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Dantonio talks Lewerke and a little attrition at coaches convention

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LANSING - Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio wasn’t able to meet with media as long as he usually does following his annual address at the Michigan High School Coaches Association Winners Circle Clinic, Friday at the Lansing Center.

He said he was on his way to Detroit to do some recruiting. But he shared some thoughts on January happenings in and around his program.

The last time Dantonio met with media, in mid-December, he said he anticipated some attrition to take place on his roster. When asked on Friday while walking toward the exit of the Lansing enter if any attrition has set in, he said: “Yeah, I’m not going to speak on that right now, walking out. But I’m sure there has.”

Dantonio was short about the subject, possibly because he didn’t have time to address things in-full, and possibly because he was aware that rumors hit internet message boards on Thursday, including the SpartanMag.com Underground Bunker, that attrition had indeed started to have an impact on the roster.

Dantonio didn't provide a chance to confirm or deny any rumors. He isn’t likely to speak with media again until national recruiting signing day on Feb. 1.


RECRUITING BUZZ?

Michigan State’s 2017 recruiting class sits with 18 known commitments, ranked No. 30 in the Rivals.com team rankings, and No. 25 in the Rivals.com star average rankings.

Dantonio indicated last month that Michigan State could have room to sign 24 or a full class of 25.

When asked on Friday if there is still a buzz for his program on the recruiting trail despite a 3-9 season in 2016, Dantonio said: “Absolutely. Prior to the season, we won 40 out of 45 games. All the people we are recruiting remember not just two years ago, but also ’10, ’11 and ’12 and Le’Veon Bell, and that there are a lot of opportunities for people as they come here. So we’re having a great recruiting class.”


SHALLOW POOL

Only 10 scholarship seniors are expected to be on the roster in 2017. Only three are returning starters: offensive guard Brian Allen, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and linebacker Chris Frey. That’s a small pool of candidates to choose from when looking for senior leaders.

Dantonio indicated that some leadership will have to come from underclassmen in 2017, as it did in 2009 when a young Kirk Cousins was voted captain as a sophomore.

“Leadership comes from leaders,” Dantonio said. “Kirk Cousins was an outstanding leader; he was a sophomore. When there’s opportunity, people gravitate towards that and they’ll fill that void.

“But really I think there’s a sense of purpose on our football team and we’re driving forward. So guys are recognizing what they need to do and we’re working on it.

“So they’re in workouts right now, and we’ve been spending some time doing other things as well in terms of preparation.”

Junior safety Khari Willis is a player to keep an eye on as a rising leader and potential captain at some point.

“He is already a natural leader, as a younger guy,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “He’s definitely going to be one of the leaders going forward on our entire team, not just in our secondary but or our entire defense.”

Willis started three games as a true freshman in 2015. He started only one game in 2016, but saw his productivity rise from 11 tackles as a freshman to 30 tackles as a sophomore.

“Khari continues to work hard,” Barnett said. “He gets better and better. He works at his game. He is a prideful young man who wants to improve. And he will continue to improve.”


LEWERKE 'DOING SOME THINGS'

Dantonio indicated that rising sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke is recovering well from a broken leg, which he suffered in the eighth game of the season against Michigan.

“Good, he’s good,” Dantonio said. “He’s out there doing things. He is not full-go yet, but he is involved in doing things.

“But we (coaches) have been out since they (the players) have been back (in school), pretty much except for the weekends. We’ve been recruiting, they had been gone, so really we’ve only been back in school (for a week).”

Lewerke (6-3, 202, Phoenix, Ariz.) started two games for the Spartans in 2016, wresting the job from senior Tyler O’Connor at mid-season before going down with the injury.

Lewerke saw action in four games last fall, completing 54 percent of his passes (31 of 517) for 381 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Dantonio said in December that Lewerke had earned the right to go into spring practice with the inside track toward the starting job in 2017.


EARLY IMPRESSIONS

Dantonio hasn’t had a chance to work on the field with his three early enrollee freshmen: wide receiver Hunter Rison, tight end Jack Camper and defensive back Josiah Scott. But early indications from their workouts are positive.

“From I’ve heard, they’ve been very impressive,” Dantonio said. “I saw them this morning in the weight room and they’re doing very well.”


CAREFUL TRAINING

In December, Dantonio said there would be a renewed commitment to all aspects of the program as the Spartans try to rebound from last year’s disappointment.

“We’re going to find out who wants to be here,” Dantonio said on Dec. 15.

An increased level of intensity would be expected, but Dantonio indicated that measures have taken place to keep things as safe as possible, in the wake of the hospitalizations that took place at the University of Oregon as a result of over-training, and the death of a player at Northern Michigan after a winter workout.

“Yeah, we’ve addressed that and recognized that aspect, definitely,” Dantonio said.


11 STRAIGHT FOR DANTONIO; HARBAUGH 1-FOR-3

Dantonio has spoken at the annual coaches convention each year since he became head coach at Michigan State in December of 2006. At Friday's event, he met briefly with legendary Farmington Hills Harrison head coach John Herrington.

Dantonio also shook hands with recently-inducted MHCA Hall of Fame inductee Doug Bess, a long-time assistant at Battle Creek Central.

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already,” Bess said to Dantonio after he finished his address.

“Actually this is my 11th time,” said Dantonio.

This year marked the second straight year Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh failed to attend the event.

Dantonio’s address on Friday centered around his program’s still-developing approach to defensing trendy, difficult run-pass option plays.

“RPOs are kind of sweeping the nation, aren’t they?” Dantonio said to the crowd of more than 200 high school coaches.

Dantonio went through a checklist of categories that his staff has produced in its attempts to get a handle on the latest offensive trends.

“Defensive coaches, we have to band together,” Dantonio told the audience with a smile.

Michigan State ranked No. 32 in the nation in total defense in 2016, and No. 75 in total offense. Will MSU's adaptations be perceivable to the casual fan? We'll have to wait till the fall.

“What we’ve got to do, as I said up there, is you want to critique everything in your program, take a systematic approach, identify problems, find solutions,” Dantonio told a small media gathering after his address.

That’s nothing new. Dantonio sought to keep his team’s schemes fresh even after his two most recent Big Ten Championship seasons in 2013 and 2015.

“I think change is inevitable every year,” he said. “You want to critique and change things.

“There will be nuance changes and then things that change offensively, defensively and special teams. There’s a lot of change that we will work through.


THE LE'VEON FACTOR

Former Spartan great Le’Veon Bell will compete as one of the most high-profile players in the sport this weekend when his Pittsburgh Steelers play the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 6:40 p.m. on Sunday (CBS).

Dantonio was asked if Bell’s high-profile as an All-Pro running back has an impact on the recruiting trail.

“That impact is very big,” Dantonio said.

And it can’t hurt the Spartans as they work to finish a commitment from Jon Lovett, a 5.7 three-star running back from Marlton, N.J., ranked the No. 12 player in New Jersey. Lovett visited Michigan State last weekend.

Dantonio can’t comment specifically on Lovett, but the head coach points to player success after college when on the road recruiting, and delved into his couch-speak a bit when talking to reports on Friday.

“All of our guys who have played at the next level, (like) Kirk Cousins and the various people (have an impact),” Dantonio said. “I think they want to see themselves succeed at the next level in life, not just on the football field, but in life too and we’ve got other guys doing that as well.”