August 17, 2011

Camp Notes: Gardiner strengthening MSU's LB depth

EAST LANSING - A minor injury and an aborted experiment at Sam linebacker has sent Michigan State's linebacking auditions into reshuffle mode as the Spartans approach the midway of August training camp.

Junior Chris Norman was held out of contact drills on Wednesday due to an undisclosed upper body injury, but was able to run around in non-contact drills. In his absence, sophomore Denicos Allen slid over to Norman's 'star' linebacker position.

Allen was replaced at Sam linebacker, at least for a day or two, by junior Steve Gardiner.

Gardiner (6-1, 222, Dublin, Ohio) is coming off of what head coach Mark Dantonio said was a good performance in Saturday's scrimmage.

"Chris is a little banged up right now, a little dinged, but Steve Gardiner is playing outstanding," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said after practice on Wednesday. "If we had to play right now, it would be Steve Gardiner starting."

Allen was the No. 1 'star' (weakside, slot area) linebacker during the spring. He moved to Sam (strong inside linebacker) for the outset of fall camp.

Allen was expected to compete with TyQuan Hammock at Sam. But Hammock is back at Mike (middle) linebacker.

"We tried him (Hammock) at the Sam linebacker spot and did not like what we saw," Narduzzi said. "I think he is more of a natural Mike, so we have him back there at Mike full-time, unfortunately. I really wanted to see what he had at Sam, but it wasn't like we thought he would be there."

Much has been made of the need to replace All-America Greg Jones at Mike linebacker and Eric Gordon at Sam linebacker. But the Spartans also need a replacement for the graduated Jon Misch, who was a utility fill-in at Sam and 'star' linebacker last year. Gardiner is emerging as that type of utility man, but in a more compact, sure-tackling frame.

Gardiner, who was bothered by a toe injury during his first three years at Michigan State, compiled 21 tackles a year ago, including 13 on special teams.

Despite Gardiner's productive fall, Narduzzi isn't completely happy with the way the linebacking picture is coming together.

"I'm never impressed with anything," Narduzzi said. "What am I most concerned about? I'm most concerned maybe about linebacker depth, and our development there with our youth and replacing some great players from a year ago."

The starting candidates at linebacker aren't a concern.

"They are probably where I thought they would be," Narduzzi said. "Chris Norman will have a great shot at starting and Max Bullough is doing a tremendous job inside and Denicos Allen is having a good (camp) so far," Narduzzi said. "Our number one 'star' and number two 'star' will be Chris Norman and Denicos Allen. And when they're both on the field at the same time, we have two great athletes."

They are able to be on the field at the same time when Allen returns to the Sam linebacker position, which is expected to be the case when Norman regains full health, which should be by the end of the week.

Taiwon Jones Looking Good

Narduzzi said Taiwon Jones has been the first of the talented group of true freshman linebackers to pick up the system and make strides toward earning a role.

"We have an idea of who we have to continue to push into the fire; it's Taiwon Jones right now," Narduzzi said. "He is really playing well for a young guy. He still runs around like a chicken with his head cut off sometimes, but he can run, he can tackle. I think he is probably a step ahead of where Chris Norman was as a true freshman and he played for us. I think he is a step ahead right now. He has great football knowledge and he has to to just continue to progress."

Jones is repping at both Sam and 'star' linebacker.

Highly-touted freshman inside linebacker Lawrence Thomas is still out with a shoulder bruise. Fellow freshman Detroiter Ed Davis[db] was complimented for having a good scrimmage by Dantonio on Monday.

Narduzzi said [db]Darien Harris has been a little slower to grasp things at 'star' linebacker.

"Darien has great fundamentals," Narduzzi said. "He is going to be a great player, but just as far as picking it up and playing as fast as you need to play at this level, he is not there yet. He could come on. We will find out. We still have a couple of weeks to go."

The Rest Of It

  • Narduzzi: "I feel pretty good in the secondary.

    "We are banged up inside (at defensive tackle). (Kevin Pickelman) just got a little dinged. We were just being pre-cautious. His neck is good and that is the important thing. Pickelman will be fine.

    "I don't mind that Jerel Worthy was out today. His shoulder was sore. I don't need to see Jerel Worthy practice. That guy can play. Same thing with Pickelman. Some of those young guys need reps. So I know those guys will be there when gameday comes.

    "When we get our d-line all back and feeling 100 percent we will be solid there, I think. But we have to get some young guys ready to go. Hopefully they will be ready soon."

  • "Health is okay. It's doubles (two-a-days). We have coaches limping around, my hamstring is a little sore. But Johnny is back. Mitchell has a little ankle. He will be back in a day. But that happens."

  • With Pickelman and Worthy getting a day or two off, sophomore Micajah Reynolds has been getting extra playing time in the two-deep. He's normally a third-stringer.

    "Micajah Reynolds is starting to play pretty solid in there," Narduzzi said. "He is getting a ton of reps. After that, Blake Pacheco is playing good as a (senior) walk-on from California. After that, those (true freshmen) probably just aren't strong enough to get it done right now."

  • In the secondary, redshirt freshmen Tony Lippett and Jeremy Langford competed for reps with the first-string nickel defense on Wednesday.

    Mitchell White has spent most of the month as the first DB off the bench, otherwise known as the fifth DB in the nickel defense. But White is out for another day or two with an ankle tweak.

    Langford moved from tailback to cornerback during the summer. Lippett spent the first half of last spring at wide receiver before moving to cornerback. Coaches still plan to develop Lippett as a two-way player, but the team's earliest area of need in regard to Lippett is at cornerback.

    In the nickel defense, MSU practiced on Wednesday with Trenton Robinson and Darqueze Dennard as the two deep safeties. Johnny Adams was at boundary corner. Sophomore Isaiah Lewis at slot corner, the area of the nickel defense that he patrolled a year ago.

    For now, the job opening is at field corner. Langford and Lippett took turns with the ones.

    "It's going to be a good competition," Lippett said. "Langford and Mitchell White are good players. But I'd really like to show that I can win that job."

    Lippett had a pick-six earlier in the day, snatching a slant pass out of the hands of a receiver and returning it for a TD.

    As for Dennard, he normally plays field cornerback in the conventional defense. MSU has worked this month in moving him to safety on third-down passing situations as part of the nickel defense.

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