EAST LANSING - Senior Day is often a time of tears for departing players, but defensive line coach Ted Gill heads the list of non-players most likely to choke up when the last second ticks off the clock at Spartan Stadium this Saturday.
Gill, Michigan State's defensive line coach and perhaps the emotional leader of the entire Spartan coaching staff, has been known to unsuccessfully fight back tears of joy during post-game interviews with the Spartan Radio Network immediately following games.
Factor in the idea of seeing seniors such as Kevin Pickelman and Johnathan Strayhorn wearing game jerseys in Spartan Stadium for the final time when No. 12-ranked Michigan State plays host to Indiana at noon on Saturday, and Gill will undoubtedly get emotional again.
Pickelman, a fifth-year senior from Marshall, was the last member of Mark Dantonio's first recruiting class to be offered a scholarship. Yet he has blossomed into a two-year starter, personifying the underdog/over-achieving nature of the Class of 2007, along with fellow two-star, fifth-year senior Michiganders such as Kirk Cousins and Joel Foreman.
Strayhorn, a former walk-on and fifth-year senior from Detroit and Oak Park High School, will miss the last two games of the regular season due to a knee injury, which required arthroscopic surgery.
"It really hurts us to have a guy out like that," Gill said. "And it hit our team a little bit, so it feels bad."
Pickelman was a tight end and linebacker in high school. Michigan State recruited him as a line athlete. He found a home at defensive tackle, earning a role as a sophomore, and emerging as a starter last season.
After sitting out the spring following off-season surgery, and falling to second-string behind junior college transfer Anthony Rashad White, Pickelman rallied in September to regain the starting job.
Pickelman, a criminal justice major, has had a major impact as the starting nose guard for arguably the top defensive line in the Big Ten.
"He's been a great person to work with," Gill said of Pickelman. "He has made himself what he is today. He really studies the game. He has made himself a lot better player. Your hat goes off to him because of the hard work he has done to get to this point.
"When Kevin came in, he was really under-sized. He had to grow up physically and also learn how to play the position mentally. When he found that he could do that, then he lined up and played pretty well.
"I'm excited for him. I'm excited for the opportunity that somebody will have somewhere down the road to hire a guy like that. He's a great person."
And what will Senior Day mean to Pickelman?
"I have already started thinking about it," Gill said. "You choke up every time you think about him and where he came from to now. You can't think of a guy that has worked his way up the ladder (more than Pickelman) to try to get to that point. He is an endless worker. He'll be a person that will be very well-missed around here."
Strayhorn's main role this year has been as a nose tackle in the 30 front nickel defense. He has played all four positions on the defensive line at different points of his career, including two starts. Strayhorn ranked second on the team last year in sacks with 3.5.
He'll get his name called on Senior Day during pre-game introductions, but he won't be in pads.
"It is disappointing," Gill said. "He is a guy that we brought up a long time and brought him to this point and felt that he was really coming along to the point that he knew everything that we were doing."
Gill knows he'll be emotional on Saturday.
"What happens is you get involved with each kid, and you get involved so much that you want them to do well," Gill said. "And when you see them achieve the things that you've asked them to do, you get emotional because of the fact of knowing where they came from, where they are now and what they're trying to do for you."
Saturday may also be the final time Gill gets to coach Jerel Worthy for a Spartan home game. Worthy, a junior, is projected as an early-round NFL Draft pick in the spring if he elects to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the draft.
Strayhorn often checked in for Pickelman on passing downs, serving as a nose guard for MSU's nickel defense. With Strayhorn out, Michigan State will have to consider different options.
"That is a concern," Gill said. "Stray has been a guy that has been able to play multiple positions.
"We are looking at some different avenues and different ways to do it. We're still working on it, so I can't say exactly what we're going to do yet. But it is a concern because Stray has brought a lot to this team."
Gill wouldn't tip his hand on possible replacements. Pickelman is tied for second on the team with sacks with three, but he likely will not be asked to stay on the field in passing situations. The Spartan coaching staff likes to give quick breathers to their defensive tackles when possible, and third-and-long is a good time to give them a blow. If MSU is unsuccessful at getting off the field on third down, it's a double problem if Pickelman and/or Jerel Worthy aren't fresh for the next set of downs after chasing a quarterback on third-and-long. So they usually head to the sidelines on third-and-long.
MSU is not deep with choices in possible replacements for Strayhorn in the nickel defense. Second-string nose guard Anthony Rashad White is an option. Adding nickel defense duties to his role would allow White to get on the field for a few more snaps per game, but at 320 pounds he isn't the ideal QB chaser.
Defensive end Denzel Drone (6-2, 260) could be looked at as a candidate to move inside as part of the nickel defense. Defensive end Corey Freeman (6-2, 236) has done it in the past, as a guy who theoretically has the quickness inside to threaten both A-gaps, and/or stunt to the outside.
When asked if Strayhorn could be back for a bowl game, Gill said: "I don't know. He is a day out (from surgery) right now, so we're still hoping and praying that the guy gets a chance to come back because the guy deserves it, with as much work as he has put in to get to this point."
Strayhorn, a four-year letter winner, is a social science/human resources major.
On Gholston's Personal Foul
William Gholston was flagged for a costly personal foul late in the Iowa game. Gholston was called for getting a hand to the face of an Iowa offensive lineman while rushing the passer on a fourth-down play.
The fourth down pass fell incomplete. With little more than four minutes to play, and the Spartans up by 16 points, that fourth-down stoppage seemingly signaled that Michigan State had sewn up victory. But Gholston's penalty gave Iowa new life, and forced the Spartan defense to stay on the field for several more plays before finally securing victory with a fumble inside the 10-yard line.
Gholston has been flagged for personal fouls at inopportune times on other occasions this year.
"He is so excited out there and sometimes he doesn't realize he's doing that," Gill said. "So we just have to keep coaching him up to not make those kind of mistakes, but to continue to come along with the techniques that we've taught him, but not do it to the point that he jeopardizes us with a penalty."
Gholston was suspended for the Wisconsin game after being provoked into throwing a punch at Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan.
Gill Knows 'Em All
Gill is MSU's most experienced and traveled assistant coach, having been on staffs at Idaho State, Utah, New Mexico State, Ball State, Cornell, Army, North Carolina, Rice, Iowa, Oklahoma State, the Carolina Panthers, the Los Angeles Extreme (of the XFL) and the Montreal Alouettes (of the CFL) before hooking up with Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2003
Every year, he meets with media to talk about Wisconsin and Badger head coach Brett Bielema, whom Gill coached in college. Gill also meets with media annually in advance of MSU's game against Iowa, a school at which Gill served d-line and linebackers coach in the early 1990s.
Now add the Indiana week to Gill's annual press schedule. Gill goes back quite a few years with first-year Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson.
"Kevin Wilson used to be a G.A. for me when I was at North Carolina, years ago," Gill said. "I know what kind of guy he is. He's a fiery guy. He is the type of guy that will dig deep to find out what you're doing and he'll come at you pretty good."
It seems that Gill knows someone on every coaching staff in America.
"When you get around a little bit, in this business, you feel like you know a lot of guys," he said. "But Kevin is one that grew up under our tutelage and has done a good job. He did a good job at Oklahoma (as offensive coordinator for Bob Stoops) and he has earned the opportunity."
Gill, who finished his playing days at Idaho State in 1969, was asked when he might consider hanging up the coaching whistle.
"I just take it one year at a time," he said.
MSU's d-line was instrumental in handcuffing the Big Ten's leading rusher, Marcus Coker. Gill said he has seen progress.
"You keep working and pretty soon guys catch on to what you're teaching," he said. "Those guys inside have been around me along time. And then I have two youngsters outside who listen and learn a lot from the guys inside. So it has really been a blessing to have those guys really step up and play like they've been playing."
Pickelman still has the hands of a high school tight end.
"I do a little ball drill on Friday and he has the best hand on the d-line," Gill said. "I always tease him a bunch of times and say, 'You could play tight end in a pinch, couldn't you?' And he says, 'Oh, I've still got good hands, coach.' Good guy."
Click below for Gill's Wednesday interview.