EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan State Spartans sound fairly humble for a team coming off an 11-win season.
The Spartans tied for the Big Ten title last year and return several key offensive players, but there's little sense of overconfidence as they begin practice. That might be because of how their final game went — Michigan State went to the Capital One Bowl with high hopes but looked completely overwhelmed in a 49-7 loss to Alabama.
"We accomplished a lot last year. When we got to that step, we failed," running back Edwin Baker said at media day Monday. "When you play an elite team like that, you have to show up and play."
Baker and his teammates are eager to put that dismal loss behind them and build on what was — on the whole — a breakthrough season in East Lansing. Michigan State finished 11-2 and tied Wisconsin and Ohio State for first place in the conference, losing out on a Rose Bowl bid because of a tiebreaker. Quarterback Kirk Cousins returns for his senior season and will have plenty of talent around him, including running backs Baker, Larry Caper and Le'Veon Bell. The Spartans also welcome back wide receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.
Michigan State did lose three starters on the offensive line — not to mention linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon.
"You certainly want to recognize last year, but you also have to understand 2011 is the next project, the next season down the road," coach Mark Dantonio said. "It will always be like that, so you can't live on what's happened in the past. So there is a very fine line in being confident but yet staying humble and understanding that there is work to be done yet."
Dantonio said he's "fully healthy" after suffering a mild heart attack last September. Dantonio was hospitalized immediately after what was probably the team's signature win of last season, when Michigan State beat Notre Dame 34-31 on a fake field goal in overtime.
Aaron Bates, the team's punter, threw the winning touchdown on that fake — he was also the team's holder. He was a senior last season, so the Spartans will have to replace him and hope to maintain their impressive performance on special teams.
Bates was the first punter in school history to be named captain, and the Spartans also must replace their long snapper — but assistant coach Mike Tressel indicated Michigan State will remain unpredictable with fake punts and field goals.
"As coaches, we believe that you always have to have the ability to do something other than just kick it," he said.
Tressel coaches linebackers and special teams, meaning he's in charge of two units with a lot of turnover from last season. He's also the nephew of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who was forced to resign this offseason after his school discovered he broke NCAA rules.
"In coaching, there's a lot of things that pop up all the time. It seems like they're on you because you're not winning enough, they're on you because you're not coaching well enough, they're on you because of the NCAA," Mike Tressel said. "As crazy as it's been, you sort of go with the flow and have pride in your family, have pride in yourself and the way you do things, and try not to pay attention to what everybody else is saying."
Mike Tressel was asked if his uncle would coach again. He said he wasn't sure.
"I think he hasn't decided that to be honest with you. I don't know. He told me he's going to read a hundred books before he even decides," Mike Tressel said. "He's a reader. It could be self-improvement books or it could be totally unrelated to that and just reading fiction — but clear-your-mind type of stuff."
Right now, Mike Tressel is concerned with replacing Jones and Gordon. Jones was an All-American who was drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft.
Michigan State does have another defensive player who is considered a top pro prospect, although he's not a linebacker. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy had 8.5 sacks in his first two seasons for the Spartans.
Jones was able to lead Michigan State to big things last year, never allowing his NFL hopes to become a distraction. Dantonio is hoping for the same type of effort from Worthy.
"He's being thrust into the spotlight, and I think there is a learning curve there," Dantonio said. "But I think Jerel will do a great job as he moves forward. He's got to slow down the Twitter. We'll be all right. But I think he's a very good person."