Home US Sports NCAAF Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio bets on self with small fixes

Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio bets on self with small fixes

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Free Press writers Chris Solari, Shawn Windsor and Lansing State Journal sports columnist Graham Couch recap Michigan State football press conference.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press

EAST LANSING — Mark Dantonio bet on himself Thursday by shuffling — and keeping — the coaches that helped him build the football program at Michigan State.  

Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, bet on a new voice from Alabama by hiring the Crimson Tide’s co-offensive coordinator, Josh Gattis.  

Dantonio promoted quarterbacks coach Brad Salem to offensive coordinator, moved co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner to quarterbacks coach and shuffled everyone else on the offensive staff into new roles, most notably giving former co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman control of the offensive line and sliding offensive line coach Mark Staten to tight ends. 

Dantonio called it the most significant change of his 12-year tenure in East Lansing. Still, it falls short of the cleansing so many Spartan fans were hoping for.  

That he didn’t look outside the program while Harbaugh did is hardly surprising. Dantonio is loyal to a fault. Harbaugh is forever in search of another voice.  

It would be easy to say that Dantonio should’ve done what Harbaugh did, though we have no idea whether the shakeup at either program will work.   

It also would be easy to say that Dantonio hasn’t evolved. Or adapted. Or embraced the concepts of modern college football.  

Because he hasn’t lately.  

The question is: Does it matter? 

Yes, but only so much. Dantonio and his staff should’ve been able to find three more points against Oregon after a month to prep. (Or a single touchdown against Nebraska a month before that.) 

Yet for 3-plus hours on New Year’s Eve, I watched receivers struggle to get open and an offensive line struggle to block in the Redbox Bowl. 

Is development and scheme part of the reason? Absolutely. Dantonio admitted that by shaking up his staff. 

But talent matters, too. Maybe more. And MSU doesn’t have enough of it on offense at the moment. Or at least enough playmakers.  

Dantonio said as much Thursday. 

“When you really get down to it, guys, just find me a guy that can catch the ball with one hand,” he said. 

He was referring to the spectacular catches made by Clemson’s receivers Monday night during the national championship game, trying to make the point that there are only so many plays a coach can run.  

“A lot of the same plays that are being run out there in America are being run here,” he insisted. “It goes back to execution, timing, what’s being called at what time.” 

If that sounds like he’s defending his staff; well, of course he is. That’s why he didn’t sweep them out the door.  

It’s also why he spent a good chunk of his Thursday evening talking about loyalty and sticking with coaches who built the program. He spent nearly as much time talking about execution and about whether a play works because of its design or because a player dropped a pass or missed a block or missed a throw. 

He even trotted out his mantra about football being won or lost with inches. 

“Football is a game of execution and repetition,” Dantonio said. “I’ve said that over and over. It’s won on the inches. Sometimes it’s players’ mistakes. Sometimes it’s a bad coaching mistake or maybe a missed step in teaching progression or something of that nature. But it’s things I believe that we can correct in a very meaningful way.” 

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Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio’s press conference to recap the 2018 season and to address staff changes on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2018.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press

This is who he is. He isn’t going to change.  

Besides, he’s right that execution matters. So does talent. And unless Dantonio finds more speed and more playmakers, none of the position changes will matter.  

(That said, if his new staff never runs another jet sweep to the short side of the field, that won’t be the worst thing in the world. For whatever else he says about execution and timing and inches and the talent to make plays, play designs still matter.) 

Again, by betting he’s got the guys in place to change the design enough to start scoring points again, he’s betting on his MSU legacy.  

It’s a risky move. It’s easy to see the move as nothing more than a kind of nepotism, a reordering of the family structure with little punishment for past failures.  

Dantonio didn’t go that far when he met with the media late Thursday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. But he did admit he wasn’t comfortable handing half of his program over to someone on the outside. 

“I’m a foxhole guy,” he said. “I don’t apologize for that in any respect. I believe in surrounding myself with loyal people. I believe in digging in when things get tough.” 

You had to know this was coming. Dantonio knows his offense stunk last season. He also knows that with four more points in three of his losses, he’d have won nine games and played on New Year’s Day. 

Beyond that, he knows he beat Penn State and stayed with U-M and Ohio State into the fourth quarter … with the worst offense he’s had during his tenure. In other words, he isn’t moving coaches around in search of 40 points a game.  

He’s in search of another 10. And maybe some of the fourth-quarter plays that enabled him to build this program in the first place.  

Will it work?  

I don’t know.  

But it has in the past. Whether it will again will determine how he’s remembered.  

And how much longer he stays at MSU. 

Contact Free Press columnist Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

 

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