Mark Dantonio year-end news conference

EAST LANSING, Mich (WLNS) – Michigan State University head football coach Mark Dantonio holds his final news conference and reviews the Spartan season.
The following is a complete transcript from Thursday’s press conference courtesy Michigan State University Athletics:
COACH DANTONIO: Well, usually I’ve been standing up here talking about the bowl game that we’re going to or playoff game or something of that nature. So this is a little bit different as we go through this and recap this past season, but when you look at us, we go from a 12-1 football team last year regular season to 3-9 this year, and we’ve got to own that, gotta move forward with it.
When you want to recap the season, the first thing I’d look at is say the bar was set very, very high. It should be. That’s what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’ve said before, we won 40 out of the last 45 games coming into this season, so our goals were to repeat those type of things and be able to move forward, but why these things happen, why we are in the situation that we’re in right now, it’s a combination of a lot of things. I think we’ve talked about that throughout the season, so there’s really no reason to really go through that, but I have them listed 1 through 15 if you care to ask that as we move forward.
The basic thought process here, though, is that we’ll restart this. We’re using this time right now to basically identify our leaders on our football team. It’s exam week, but we need to find the leaders on our football team, establish who they are, look at our personnel, make sure our personnel is set in terms of what we need to continue to recruit, what we have coming back, things of that nature, develop our chemistry, our attitude, our discipline, refocus on that aspect of it, look at our scheme, what we’re doing, self-scout ourselves, self-scout our opponents, look at some of the things that we have dealt with this past season, what we can benefit from looking at, learn from, those type of things, and then move forward.
So we are starting earlier than we normally start. Usually we start doing these type of things in February with a little bit more smiley faces around us, but here we are in December dealing with this. So it’s part of, I guess, the process, which I’m always talking about the process, it seems, but part of the situation moving forward.
We are where we’re at. We’ve taken a step back. Now what’s very important to me is that we put our foot in the ground and plant our feet in the ground and drive forward, and that’s what we will do. So I’ll take some questions and then we’ll go from there.
Q. I know in the past when you’ve been out recruiting reflect about the buzz you feel out there after championships and things like that. In these last few weeks what has been your sense of how guys have reacted from this season?
COACH DANTONIO: Michigan State still has a great name out there. There’s a buzz out there when we walk in. People remember Rose Bowls. They remember Big Ten championships, we’ve won two out of the last three. So there’s a lot of positives that people can identify with in coming to Michigan State. We have certain needs here, so there’s no question that we’ll recruit to those needs, and we’ve filled some of those needs already, and we’ll continue to recruit probably, I don’t know, four, five, six, seven more players as we move through this, but we are having a great recruiting season and I’m very excited about the guys we have coming. We have a lot of visits yet to go.
Q. You said there’s a list of 15 things. Do you have that list and can you share it with us?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I can tell you a couple of them, I guess. As you go through these things, I think that, you know, one thing that really sets you apart do you win or do you lose, is turnover margin. I’ve said that before. There are tangible things and there are intangible things. So you have to look at those aspects, turnover margin usually allows you to win or lose or make up deficiencies that you have. We’ve led the Big Ten in turnover margin the last three years previous, not this year. We ended up minus five, I believe. So that’s difficult, especially when you’re not getting a bunch of turnovers. The lack of sacks, usually when you sack, I think one out of every six sacks in the NFL results in a caused fumble. Certainly makes it more difficult to move down the field. Sacks create pressure. It’s not that we weren’t there. We’re there sometimes but guys get out of sacks or whatever the situation, but the lack of sacks, the numbers, the raw numbers in that situation.
That leaves, I believe, the big plays down the field defensively, another tangible fact. If you have too much time or if you get out of trouble, usually if you get guys off the dime, in other words, off the area where they’re passing from, their intended passing from area, their percentages go down, way down, but if the quarterback creates or makes big plays down the field or whatever the case, you suffer in that area.
Red zone scoring, scoring in the red zone offensively. Missed opportunities, kicking too many field goals, which has a large play and we’re leading in every football game that we played in, and inevitably when you look at them, you look at the Michigan game, too many missed opportunities in the red zone. You look at the Penn State game, too many opportunities missed in the red zone, scoring touchdowns and kicking field goals instead or not getting anything out of them, but those are just two games. You look at the red zone at the two-point conversion against Ohio State, opportunity to at least go ahead in the game with 4:41 to go, but missed opportunities.
I guess you’ve got to ask yourself the intangible things, did seniors have your best years? You have to have your best year as a senior if you’re going to have a group of people moving forward to create great moments. So you’ve got to ask yourself in those areas, did our seniors have their very, very best years? That’s up and down, but every football team is usually a senior-led team. I point down the road and their seniors are having the best years of their careers, and you see the results of that, and that’s a positive for them.
I don’t think we ever stopped competing, but we didn’t win the fourth quarter. That’s a tangible aspect of it, and every football game as I said we were leading either at halftime or at some point in the game, sometimes at the end of three quarters, but we didn’t win the fourth quarter. So you’ve got to look at those things, but in the end I think — I know that’s not probably 15. Technique, leadership, leadership at the coaching level, it starts with me, but it trickles all the way down through our football program, and to be a leader you’ve got to be productive. I don’t think there’s any question about that as well, but when you look at techniques, when you look at certain schemes, are you benefiting from the scheme that you’re currently running whether it’s defensively, offensively or special teams, do you have to change things? All these things go into play when you’re sitting here as we’re sitting here, and that’s why we need to take a very pragmatic approach to what’s happened and recalculate where we’re going and get there, and that’s what we will do.
I sort of feel like you’re in a corner. There’s no question about that. You’ve got to make a play, and everybody’s got to make a play and I said this at our team dinner the other day. Whether you’re involved in a relationship or looking for a new job or interviewing or getting a degree or passing a class or playing on the football field, you’ve got to make a play, got to believe in yourself and you’ve got to believe that you can make that play to rectify a problem or to create something positive, and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s a short question, long answer.
Q. I know we talked after the Penn State game, you mentioned didn’t plan to make any staff changes. I was wondering, A, is that still kind of the thought process right now? Were there any changes in responsibilities, and also, do you expect outside of Malik (McDowell) any more roster attrition?
COACH DANTONIO: In terms of our staff, there will be no changes made on my behalf on our staff. This is the same staff we won the Big 10 championship that everybody was celebrating last year. It’s the same staff that won the Rose Bowl basically, same staff that went to the Cotton Bowl that had record-setting numbers in `14, and et cetera, et cetera. It’s all inclusive, everything is all inclusive. Doesn’t mean we fire players or anything like that if they miss a tackle. So there will be no changes in that area.
Q. Were there any staff changes as far as responsibilities?
COACH DANTONIO: There will be no changes in terms of who’s coaching what.
Q. Besides Malik (McDowell), do you expect any more roster attrition?
COACH DANTONIO: Absolutely I do. I expect some attrition, but I can’t go into specifics right now or names, but I do expect that. We’re going to find out who wants to be here and we’re going to make sure that everybody is doing the correct things here and if they’re not, then there will be some exits.
Q. You mentioned the last time you met us you kind of made a remark that maybe we needed this. Can you elaborate on that? Who needed it? The players? The coaches? Everybody?
COACH DANTONIO: I think kind of when anything is ever going in the right direction at a very, very high level, there’s always going to be, at some point, where you don’t make that goal, at some point there’s a step back. Every program’s had it across this country at some point or another. So when I took my four and a half hour drive down to Cincinnati the Monday after the Penn State game and I turned off the radio and I just drove by myself four and a half, five hours, you know, I needed that time just to make sure that I could sort of compartmentalize what’s gone on from my perspective, what we need to do and my mindset moving forward, and when I got out of that car and I went to a place there and then I went up the road for another two hours up to another area in Columbus, to see my mother, that was another two hours of sitting there, so you do a lot of reflecting, you do a lot of self, thinking things through by yourself a little bit and getting revitalized a little bit.
So those are the things I did, but do we want this to happen? No, we don’t want this to happen. Do we need sometimes for these things to happen, to be able to pull the weeds, to be able to clear the crops, to be able to let the land lie dormant for six months to create growth, we probably do at some point. I’m disappointed this happened during my time, disappointing that it happened this year for our seniors and our entire football team. We had very high expectations, but again, I go back to it. Things hang on inches. They just do. If you look at the Wisconsin game and say these things don’t happen and all of a sudden we take the lead in the Wisconsin game and go up 14 to 13, you sort of wonder what the rest of the season looks like. So you have those moments in the season where you start to think, okay, if this wouldn’t have happened, if this wouldn’t have happened, we had a tremendous amount of injuries, which is number one on my board here, a lot of injuries, a lot of different players, a lot of youth playing. It’s difficult. A lot of guys playing in and out of the lineups, having three seniors and them not even being on the field in certain games. That’s difficult. So you deal with all those things, but at the end of the day you are what you are and you’ve got to own what you got. It’s just like stock. Sometimes you’re gaining, sometimes you’re losing I guess.
Q. Is any of this embarrassing to you after all the success you’ve had to have to explain a 3-9 season and not be in a bowl game? Is there any embarrassment to this?
COACH DANTONIO: No, there’s not. I think we’re all much harder on ourselves than the outside people are. It bothers me, bothers me that I’m not over there working on bowl games. It bothers me that I’m not sitting up here talking about somebody that we’re playing. You go home at night during this week and you’re like, what am I doing home? That’s how you feel, but I’m not embarrassed because embarrassment would be to me would be acknowledging that we didn’t play hard and we didn’t prepare. We prepared. We played hard. We competed. We played a tough schedule, and if you look at our schedule, you’ve got four Big Ten teams playing in Big Six games. So we played a tough schedule. Our side of the conference is tough. It’s competitive, and I think we came to compete, and that’s what I’ve always asked our players to do, compete, play with toughness, play hard. And I think that we’ve done that, and I’ll stand by my players, our players and our coaches in terms of preparation and those type of things, but at the end of the day you’ve got to win, too. You have to do that.
Q. Mark, how big of a factor was your players’ leadership group this year and how did that group this year compare to years past?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think that you’ve got to have productivity as a leader. So as you go through this, you got your quarterback (Tyler O’Connor) knocked out of the game, with the foot, missed two games. We had some changes in there, giving other people some opportunities. So it’s tough, and he did an outstanding job, an outstanding job in terms of leadership. You’ve got our linebacker, Riley Bullough, who is out for three weeks with a fractured scapula, and then he comes back and he plays his first game and in the first quarter gets a helmet to helmet shot. So he’s out basically four games. Those are tough situations. Both those guys raised up and led.
Our senior group, guys are hurt, in and out throughout the entire time and they’ve got to have their best year. So when you look at seniors to lead, in order to lead sometimes you gotta be extremely productive and you gotta worry about yourself and got to produce, and it’s tough. When you lose a football game, it’s tough on everybody. It’s tough on our captains. It’s tough on your senior leadership. They did a tremendous job. If you’re at practice every practice, they did a tremendous job in terms of basically practices were very competitive, they were very energetic, had some fights, it’s all good.
So we got ourselves ready to play and our guys continued to work, but leadership is top down, too. I have to walk in there every day, too, and make sure that I’m doing the best job that I can as well as our coaches. So it’s top down. So when you talk about leadership, you’re talking about the head football coach, too. So we did what we could do. At the end of the day you’ve got to win, but we had opportunities to win in a lot of games. We just didn’t do it. I can’t tell you how many times I walked in there and said, okay, fourth quarter, we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that.
Q. You’ve had a lot of success over several years, but as you identify those 15 things, how hard is it to know what to tweak, what to change? I mean your system has been working, so how do you make the decisions on how you move forward?
COACH DANTONIO: I think that’s something that’s always the big question is do you change something that’s been very successful for the sake of change or do you change something that needs to be changed because it wasn’t successful this year or do you change something because it just needs to be changed, and so there’s a combination probably of all that as we move forward. I think the most important thing is that we identify problems, and I’ve said this in here before, we identify what the problem is, we focus on the solution, we solve the problem, and that’s what we’ve always done, and I’ve really taken — to be honest with you, I’ve taken the approach of `hey I’m a new coach coming in here, I’m going to fix the things that other guy did last year,’ and that’s how I’m going to take the approach. I’m going to take the approach that I’m going to get this fixed, and this will be fixed. We have young players. We have good football players on this football team. We’ve got people we can identify as playmakers on this team. We’ve just got to grow. Growth took place last year and it’ll continue to take place.
Q. I know you said on your end you’re not planning any changes coaching wise, but I know Mark (Staten) interviewed at Northern (Michigan). Is there potential that other guys could look for promotions? I know you don’t hold them back from that. Is that still something down the road that could happen?
COACH DANTONIO: I mean it always could happen. Yeah, I think this is the time of year it happens, and there’s always going to be movement in early February it seems like. Seems like that. I don’t know those things. I never do.
Q. When you look back on August, have you been able to say, I should have seen that now, are there things that you go, that was more in plain sight, that could have been prevented?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah. You look at things in August and you always wonder because you ask yourself tough questions in retrospect, but there’s always things like that, but I think there are things that are more internal, and I think sometimes when you talk about those things, you’re throwing people under the bus a little bit, so I’d rather not talk about those. Every football team has its strengths and its weaknesses, and if you look at last year’s football team, players make plays. With Connor Cook leaving, he was a three-year quarterback that had a lot of wins, a lot of touchdown passes, a lot of productivity.
When you look at our defensive front, three guys drafted, I believe, three guys drafted, two of them currently playing, actively playing from the defensive line. You’ve got Aaron Burbridge playing. You’ve got guys that we lost, guys like Wide Receiver of the Year, the Quarterback of the Year, various players, and that takes its toll on you. When you replace guys, there’s always going to be a learning curve, especially if they’re younger players, especially if they have not played as much, even though they may be older players, there’s still an experience level that you have to be able to get to, and to get to that level you have to play football games. So that’s the nature of it. Experience allows for, I think, greater success. It’s one thing to be able to do it on the practice field. It’s another thing to be able to do it in the game when the stakes are much higher, and that’s at every single position.
Q. Can you give any update to Brian Lewerke, how he’s going through his rehab?
COACH DANTONIO: Yes, he’s out of the boot and he’s walking, and he’ll progress from there, probably come back here after break and be able to be moving some, rehabbing.
Q. The three biggest kind of regressions under you have all been during these quarterback transitions or after them. Is that part of your evaluation is how you go through those transitions and any changes you can make?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it’s not so much sometimes who; it’s the amount of experience that they have, and if you really look at those transition areas, how much experience did Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol have and they were the quarterback situation there in 2009 after Brian Hoyer left. Again in 2012, how much game experience did Andrew Maxwell have and he’s thrust in there, and this is a high-stakes game. There’s high competition. So how much did he have. Even Connor Cook, how much did he have at that time, 2013 sort of took off, you know, but we had, obviously we had some quarterback challenges in that area, and then this year. You had two quarterbacks, Damion (Terry) and Tyler O’Connor, and really Damion Terry was never healthy throughout the entire August. So he really couldn’t participate very well in camp. He’d had minor knee surgery. So he was rehabbing back from that.
Just a lot of things, Ed Davis, you know, had a knee surgery in May. So he was rehabbing back from that. So he never really got back and never really could get back to what his former self was at that point in time, and he was a phenomenal football player. So you’ve got a lot of different things going on, but yes, quarterbacks, that’s obviously a key to every football team, and you’ve got to be productive at that position. You have to lead to production, and productivity is points scored when you’re a quarterback, it’s points scored, and there are a lot of good things that happened and occurred, but we didn’t score as many points as we needed to be scoring to win a football game. It all goes hand in hand, but it’s all comprehensive. There’s a cumulative effect on everything, all inclusive, I guess, whether it’s you’re calling the right play, whether it’s you’re executing the right play, whether it’s a dropped pass, whether it’s a missed sack, whether it’s giving up a sack because you have a young redshirt freshman playing tackle or something of that case.
So you don’t have pressure, you give pressure, you get moved off the dime, as I would say, call it, as a quarterback. There’s a lot of things that go into this as to whether a guy is productive or what’s going on, but quarterbacks obviously are a big part of everything and that’s not to lay everything on our quarterback position, but all you’ve got to say is we played three quarterbacks this year. What would you expect, and all three of them were injury related, all three of them injury related in the end. Somebody got knocked out here, knocked out there. So that’s not occurred since we’ve been here.
Q. The first part of this, too, is the injury update. Are there any of the other guys like Vayante (Copeland), (Tyler) Higby, how are they progressing from their broken bones?
COACH DANTONIO: Everybody is progressing. Everybody is progressing, moving forward.
Q. Would you imagine they would be back for spring workouts when you get to that point?
COACH DANTONIO: I would imagine so, yeah.
Q. And secondly, you know, kind of actually what I was going to ask you, too, is we’ve talked so much about what went wrong. What things did you see in reevaluations that you liked moving into next year from some of those younger guys who you were forced to play or played anyways?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah. I think what you see is a group, you see resiliency. Nobody blew us out. Nobody shut it down and quit. We continued to play. So resiliency as an entire football team and I give credit to our senior group for that and our captains especially, because they maintained that aspect, I said that already. You’ve got great individual performances as you’ve gone through it. I’ve seen different players elevate their play. Young freshmen, you see Donnie Corley making plays, could be a phenomenal player, you see Justin Layne, could be a phenomenal player. So you’ve got young players, we played nine true freshmen. That’s more than we’ve ever played. You look out there and you see three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman playing at defensive line. So those guys, again, remember what I said many other times, muscle memory 10,000 hours makes you an expert. Playing defensive line is muscle memory. You have to be able to play at that level at this level, and it takes time. It’s very difficult for a freshman to play and be in the right gap based on blocking schemes or transition from run to pass when you’re young. It just is, but I think you saw Mike Panasiuk grow immensely over the course of the year. I think you saw us be actually a better pass rush team probably at the end of the year as we continued to gain experience. So there’s a lot of things there, a lot of positives. We also had young offensive linemen playing.
Q. You talked about the introspection you’ve had. What have you discovered in the two, three weeks that you know you want to implement, be it scheme, be it things you liked, you’ve seen the reaction from players and workouts, and are they already conditioning like they would in February right now?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, right now for the last two weeks we’ve been heavy in recruiting, so we’ve been out. So it’s really just this week we’ve really just come back, and we’re still heavily in recruiting, trying to make up ground in terms of just not recruiting the guys we were on, but actively looking for other players and going deep, trying to find different situations. We need to come back and find another additional lineman. We were hit with defensive linemen last year with four guys leaving due to graduation, and then we lost four other guys. You lose eight guys, again, you look back at our quarterback situation and then you lose eight defensive linemen, what do you expect? We got a great group of young freshmen defensive linemen coming in, but they’re freshmen defensive linemen. But you’ve also got Malik struggled with injuries all season long. (Demetrius) Cooper had injuries as well, so you gotten guys that were not probably playing at their fullest. Eight of them weren’t there. So it’s difficult, and so you’ve got to be able to maintain that excellence that we’ve had there.
So there’s a lot of positions that they are like that, but right now our focus is on recruiting, continuing to find defensive linemen, continuing to find long outside backers or linebackers, every position. We’re going to try and take the best players available, and we still have numbers that we can use, and we’ll continue to do that. We have 17 committed guys. So it’s a very solid class, but it’ll be a big class as well. So it’s very competitive right now in terms of who’s going to fill those slots, but we have numbers to be able to focus on that.
So I think the questions asked about scheme and et cetera, we’re focusing on those things, but right now, personnel, et cetera, and then we’ll continue to push through to different areas of what we’re doing. Today we’re working a little bit more scheme, hit tapes of our guys, in other words, self scout tapes of a particular individual, whether he played all year or whether he didn’t play all year and evaluating that specific player in terms of what he’s done here, but everything’s on the table.
Q. With Messiah deWeaver, how much were you able to evaluate him this year with him not being able to play in games, and do you have a sense of how much he might be a factor next year?
COACH DANTONIO: When Brian Lewerke went down, Messiah was thrust into the No. 3 quarterback position, and actually, when Damion Terry was out, we actually had two quarterbacks. So Messiah got a lot of the number two reps. So he grew immensely in terms of coming off the scout team to being the quarterback there to getting active reps with our twos. He showed some promising things, but he also showed some things that lend to him being a freshman and being not in the mix for six, seven weeks, but I think there was growth there. He’s got a live arm. He’s a big guy, but there’s other things, he’s got to work on as he continues to improve. He’s got good ability, and we’ll see how he shows in the spring.
I do think Brian Lewerke did some great things this season, probably would have been our guy through the last four games, and I think he’s done enough to warrant him to be the guy to beat out. He’s the guy. So I say that in respect to Damion, Damion’s been in and out with injuries and he played well in the Penn State game, but he’s got to maintain his health.

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