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August 11, 2011

Linebackers and receivers

Those were the topics of emphasis Thursday evening after MSU's first practice in pads, with LB coach Mike Tressel and WR coach Terrence Samuel delivering updates. First, let's start with all we know about Lawrence Thomas' shoulder contusion.

    He got it by going low (during shoulder pads and shorts) for a hit on Nick Hill. And he initially thought it might be a big issue. Hopefully he didn't read the message board threads that declared him critical yet stable with a chance to play in 2015.

    “When it first happened I was worried a little bit," Thomas said, "but we got back the MRI and it wasn’t serious at all.”

    Thomas thinks he'll be out a week or less. Mark Dantonio allowed for the possibility of two weeks. Thomas doesn't expect this to impact his playing status (here's what he said on shirting: “Redshirting isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve got the talent and ability to play my first year, so I’m just gonna keep pushing hard to get on the field this year after I recover from this little injury. I’m gonna be good to go really soon.”)

    But there's no question, every day missed is significant for a true freshman.

    “If he ended up missing a handful of practices, it would impact his knowledge,” Tressel said. “And his knowledge will impact his redshirt status for sure. Because we’re not just gonna put him out there simply to run on kickoff. He’d have to be more involved in that.”

    The good news, Dantonio said, is there's no labrum tear or dislocation. And Thomas said he has never had any shoulder issues in the past.

    * Also on the injury front, Johnny Adams should be out about three days with the sprained ankle, which will allow some guys who need reps to get more reps. Edwin Baker was held out of Thursday's contact with a minor injury, Dantonio said. And Juwan Caesar has yet to practice with an undisclosed injury. He's looking at a redshirt anyway, but Samuel said he expects to get Caesar back for part of camp.

    * Everyone wants to know which freshman LBs are shining and vying for a spot on the depth chart. All four have impressed Tressel.

    “I think there will be one or two of those freshmen that do contribute," Tressel said. "Do they have to for us to be a good linebacking unit? No, I think we could get six good linebackers with the older guys. But I think those young guys are talented and it seems like they’re not afraid at all to play some serious football. With that talent and willingness to hit, yeah they can get in the mix.”

    Who has the best chance?

    “Really, the main thing is, Ed Davis and Taiwan Jones didn’t play the style of linebacker position that we do here," Tressel said. "Taiwan was an athlete that ran around and did anything on the field. Ed Davis was more of a 3-4 outside backer that mostly blitzed off the edge, so we didn’t know how they’d adapt to playing in a 4-3, off the ball, five yards deep, etc. And they both seem to do a great job of getting downhill and hitting it from there. So I’m excited the way both of those guys are playing.

    "And I knew Darien would know football, he’s a well-coached football player coming from DeMatha. So I’m happy with all of them. LT, when he was in there, he looked like he had Mike instincts. I told some people that before, I was excited to see the instincts he had because I knew he could thump.”

    Harris was recruited to play the Star position, Tressel said.

    “Darien, of the freshman backers is the one you say, ‘OK, that’s a Star for sure.’ Ed and Taiwan are both athletic enough to play out there but definitely big enough, they’re gonna put on weight to play inside too," Tressel said. "So they have a little bit of flexibility. But Darien’s a prototype Star, yeah.”

    * And let's not forget the veterans. TyQuan Hammock is working more at the Sam position, while Steve Gardiner is working behind Max Bullough at Mike.

    “We plan at some point to switch that back," Tressel said. "We want to see truly who is the best Sam, in case Denicos would ever have to play Star.”

    There's no question who's the best Mike, not that there ever really was a question.

    “He knows it," Tressel said of Bullough and his position. "He looks like he’s played for four years. It doesn’t look like he’s been behind Greg Jones for his freshman year. So that’s great. He’s doing a much better job of using his hands, because you come from small ball, you have some bad habits you have to break. He’s doing a great job of it and I’m pleased.”

    As for Chris Norman, Tressel said during Monday's media day that he needs Norman to take charge as a top player and leader of the unit. Norman has responded in the first week. And don't forget, he missed some valuable time during the spring.

    “I told Chris, to this point it’s as if he went full contact every snap of spring ball," Tressel said. "So that’s really good to see. That being said, he was Mr. Inexperienced last year and now he’s got to be Mr. Experienced. So it can’t just be, ‘Hey, looks like you didn’t miss a beat.’ It’s got to be ‘Get a bunch better.’ And he understands that and he’s the type of kid that’s gonna make sure that happens.”

    * Back to Thomas for one second. He gave us the lowdown on his weight, which will be a frequent topic. He said he arrived this summer at 278 and is now at 265. He thinks he needs to be between 250 and 255 to be effective at LB.

    *Dantonio was asked again to mention the freshmen who are impressing. He mentioned Joel Heath and Damon Knox on the defensive line, Donavon Clark and Jack Allen on the offensive line. And he seems quite impressed with receiver Andre Sims Jr.

    “I think A.J. Sims has done a nice job," Dantonio said. "He’s a guy that, you know, you notice No. 21 out there. Catches the ball very well, runs good routes and he’s tough. He’s tough-minded.”

    * Samuel backed that up with this on Sims: “He’ll stick his nose in there. I mean, his blocking as far as a young guy that’s willing to stick his nose in there and get dirty? I like that.”

    * Let's face it, Samuel is stepping into a pretty good situation.

    “Really excited," he said. "I mean, this is the best group I’ve had. And it’s no disrespect to some of the guys I’ve coached in the past or guys I’ve played with in the past. But overall you’ve got a skill set – you’ve got speed, you’ve got power, you’ve got size. You have the ability, the lateral movement to get in and out of cuts. And they all catch the ball well. Except for these five drops we had today.”

    Yes, five drops in the entire practice. That doesn't sound like a lot to me, considering all the drills and the fact that MSU went through about 30 live plays. But Samuel called it "not acceptable."

    * We know what B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin are going to do (though I think Martin adds to his game this season). But what about Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler?

    First, Samuel on Nichol: “The biggest thing he’s starting to understand is having a better appreciation, being a big guy, sometimes you need to develop the smaller-guy skills. And he’s developing the smaller-guy skills. This summer was really good for him, to learn how to be quick in and out of his breaks, track the ball a little bit better once the ball is in the air. He doesn’t have to see the ball thrown from the quarterback. He can work his route, work his route and then at the last minute find the ball and locate it and make the catch. Tribute to him because of the way his focus is and the way he’s been doing things. I’m proud of him.”

    Samuel on Fowler:  “I tell all the wide receivers that they need to be able to run every route on the route tree like a veteran. So he’s still learning some of those routes. You can’t just run that curl once and think you have all the essence of what it takes to get open. He’s finally starting to get those experiences, different experiences with DBs being at different levels, different positions. And he’s starting to make the concepts his own. The techniques his own. And you’re starting to see him develop his skill set. I’ve been really proud of the way he’s developed and the way he’s (gone) about his process of getting better.”

    *Freshman safety RJ Williamson has the look of a player to me, so I wondered if he has a chance to make a real run at a role this season. But safety is a cerebral position and Dantonio's answer makes me wonder a little bit less.

    “I think it’s too early (to tell) but I think he has the physical ability," Dantonio said. "I think it’s too early to say, depends on a lot of things. How Kurtis (Drummond) plays, how fast Jairus Jones is able to come back. How’s Mylan Hicks playing – which, you know, Mylan’s playing very fast – so it remains to be seen.”

    * Say it with me now. FOE Fuh-no-TEE. That's how you say Fou Fonoti. Standing next to him tonight, I'm certain his height is under-listed at 6-4 (or, as Paul Konyndyk suggested, I'm shrinking, a very real possibility). I'm 6-3 (last I checked) and Fonoti is easily two inches taller. Blow out the hair and he's a filled-out Chuck Nevitt, but that won't matter much unless they repeal helmets. Fonoti also said he's weighing in at 296 and wants to get that weight up before the season.

    The cousin of Tupe and Domata Peko, Fonoti has three years to play two, so he could redshirt. He's taking nothing for granted in the fight with Skyler Burkland at right tackle. And he's taking plenty from the daily grind of blocking guys such as Will Gholston, Tyler Hoover and Denzel Drone.

    “Oh man, those guys, they make you work," Fonoti said. "That’s all I can say. They’re big guys, they’re physical, they’re smart. For me going against these guys daily, I truly feel it makes me better each day.”

    More Friday on Fonoti.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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