Position battles the focus for MSU football ahead of spring game

EAST LANSING, Mich. — With the amount of experience returning to 2018’s vintage of Michigan State football, observers may be quick to assume starters at every position, save a departing Chris Frey or Brian Allen.

Just don’t tell that to defensive coordinator Mike Tressel.

“It’s a big-time competition between Tyriq Thompson and Brandon Randle,” Tressel said following MSU’s penultimate practice before Saturday’s spring game. “They both bring different qualities to the table, Brandon’s a little more of a slippery, blitz, bend-the-edge guy. Tyriq is more of a thumper with more experience.”

Replacing a senior captain like Frey isn’t the easiest task on head coach Mark Dantonio’s to-do list, but heading into his 12th year in East Lansing, Dantonio is content with where his team’s at.

“Just playing hard; guys playing hard,” Dantonio said ahead of Tuesday’s practice. “We’re not going into it too much but guys playing hard and very active – it’s always competitive and I think that’s as good as anything.”

The Spartans will take the field in their annual spring game on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Admission is free and the scheduled start time is 5 p.m.

Two starting defensive spots available

While Frey is a big loss emotionally for Michigan State’s defense, an open spot at defensive end is waiting to be filled in the wake of Demetrius Cooper’s graduation. Both Dantonio and Tressel have been talking up a name since the start of spring practice that has come a bit out of left field.

Redshirt junior Justice Alexander has found it tough to get snaps in his time at MSU, but offseason development might be just what Dantonio needed from the Ohio native to start in 2018.

“Justice Alexander is making progress, great progress,” Dantonio said. “You know, he’s a guy that…he’s 6-foot-5, 260-265, long jumps 10-2, verticals 34-35, so I mean he’s finally starting to play fast and you see some good things from him. There’s a bunch of guys making moves.”

Tressel was impressed with the play of starting defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, calling him “the MVP of spring ball” and with senior linebacker Byron Bullough as a backup behind starter Joe Bachie.

The battle between Thompson and Randle will be one to keep an eye on this summer. Randle has been held out of most of the spring with nagging injuries, and Thompson had just 11 tackles in 2017 despite seeing time in 12 games. Grayson Miller has also been slotted into the “money” linebacker role currently held by senior Andrew Dowell as Tre Person and Dominique Long push for backup safety time.

Extra coaches settling in

With the NCAA’s new rule allowing a tenth specialist coach on the staff, Dantonio wasted no time inviting three former Spartan coaches back to the program for 2018. There’s been more of a shake-up than is normal for Dantonio, as Harlon Barnett left MSU for the Florida State defensive coordinator role along with defensive coach Mark Snyder. That said, former MSU offensive coordinator Don Treadwell has been just as useful for the defense as he has for the offense.

“It’s really interesting having an offensive guy in the meeting,” Tressel said. “We’ll be watching film and he’ll all of a sudden say ‘well here’s what they’re really trying to do,’ and I’ve coached a little bit of offense but it’s nothing like having a guy who’s been an offensive coordinator and a head coach at this level.”

Treadwell and new secondary coach Paul Haynes (a former head coach at Kent State) have been helpful additions for Tressel in his first year as sole playcaller of the defense.

“The biggest benefit is we have great people, but having an extra coach on defense – two guys working in the secondary is really helping us. We can break up safeties and corners and really get individual attention.”

Senior safety Khari Willis appreciates Treadwell’s demeanor as much as anything else.

“He definitely brings a lot of poise,” Willis said. “He knows what he’s talking about, and it’s an adjustment for him as well, but he’s open to new thoughts, he’s always right there giving his knowledge on receiver releases, he helps us a lot.”

Senior game format

With the circumstances surrounding the program at this time last year, things were relatively quiet from the Skandalaris Football Building as to spring game format. That said, this year’s format should closely resemble recent scrimmages with non-traditional scoring and a specialized format.

“We’re going to play like we did last year,” Dantonio said. “I think we get more out of it from a team standpoint when we look at film and we can build on the things there.”

The team used a fantasy-style draft in 2015.