Developed freshmen providing depth for MSU

Developed freshmen providing depth for MSU

Published Aug. 14, 2012 11:49 a.m. ET

One of the rewards for college football teams with solid programs is having a high percentage of redshirt freshmen.

Rather than throwing true freshmen into the fire, they are allowed a year to acclimate and develop before hitting the playing field on game day. They are not needed to immediately fill holes on a team desperate for talent.

Michigan State, coming off its only back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins, has 25 redshirt freshmen ready to go in 2012. Linebacker Taiwan Jones was the only true freshman who played for the Spartans last year.

Coach Mark Dantonio is excited about the infusion of this talent into the two-deep roster after watching the first two weeks of preseason practice.

Jack Allen, a 6-foot-1, 295-pound offensive guard from Hinsdale , Ill. , is pushing Blake Treadwell for a starting spot. RJ Williamson, a free safety from Dayton, Ohio, is battling Kurtis Drummond for the first-string nod.

And seven to nine other redshirt freshmen are in line to be second-string and see significant playing time.

“I feel like (Allen) is a starter for us,” Dantonio said. “I’ve always felt like that.”

Allen said, “It’s exciting. I’m just coming out here and working hard every single day, and trying to make an impact.”

He said it is “hard” cracking the lineup against veterans, but added, “Every play you’re taking mental reps and learning what you have to do because they’re doing it spot-on. They help you out.”

Allen’s mental and physical capabilities have impressed offensive line coach Mark Staten.

“He’s a very smart football player,” Staten said. “He’s tough and he was a state champ wrestler. So, I like that. He has a great base. You can expect to see a lot of Jack Allen this year.”

Allen was the Illinois Class 3A wrestling champion at 285 pounds in 2011. He finished second in the 285-pound weight class in 2010 and second in the 215-pound class in 2009, having gone up an amazing 70 pounds in one year.

Williamson was on two state championship sprint relay teams and also ran for 301 yards in one game.

Defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said he thought the free safety job could have been won in spring drills, but said Williamson and sophomore Drummond continue battling for it.

“They are both doing well,” Barnett said. “It’s a competition; they know it’s a competition.”

Backup quarterback Connor Cook, of Hinckley, Ohio, is another redshirt freshman. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 145 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown, in Sunday’s controlled scrimmage. He benefited from the extra reps he received in spring practice, when new starter Andrew Maxwell missed half of it with a sprained knee.

“(Cook) is much more established this summer camp than certainly he was last year as a freshman,” Dantonio said. “He’s got more command in the huddle and always throws the ball great. And he’s moving very well. I think he’s grown a lot over the spring and summer.”

Andre Sims Jr. (Snellville, Ga.) and Juwan Caesar (Miami), who missed the majority of practice in 2011 with a foot injury, are redshirt freshmen with good shots at backup roles in the revamped receiving corps.

Defensive ends Joel Heath (Cincinnati) and Lawrence Thomas (Detroit Renaissance) are two more members of that class expected to make an impact with their first playing time in the Aug. 31 opener with Boise State in East Lansing. Both are learning the ropes from junior end William Gholston, a second-team All-Big Ten pick in 2011.

Heath (6-6, 266 pounds) had three tackles and one sack in Sunday’s scrimmage and is listed as Gholston’s backup.

“I definitely want to contribute to the pass rush,” Heath said. “I want
to be able to fill in and help my teammates as much as possible. Will is
definitely mentoring me and teaching me the assignments.”

Thomas (6-3, 295 pounds), rated the No. 1 player in the state by the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and Lansing State Journal as a senior, has moved from linebacker. He missed spring ball with a shoulder injury.

“I’m real happy and trying to improve myself,” Thomas said. “I’m just showing how physical I am and how mobile I am.”

Dantonio said: “He’s active, he can run, and he’s 290-plus pounds. He has a huge future ahead of him.”

Classmate Shilique Calhoun (Middletown , N.J.) is backing up the other defensive end, Marcus Rush.

“He’s going to play a lot for us,” Dantonio said of Calhoun

Linebacker Darien Harris (Silver Spring , Md.) is playing behind senior Chris Norman, and had nine tackles (one for a loss) and a fumble recovery Sunday.

Cornerback Trae Waynes, also a baseball and track star at Kenosha (Wis.) Bradford , is playing behind starter Darqueze Dennard.

Others in the class are expected to make an impact down the road. But at this point, almost half of the redshirt freshmen are ready to make an impact after one year in training.