Big Ten Media Days 2019: Dantonio hints at big things to come


Mark Dantonio at 2019 Big Ten Media Days. (Credit: Trent Balley / WDBM)

Kyle Hatty, GA Sports Reporter

This season coming may be reflected on in future years as one of Mark Dantonio’s best offseasons in his entire tenure at Michigan State. While Ryan Day and Scott Frost may have garnered more attention from the media, Dantonio and the three players he brought with him to Chicago hinted that there may be a legitimate dark horse playoff team breeding in East Lansing heading into the 2019 football season. 

Joining Dantonio in Chicago were defensive stars linebacker Joe Bachie, defensive end Kenny Willekes, and defensive tackle Raequan Williams. All three are names to watch this year as the No. 1 rush defense in the nation last year returns eight starters for 2019.

The “best rush defense in the country” title was one that was proudly spoken about by all three players and Mark Dantonio, but they also all agreed that it was only a stepping stone for this upcoming year. 

That was the theme for the Spartans’ media day, last year was a necessary evil that needed to occur in order to make adjustments that needed to be made going forward. It has the feel that Mark Dantonio is gearing up for one of the best years of his coaching career… and  no one is talking about it. 

This offseason from 2018 to 2019 has a very similar feel to the 2012 to 2013 offseason; the season Dantonio led his team to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory. 2012 and 2018 draw very similar comparisons, almost eerily similar. The final record for the Spartans in 2012 was 7-6, same as their record this past year. 2012 showed that replacing Kirk Cousins was not going to be an easy task, which caused the quarterback situation to struggle mightily. Much like this past season where injuries and a mismanaged quarterback situation took an anemic offense and killed it completely. But the bright spot on that 2012 team? Elite rushing defense, ranked sixth in the nation along with a solid secondary.

This should all sound very familiar to the situation the Spartans sit in today, and make Spartan fans very optimistic. How did the 2012 team go from a 7-6 team to 13-1 and finishing 3rd in the nation? The same way this 2018 team can turn their own 7-6 team into a playoff dark horse. The 2013 team found a quarterback to lean on in Connor Cook. The 2019 team has the possibility to find that in Lewerke. Who struggled mightily after fighting an injury in 2018 that also took a toll on his confidence, as well as a change in play callers which should utilize his athleticism better than before. But Dantonio said at his presser that the senior quarterback “has his confidence back and is bigger, stronger, and faster now.” The 2013 team also returned multiple NFL-caliber players in Dennard, Waynes, Drummond, and Max Bullough. The 2019 team may not have that stacked of a roster but Josiah Scott, Joe Bachie, Kenny Willekes, and Raequan Williams are more than capable of propelling this team where they want to be. 

But what may be the best comparison to make between the two offseasons that will give all Michigan State fans hope is the Rose Bowl prediction made in both 2012 and here in 2019.

In May of 2012, Mark Dantonio stood on the field of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. and practically predicted his success in the Rose Bowl that year, he also preached to his team that 2013 season, “you will be the ones.” As we now know, he was right. Because he stood on that same field eight months later as Rose Bowl champions. 

A similar situation happened in Chicago at Media Day. Dantonio was nearing the end of his time at the podium and stopped everyone to talk about the cufflinks he was wearing that day. They belonged to former legendary football coach Biggie Munn. They are the same ones Munn wore during the Rose Bowl back in his tenure at Michigan State back in the 1950s. Dantionio said he “put them on for a reason this week” and followed it up with “we’re headed in that direction, whether it’s the Rose Bowl or someplace else special, but that’s where we’re going.”

Many people know Dantionio is more of a thinker than a talker. Everything he says or does is for a reason. He made sure to mention the cufflinks for a reason, he knows what he has is special, he has his guys he wants and moved his staff around to optimize the talent on the roster. A roster that is good enough to take them to places like the Rose Bowl, if the offense takes a significant step up, this defense can do the rest and they have the capability to beat everyone on their schedule.

 Every single time in the Dantonio era that the team entered the season unranked, they finished the next season ranked in the top 25. It’s no secret that Dantonio does his best work when his team flies under the radar. The recipe is perfect for Dantonio and this team to do things no one outside of that locker room believes they can. The mantra Dantonio introduced today was “Chase the Moment” and all signs point to the fact that “the moment” can be achieved this year and is the type of moment remembered forever in East Lansing. The cufflinks, the parallels with the 2012-13 seasons, and players forgoing the NFL draft to come back points to a belief in that locker room that this team can, and will do great things this year. It is too much to be ignored.