EAST LANSING - Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio took questions from members of the Spartan press corps, Wednesday at the Skandalaris Center, for the first time since spring football media day.
The fifth-year Spartan coach began the press briefing by discussing the remarkable return of Arthur Ray Jr., who is practicing with his Michigan State teammates four years after being diagnosed with cancer.
Ray Jr. was one of the biggest recruiting victories in Dantonio's first class at Michigan State. But before the High School All-American from the famed Chicago Mount Carmel program which produced Donovan McNabb, Simeon Rice, and Chris Calloway arrived in East Lansing he was diagnosed with cancer.
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Ray underwent chemotherapy and had surgery to remove the cancer while he was still in high school. He enrolled at Michigan State as a freshman but had to leave the program and school after getting an infection in his leg. Ray had been a medical disqualification, but with help from the Big Ten Conference, Michigan State petitioned the NCAA for a waiver that would allow the inspirational young lineman to return to the program as a scholarship player.
Below is a look other notable football developments touched upon by Dantonio Thursday evening.
Arjen Colquhoun out for the rest of spring: January enrollee Arjen Colquhoun suffered an elbow injury that will prevent him from practicing the rest of spring. The true freshman defensive back is a strong athlete who has a bright future in the Michigan State program. Colquohoun was not expected to play as a true freshman. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Canadian was working hard to acclimate himself to 11-man football after playing 12-man football during his prep career.
Plenty of depth at RB and WR: Michigan State has no shortage of talent at the skill positions of running back and wide receiver.
Dantonio characterized the play of his running backs as explosive thus far.
"They have all done a nice job," Dantonio said. "There has been a lot of retention there. We have good skill at that position and we are healthy. We will keep moving forward.
"We have more depth, I feel, than we have had in the past, especially at the wide receiver positions, the offensive skill positions, the running back position, offensive line is coming. So we're moving forward.
"Defensively, we had a good day today. Our specialists, (punter) Mike Sadler looks very, very explosive as a punter."
Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper have established themselves as one of the best backfield trios in college football. The three-headed monster is back in 2011 and the position also includes a couple of talented youngsters in Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford. Both Hill and Langford red-shirted last year.
Michigan State has six receivers capable of playing winning football any program in the Big Ten. The Spartans lose a talented senior in Mark Dell, but return a slew of playmakers with established veterans B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol. Bennie Fowler is back for his sophomore season after having a breakout first year in the Spartan program. Donald Spencer, Keith Mumphery, and Tony Lippett give Michigan State three-more receivers with a bunch of potential.
"I feel like our receiver group could be very, very special," said Dantonio. "You add in Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett into that mix, you can see that Keith Nichol is much more comfortable now. Last year at this time he was really moving into that position full time for the first time. He is very comfortable there. Cunningham will be back out on the field shortly."
As many plays as possible: Tony Lippett was recruited to play receiver out of Detroit Crockett high school.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder was an explosive presence on the scout team last fall playing primarily on offense until late in the season when he moved to cornerback. Michigan State coaches have raved about Lippett's potential since his scout team exploits mirroring Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Dantonio is committed to playing Lippett on both sides of the ball.
The converted quarterback has worked primarily with receivers to this point in the spring. He will switch to defense next week.
"We will move him over to defensive side of the ball to get him ready this next week," Dantonio said. "He will also continue to play receiver for us. I think he has those kind of skills. We've got to get him more than 15, 16, 17, 20 snaps and with our depth at wide receiver that is what you have to look at I think."
Maxwell a back-up with ability of a starter: Last fall Dantonio indicated that he had faith in red-shirt freshman Andrew Maxwell to step in successfully for Kirk Cousins if called upon to do so.
"He has a great arm, great awareness, full control of the offense," said the fifth-year Spartan football coach. "I really feel like he would start at a lot of places as a quarterback."
Nichol would be the third quarterback for Michigan State in the event of an emergency. Nichol was the No. 3 guy for Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl after both Cousins and Maxwell were knocked out of the game by the Alabama defense.
Lewis ahead of Jones at safety: Sophomore Isaiah Lewis has moved ahead of Jairus Jones at strong safety. Dantonio is confident that both players are functional at the position.
"I think Isaiah is playing a little bit better," said Dantonio, who coaches safeties. "Isaiah is an explosive, very powerful guy. If I am using the word 'explosive' that is usually a good thing. I think Jarius is going into his third year and he is playing well as well."
Good spring for Allen: Dantonio is pleased with the progress being made at the STAR linebacker spot by red-shirt sophomore Denicos Allen. Junior Chris Norman started at the STAR position last season. If Allen continues to play the way he has this spring, Norman will slide over to the SAM linebacker spot so the Spartans can get their best three linebackers on the field.
Tight end Garrett Celek: "He is a fifth-year senior. He is weighing almost 260. So much of this is knowing what to do and being able to do these things we ask them to do at a rapid pace, being able to adjust blocking schemes on the move. He is very well-versed at that."
Wide receiver Bennie Fowler: "He is a confident player. you see him making plays out there. He is a big, physical wide receiver. He can run very effectively. Donald Spencer is another guy that is out there. The top guys are Nichol, Keshawn, Bennie, Cunningham, but Mumphrey and Lippett have looked very special as well.
"At our wide receiver position, you've got some guys."