EAST LANSING - Michigan State's defense of its share of the Big Ten title began in earnest on Monday with the first session of 2011 spring practice, in chilly, sunny conditions on the grass of the outdoor practice fields.
It felt nothing like the outset of last spring, when the Spartans were coming off a 6-7 year amid questions about the direction and discipline of the program. Now, the goal is to not only do as well as last year's 11-2 Big Ten title season, but do better.
"Last year we did something that had never been done before, winning 11 games and doing some things that hadn't been done in a long time," said senior safety Trenton Robinson. "Now we want to do something else that hasn't been done in a long time."
That means doing it again.
Michigan State has not won back-to-back shares of the Big Ten title since 1965-66.
"I think we have established a program here, and now it's taking that program to new heights," said senior quarterback Kirk Cousins (see VIDEO below). "We are always trying to climb that next mountain. Whether you call that sustained success, continued success, I've heard people tell me that Michigan State hasn't had those back-to-back seasons that have been consistent, so to be able to finish my career here developing some consistency is a big focus for us."
Robinson quoted MSU's past plight like an old season ticket holder.
"We don't want to go into another season with that same Spartan thing that you have a good season and then you come back next year and it's, 'Who are these guys?'" Robinson said. "We don't want to do that."
After the Rose Bowl season of '87, the Spartans started 0-4-1 in '88. After the Big Ten title year of 1990, the Spartans went 3-8 in '91.
After the Citrus Bowl season of 1999, the Spartans failed to earn a bowl bid in 2000
"We want to come in and be better than we were last year," Robinson said. "We want to man up and get the job done.
"People want to take us down now. But we can't let that affect us. Last year is done. That's done. We were champs last year. We want to be champs again this year, so we can't dwell on what we did last year. We have to move on and I'm pretty sure no one is getting complacent. Everybody is ready to move forward and do something that hasn't been done here. We want to do something we didn't do last year."
And that would be?
"To play in the Big Ten, your goal is to play in the Rose Bowl," Cousins said. "You can't get it all in one day, so that's something we will work toward day-by-day, but ultimately we will work toward the Rose Bowl."
It Already Feels Different For Cousins
The Spartans practiced in helmets and shorts on Tuesday. They will practice in shoulder pads and helmets on Thursday. Per NCAA rules, they will get into full pads until practice No. 3, on Friday.
Spring practice will conclude with the Green-White Game on April 30.
Cousins said 2011 already feels like a different season.
"I had a different feel today, and not just with the change in coordinator," Cousins said. "When you don't have Greg Jones, a two-time All-American, on the field, it feels different. When you don't have your roommate, Aaron Bates, on the field, it feels different.
"A lot of the guys that I spent a lot of time with off the field have moved on, so it has a different feel. But any time you start something new there is going to be some change and some different feelings. As we get going I think we will settle in, but there is no doubt today felt a little different."
As for the new offensive coordinator, that would be Dan Roushar. He was promoted from offensive line coach to replace former offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who left to become head coach at Miami (Ohio) in early January.
Cousins said in past years he felt focused on his play, and proving himself and winning a starting job. Now, as a third-year starter, he admitted to feeling a responsibility to help in other areas.
"Being a fifth-year senior, the focus comes somewhat off of myself," he said. "At this point, while there are plenty of areas where I can get better, for us as a team to get better the focus has to come off me and I have to put my focus and pour it into young receivers and young offensive linemen and make it about them because we will be counting on them in crucial situations this fall. So one of my ways to help ease that change in offensive coordinator is to be somewhat of a coach on the field myself and provide whatever kind of leadership and coaching that I can bring."
Cousins finished the regular season with a terribly sore knee, and then took an all-around beating in the Capital One bowl game against Alabama. He said it took several weeks to get over the aches and pains of the season. There still is some tendonitis in his knee, but he feels close to 100 percent as he works to hone his craft.
"Game management and good decision-making are always going to be things that quarterbacks talk about (improving)," Cousins said. "You can never be perfect. You always try to improve your decisions and game management. You can fine-tune it and get better and better at it but we're never there."
Cousins was honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010, throwing for 2,825 yards. He completed 67 percent of his passes, with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Because of problems with his plant knee last year, he got into the habit of throwing off his back foot. He would like to curtail that tendency this year, although he says eliminating it entirely is not practical.
"I think footwork is important, not throwing off my back foot when I don't have to (is important)," he said. "When I watched a lot of NFL film this off-season I saw a lot of NFL quarterbacks who do throw off their back foot because it is a necessity at times. If you have a pass rush that gets in your face, you have to move around and throw off-balance. But when I don't have to, that's when I want to have confidence in my protection and step into my throws because I can be a much better quarterback when I do that."
Cousins said he frequently texts Brian Hoyer, and even picked the brain of Blair White about Indianapolis Colts teammate Peyton Manning when White was back on campus recently.