about his big hits, but merely answering questions about them after head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi mentioned Allen as having had an excellent day in Practice No. 5 of 15 for the spring.
The good news for Michigan State is that Allen's strong day of practice on Thursday was not a one-hit wonder.
"Denicos is certainly with the ones and he has done a good job for us," Narduzzi said. "He is physical and he had a great day today (Thursday)."
On Friday, Allen helped the Michigan State defense win the first Jersey Scrimmage of the spring. Dantonio said the front seven was dominant
"It has been physical and aggressive," Narduzzi said of MSU's defense throughout the spring thus far. "The kids are into it."
All spring, Allen has been the first-string 'star' linebacker - an outside 'backer position usually deployed in the slot area or on the weak side of a conventional formation.
Rising junior Chris Norman started at 'star' linebacker in 2010, but Michigan State plans to move Norman inside to Sam (strong side) linebacker for 2011. Norman is not participating in contact drills this spring as he recovers from an elbow injury.
Allen competed with Norman for the starting 'star' linebacker spot in August, but Norman beat him out. Allen saw limited playing time in passing situations in September of 2010, but saw his role reduced as the season progressed and Norman took a stranglehold on the position.
Now the new starter at 'star,' Allen has no experienced reserves behind him at that position. In fact, there are no scholarship players behind him. He is being backed up by walk-on Kyler Elsworth (6-1, 209). Michigan State needed Allen to come forward with a good spring, earn trust at 'star' and take over that position. The quick, sturdy, 5-foot-10, 218-pounder from Hamilton, Ohio appears to be doing just that.
Is there a marked difference in Allen now, compared to last August?
"Yeah, there is no doubt about it," Narduzzi said. "Last August he was still tentative, still trying to figure out what he's doing. I think he now has a lot of confidence in what he is doing and I think the whole defense right now has a lot of confidence.
"I think it was just inexperience last year. I don't think he is ever a nervous guy worried about, 'I need to make something happen or else I'm not going to get playing time.' It was just a matter of knowing what to do, and he feels comfortable now in what he is doing.
"My confidence grew last year," Allen said. "Special teams kind of gave me a taste of what it's like to play."
Allen finished the spring of 2010 with a terrific performance in the Green-White Game. He out-shined Norman on that day, giving reason to believe he could compete with Norman for the 'star' position and possibly win it in the August of 2010. But Allen fell short in his first shot at the title.
"In August I kind of struggled getting the plays down and doing my job," Allen said. "I was worried about everything else except my job. I settled down and focused on what I need to do and got better as a leader and then as a player. It helped me out, learning the plays better."
Allen stood out as a special teams performer in 2010. He had 18 tackles on the year, mostly on coverage units. He finished 2010 with a solid showing in mop-up duty in the Capital One Bowl, with four solo tackles.
"It was kind of an up-and-down season but for the most part when I got opportunities I felt I did my job, made some plays and I felt I showed the coaches that I needed to be in there and that I was the guy they were looking for," Allen said. "I feel like I'm doing a really good job right now. The coaches say they like my toughness and they see I know what I'm doing more, and I'm focused on the game."
Allen Could Try The Other Side
Michigan State is trying to manufacture depth at the linebacker position. The Spartans have only five scholarship players for three linebacker positions this spring. Four incoming freshmen will report this summer.
If Allen is able to learn two positions this spring - the Sam in addition to the 'star' - it will provide an added layer of depth.
"So far I have just been playing 'star,' but they have been talking about moving me to Sam," Allen said. "They just want the best three linebackers on the field and I'm trying to be one of those three."
"He can play in the box or out of the box," Narduzzi said. "He can do both."
'Star' linebacker customarily plays "out of the box" against three-WR formations. The Sam plays "inside the box," next to the middle (Mike) linebacker.
Bullough Back To No. 1
Rising sophomore Max Bullough ascended back up to No. 1 at Mike linebacker on Thursday, in time for Friday's Jersey Scrimmage. Bullough, who began the spring as the No. 3 Mike linebacker and was suspended for two practices after a spring break arrest in Aspen, Col., posted five tackles during the scrimmage.
Sophomore TyQuan Hammock is the No. 2 Mike linebacker. He had an interception during Friday's scrimmage.
Junior Steve Gardiner began the spring as the No. 1 Mike linebacker. He has moved to Sam linebacker, where he is No. 1 at that position while Norman is out.
"Max is doing good, in football and life," Narduzzi said. "He understands what he is supposed to do as the Mike, more than Hammock does, so he knows what he is doing for sure. He has the confidence."
Gardiner continues to be slowed by a toe injury, but he has impressed coaches nonetheless.
"Gardiner is having a good spring," Narduzzi said. "He knows what he is doing. He can play both the Mike and Sam really well. I don't know if Hammock can play both but he is trying to. But Gardiner can get in a game right now and play both Mike and Sam. He is a smart football player. He is doing a great job mentally.
"He knows what to do. He does things perfectly. He does everything the way it is supposed to be done."
Hammock lost approximately 20 pounds during the off-season, in moving from fullback to his original linebacker position in time for spring practice.
"He is doing well, not as well as you want everyone to play, but understanding that he had a year away from the position and he has just been back at it for a couple of weeks," Narduzzi said. "I would say he is doing okay, based on having a year off.
"He is playing Mike, and a little bit of Sam. He'll continue to get reps at both as we try to get the three best out there."
The depth-chart looks like this:
2. Jeremy Gainer
(Chris Norman participating in non-contract drills, but will start in the fall.)
Gainer (6-1, 227, Detroit/Livonia Clarenceville) is trying to make an impression before the freshmen arrive. The former four-star recruit saw action in only one game last year, making one tackle against Northern Colorado.
"Jeremy is having a solid spring," Narduzzi said. "He just keeps learning. He is a Sam only. He could be a Mike but we haven't put him there yet. It's an important spring for him to find out where he is."