EAST LANSING - Battles to fill out the depth chart began in earnest on Friday as Michigan State football players put on pads for the first time. After the first practice in pads, Spartan coach Mark Dantonio met with members of the local media to share his impressions of his team through five practices and to answer a variety of questions.
"I have been very, very happy with our football team thus far," said Dantonio. "There is a lot of work to do, but the freshmen are making strides. We have got a lot of things in, so there is a very big learning curve for them. But they will catch up."
Dantonio has been impressed with the play of his quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol who continue to show that they each have the tools to be successful starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
"Our quarterbacks have done a nice job," Dantonio said. "They have been very impressive."
Dantonio said he was pleased with the play of wide-out Mark Dell as well as Blair White and Keshawn Martin.
Although Dantonio had nothing earth shattering to relate during his roundtable on Friday, but the third-year Spartan coach did affirm what has been apparent during three of the five practices media have been able to watch during the first week of training camp - freshmen running backs Larry Caper and Edwin Baker have a considerable amount of talent and both have a chance to figure into the backfield rotation.
Of the two prep all-Americans, Caper has been the most impressive during week one.
Baker has been no slouch. Dantonio had high praise for both.
"They have been very, very impressive," said Dantonio. "I feel like Larry is very, very firm in pass protection and catches the ball very well. Edwin does a great job as well. Both of these guys show explosiveness in the hole, the ability to run inside the tackles. Both of them can also get it to the outside. They are both very, very good players. They will figure in, they will have an opportunity to compete and I think they have done a nice job so far."
Dantonio has also been impressed with red-shirt freshman Caulton Ray and with red-shirt sophomore Ashton Leggett both of whom began training camp as co-No. 1's on the initial depth chart. Both Ray and Leggett pulled ahead of Andre Anderson during the spring.
"We have so many different running backs in there right now we almost have to take them and say that the emphasis is for these three guys one day and these three guys the other day," said Dantonio. "We are trying to get everyone work … I think the key to figuring out who the tailback will be is really giving as many people opportunities as we can to see what they can do. It is difficult to get six guys touches, seven guys really touches in practice so we just have to try and monitor that."
On Friday veterans like A.J. Jimmerson, Leggett and Anderson got a lot of reps. On Thursday, freshmen Caper and Baker got a bunch of reps.
"He is a very good player, so is Rock," said Dantonio of the freshman from Battle Creek. "Both of these guys are over 200 pounds. Caper goes about 218 and Rock goes about 205, Edwin Baker."
Dantonio believes that both Caper and Baker are ready to play college football in terms of having the explosiveness needed to be effective runners. The ability for either to be successful is first-year players will revolve around whether they can pick up the offense and the nuances within the offense.
"You go back to the learning curve," said Dantonio, "picking up pressures and releasing hot, doing the different things and being able to handle yourself long term. College football long term deals with practices and getting through a camp physically able without getting hurt, all of those things are going to count into this. But in terms of their size, speed, and explosiveness, they are college ready."
First Jersey Scrimmage Set: Dantonio said his team would do some scrimmaging on Monday. He said that his younger players would scrimmage some in the morning before the offense and the defense would square off for their first jersey scrimmage in the afternoon. Currently, the defensive players are wearing white, while members of the offense are wearing green. Michigan State could do some scrimmage on Sunday as well.
Replacing Boleski: At the Big Ten Meetings in Chicago, Bret Swenson said that he would like to earn the right to kickoff. Replacing kick-off specialist Todd Boleski with Swenson is not the only option the Spartans have at their disposal. True freshman Kevin Muma is a strong-legged kicker signed as the heir apparent to Swenson who will play his final season this fall. Walk-on Dan Conroy is also an option. Dantonio said that deciding on a kick-off specialist isn't something that needs to happen immediately. The third-year head coach has talked to his kickers about the job and what he wants to see in a potential replacement for Boleski.
"Todd Boleski was such a weapon for us kicking that ball into that end zone for us on a pretty consistent basis," said Dantonio. "We are going to need to find a guy to do that. I think Swenson has gotten stronger and he can hang it up there, but if we have a different guy to do it, I think that is the best case."
Potential Return Men: Keshawn Martin and Mark Dell might be the most likely candidates to return punts this fall for the Spartans. Dantonio said that he was also pleased with what he has seen from Chris D. Rucker, Johnny Adams, and Myles White who are all auditioning as punt returners. Baker and Caper could figure in on kick returns for Michigan State as could Trenton Robinson, Glenn Winston, A.J. Jimmerson. Brynden Trawick has also worked as a return man.
Man Among Boys: Dion Sims is up to 280 pounds and he is still running well according to Dantonio, who says Sims is such an impressive athlete that it is easy to mistake him for a wide receiver.