State gets an enthusiastic leader back in Fonoti

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Fouimalo “Fou” Fonoti is back at right tackle, and that could make a big difference for the Michigan State offense.

Fonoti, a 6-foot-4, 298-pound bundle of grit and energy, broke his foot in practice the week of the 2012 Notre Dame game. The Spartans were 2-0 and ranked No. 10 at that point.

They were coming off consecutive 11-win seasons and geared for a Big Ten championship run.

However, the Fighting Irish dominated MSU, 20-3, and it was beginning of a 5-6 stretch wrought with disappointment.

The demise began with Fonoti going down, and there’s no way to pin it on losing one player. But he is the kind of player who makes a difference with more than pancake blocks and pass defense.

“Fou (pronounced foe) plays with such tremendous passion,” Spartans offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “The other guys on the team naturally feed off it. There’s an enthusiasm coming from Fou, and that’s so important. He has the spirit of a great Christian young man, and he loves to play the game.”

Staten emphasized each of those final seven words by tapping the side of his right hand on a table top.

Fonoti, who became a starter in 2011 when Skyler Burkland suffered a knee injury in the Notre Dame game, was granted a medical redshirt season for 2013 that provided a second chance at a senior season.

“I have a sense of urgency coming off of my injury,” Fonoti told me this week. “This is my last year so there’s no holding back. I’m more hungry than ever to do everything I can do to put our team in the best situation. There’s no time for me to be hesitant. What happened to me happened, and that was a blessing in disguise. But now it’s definitely all gas, no brakes.”

Athlon Sports made Fonoti  a second team preseason All-Big Ten pick. The former JUCO All-American from Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., has a chance to go out one year older, wiser and stronger. His NFL opportunities could end up being enhanced by the delay.

“Selfishly, I was very, very upset,” said Staten of Fonoti’s injury. “Selflessly, it was the best thing for Fou. He didn’t turn 21 until last November. The extra year allows him to develop more fully.”

Fonoti was looking forward to returning to his family and girlfriend in California, but knows that spending one more year at MSU can only benefit him.

It will also provide him with an opportunity to go out with a bang — rather than on crutches.

“I relied on my teammates and coaches to get me through a heart-breaking season,” Fonoti said. “I felt like I let down my brothers by getting hurt. That Friday night before we played Notre Dame, I told the team, ‘I’m sorry, guys, that I can’t be a better teammate for you.’ They all told me that it was fine, that things happen for a reason. And they were right. I’ve been blessed with a second opportunity.

“I hope to win the (Big Ten) championship and keep ‘em motivated all the way. This is a very special team with only the best to come.”

The offense finished 10th in scoring in the Big Ten, and the unit’s improvement will have much to say about whether a championship is had.

The Spartans lost their only two players to make the all-conference first or second teams when tailback Le’Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims opted for the NFL Draft after their junior seasons. The only honorable mention pick on offense, guard Chris McDonald, was a senior.

The line didn’t distinguish itself last year, but Staten and Fonoti like what they’re seeing of this unit.

Staten said redshirt freshman Jack Conklin (6-6, 326) of Plainwell is pushing Dan France to start at left tackle. Travis Jackson is set to start at center, returning after breaking his leg last year in the Big Ten opener loss to Ohio State, and could join Fonoti in rejuvenating the line. Senior Blake Treadwell, another strong leader, and talented sophomore Jack Allen are set to start at the guard positions.

“How do I describe them?” said Staten. “If I had to choose just one word, it would be unity. It’s nice to see that unity, that camaraderie.”

Fonoti added, “It’s a brotherhood down there.”