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April 19, 2011EAST LANSING - Dan France tried to diffuse the excitement surrounding being named the new first-string left tackle with some smiles, shoulder shrugs and nervous laughter.
But the fact remains that when Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio stated on Tuesday afternoon before practice that the former defensive lineman had ascended the depth chart and moved into first-string at the glamor position on the left side of the line, it was a big deal.
Especially when you consider the fact that the redshirt sophomore had little or no experience at the position prior to moving over to the offensive side of the ball during MSU's preparation for the Capital One Bowl. And those practices before MSU faced Alabama weren't real good indicators that France could make the transition.
"I played tight end (in high school). I was a 280 (pound) tight end,'' said the academic All-Big Ten performer with a smile. "(So I'm surprised) because in bowl practices, I was really struggling. I didn't have any technique down. But working on my technique a lot more everyday has definitely helped me out a lot.''
The 6-foot-6, 304-pound North Royalton, Ohio native even joked when asked about his ascension to the spot, choosing to credit his time as a basketball player in high school as the main reason behind his promotion.
"That's helped with my feet because playing defense, just like in basketball, at left tackle, you're just trying to stay in front of the d-end or the linebacker.''
Obviously, that prep experience helped him a lot more than he was willing to admit Tuesday evening because in addition to playing tight end, a position that does require a combination of finesse and strength, he was an all-district first team basketball player as a prep junior and averaged 13.2 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior after performing as a three-year starter.
France, who played in seven games last season, and finished with three tackles, one pass breakup and one quarterback hit as a reserve on the d-line, entered spring ball No. 2 on the depth chart at right tackle behind 6-7, 305-pound redshirt freshman Skyler Schofner, with fifth-year senior Jared McGaha listed as the favorite to wrap up the tackle spot on the left side.
Fou Fonoti will enroll at mid-summer.
"It's been kind of different, backpedalling and trying to stay in front of the guys. That's probably been the biggest adjustment,'' he said when asked about making such a difficult transition. "But I'm definitely getting more comfortable (everyday). I still have to practice a lot with the older guys and they help me out a out but it's been going pretty well.''
Well enough that France proved to be a quick-enough study to supplant the veteran McGaha at a key position that probably requires the best combination of strength, skill, technique and savvy in order to achieve offensive line success.
"I just think that Coach D sees that I can move pretty well and that I do have technique down. But I'm nowhere near where I need to be. It's still a work in progress.''
Of course, despite France's good showing, this is not the final word on the position. McGaha, who has been working at guard during the absence of an injured Joel Foreman, is still in the mix to regain the top spot at left side tackle with summer and fall camps looming in the distance. Plus, junior college transfer Fou Fonoti, expected to arrive on campus this summer after two seasons at Cerritos College (Calif.), will be another big body looking to earn the privilege of protecting the blindside of a right-handed quarterback.
So France is well aware that this spring honor could be short-lived if he doesn't continue to show the obviously impressive improvements he has during the spring session.
"It's not set in stone, obviously. McGaha is a senior so he's definitely proven what he can do and then we got Fou coming in, so as far as I'm concerned it's (still) an open competition.''