August 12, 2011

Harris, Williamson among rookies turning heads


EAST LANSING - The play of true freshmen in the first week of training camp was the topic of the day during post-practice media briefings, Thursday at the Skandalaris Center.

Highly-touted middle linebacker Lawrence Thomas dominated conversations, due to a bruised shoulder which is expected to sideline him for one or two weeks.

Meanwhile, less-known rookie linebacker Darien Harris is making a run at a role in the two-deep at 'star' (slot) linebacker. Harris repped as the No. 2 'star' linebacker at times on Thursday, behind junior starter Chris Norman.

"Of the freshman backers, Darien is the one that you say that's a 'star' for sure," said linebackers coach Mike Tressel. "Darien is a prototype 'star' guy."

That means he is fast, agile and possesses good coverage skills.

'Star' linebacker at Michigan State is the guy who covers the slot WR in a three-WR formation. When facing a 3-WR formation, the 'star' linebacker becomes a hybrid defensive back on pass plays, but must also be stingy against the run.

Michigan State enjoys good depth at most positions on both sides of the ball, but the Spartans have a shortage of players capable of manning the 'star' position.

Harris (6-0, 206) was recruited out of Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha Catholic by MSU specifically to play 'star.' He has looked promising during the first week of training camp, with Thursday serving as the first day in full pads.

"Darien is very active," said head coach Mark Dantonio. "He has played at a high level of high school football. But it is very early to see how these guys are going to fit in the big scheme of things after one practice in pads."

Walk-on Kyler Elsworth served as the No. 2 'star' linebacker during spring practice, behind Denicos Allen. Norman missed the spring with an arm injury.

Allen moved inside to Sam linebacker for the outset of training camp.

Harris is repping ahead of Elsworth, for now.

"Coach Dantonio always talks about fall camp being the freshmen spring ball," Tressel said. "So if you came out of spring ball as a 2 or a 3 (like Elsworth or third-string sophomore Jeremy Gainer), you are in a fight for your life with maybe not as many reps as the freshmen because you had your opportunity in spring ball. So yeah, they feel it. When they get out there, they had better go and show that they do have the edge in knowledge."

Freshman LBs Are 'Willing' To Hit

Behind Norman, Allen and Max Bullough on the first string, the Spartans have sturdy sophomore TyQuan Hammock at second-string Sam linebacker.

The corps of linebacker candidates behind those four is unspectacular. Junior Steve Gardiner (6-1 ,215) is repping as the No. 2 Mike (middle) linebacker. When healthy, he has been serviceable in scrimmages. Gainer is the only other returning scholarship guy at linebacker.

That's why the incoming freshmen have a grand opportunity to make a dent on the depth chart. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi challenged the incoming linebackers - Thomas, Harris, Ed Davis and Taiwon Jones - last spring, telling them that he expected at least two of them to make the travel squad.

"I think that there will be one or two of those freshmen that do (get on the field)," 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 they seem like they aren't afraid at all to play some serious football. So with that talent and that willingness to hit, yeah they can get in the mix."

Tressel was eager to watch the rookie linebackers during Thursday's opening round of full-pad workouts.

"That's the thing you're always anxious to see," Tressel said. "You know that we recruited athletes, but you don't know when going against 300-pounders if they are going to pitter-pat their feet or cringe a little bit. We didn't have any cringers out there. I thought all of our freshman linebacker were willing to go hit you. So that was good to see."

Tressel isn't necessarily surprised.

"I knew Darien would know football," Tressel said. "He is a well-coached player coming from DeMatha.

"Ed Davis and Taiwon Jones didn't play the style of linebacker that we do here. Taiwon was an athlete that ran around and did anything on the field. Davis was more of a 3-4 outside backer that mostly blitzed off the edge. We didn't know how they would adapt to playing in a 4-3, five yards off the ball. They both seem to do a great job of getting downhill and hitting it from there, so I'm excited by the way that both of those guys are playing.

"And LT, when he was in there, he looked like he had Mike instincts. I was excited to see the instincts that he had, because I knew he could thump."

Other Freshmen Of Note

Aside from Harris, junior college transfer Fou Fonoti is the only other new player who is repping in the two-deep. Fonoti (6-4, 300, Lakewood, Calif.) is the No. 2 right tackle, behind redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland.

"Fou looks good," Dantonio said. "He works extremely hard. I think his retention of what we have installed has been extremely good."

Fonoti was ranked the No. 24 junior college player in America last year by Rivals.com. He selected Michigan State over UCLA, Arizona, Rutgers and Washington State.

"You can tell he has played college football before and has played against big people, athletic people that can run," Fonoti said. "He is working as the No. 2 right tackle right now. Whether he stays there remains to be seen, and how everybody else works around him."

Dantonio on other freshmen:

"When you look at the freshmen, there are guys in the secondary who play pretty well for freshmen. They fit the profile that we have - guys that can run, that tackle well, they hustle around, they have good change of direction.

"Our linebackers flow very well. They are big, they can run well.

"On the defensive line, they are probably a little bit farther behind because of the maturity level, just playing against guys that are so strong, that are older. But you could tell that guys like Joel Heath in time is going to be a good player, and Damon Knox has done some good things."

Dantonio said offensive line play is less telling for true freshmen, due to the complexity of the position. But he mentioned that Donovan Clark and Jack Allen "will be good players."

Clark repped as the No. 3 left tackle at the outset of Thursday's practice, and Allen repped as the No. 3 center.

RJ Williamson could be a live sleeper for a role in the two-deep at safety. Already a thin position, MSU's cast of safeties suffered the loss of Jairus Jones to an Achilles injury at the end of spring practice. He is not expected back until September.

Senior Trenton Robinson and sophomore Isaiah Lewis are solid first-stringers.

But redshirt freshmen Kurtis Drummond and Mylan Hicks are precarious second-stringers.

Williamson has performed favorably at strong safety, pushing Drummond for the No. 2 spot behind Lewis.

Dantonio was asked if Williamson could barge into the playing group.

"That's too early to say but he has the physical ability," Dantonio said. "It depends on a lot of things, how Kurtis Drummond plays, how fast Jairus Jones is able to come back, how Mylan Hicks is playing. Mylan is playing very fast.

"So it remains to be seen, but after one day in pads the bottom line is you have to get people down in the secondary. So there is a lot of work to do there to see where we're at with that."

What about offense?

"At wide receiver, Juwan Caesar is still banged up," Dantonio said.

Caesar wore a yellow jersey on Saturday and watched practice from the sideline. He might be walking with a limp, but the young receiver sports big, cut biceps for a rookie wide out.

Dantonio was asked if Caesar will be able to practice soon.

"It remains to be seen," Dantonio said. "He hasn't practiced yet. He had an injury coming in."

On the positive side, wide receiver Andre Sims (5-8, 180, Snellville, Ga.) has created a ripple.

"A.J. Sims has done a nice job," Dantonio said, without being asked about him. "You notice No. 21 out there, catching the ball, and he runs good routes and he is tough. He is tough-minded.

"And quarterback Connor Cook throws the ball very effectively and has a quick release. But a lot of things are coming at him very quickly. So it's one day install, then the next day install, and it piles up on you. And then you add that to different defenses and different coverages and it piles up on you."

The Spartans will conduct their first Jersey Scrimmage of training camp on Saturday. The scrimmage will be closed to the public and media.































FOU

FR LBS
"When you look at the freshmen, there are guys in the secondary who play pretty well for freshmen. They fit the profile that we have - guys that can run, that tackle well, they hustle around, they have good change of direction. Our linebackers flow very well. They are big, they can run well. On the defensive line, they are probably a little bit farther behind because of the maturity level, just playing against guys that are so strong, that are older. But you could tell that guys like Joel Heath in time is going to be a good player, and Damon Knox has done some good things.

"Clark and Jack Allen will be good players.

"At wide receiver, Juwan Caesar is still banged up."

Long term?
It remains to be seen. He hasn't practiced yet. He had an injury coming in."

but A.J. Sims has done a nice job. You notice No. 21 out there, catching the ball, and he runs good routes and he is tough. He is tough-minded. And quarterback Connor Cook throws the ball very effectively and has a quick release. But a lot of things are coming at him very quickly. So it's one day install, then the next day install, and it piles up on you. And then you add that to different defenses and different coverages and it piles up on you."



WILLIAMSON RJ, darkhorse to play
"That's too early to say but he has the physical ability. It depends on a lot of things, how Kurtis Drummond plays, how fast Jairus Jones is able to come back, how Mylan Hicks is playing. Mylan is playing very fast. So it remains to be seen, but after one day in pads the bottom line is you have to get people down in the secondary. So there is a lot of work to do there to see where we're at with that."



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