EAST LANSING - It's the fourth spring football season for Jared McGaha, heading into his fifth year as a part of the Spartan football program.Dozens of high school coaches watched Friday's practice. They are in town for the annual Michigan State coaches' clinic ... The Spartans were in shells (helmets and shoulder pads) for the past two practices. "Tomorrow is going to be paddin' it back up," McGaha said. ... Sophomore Isaiah Lewis is still No. 1 at strong safety. He is also playing the star/slot area in the nickel defense, the same job he held last year. In the nickel defense, second-string strong safety Jairus Jones checks into the playing group as one of the two deep safeties, while Lewis heads closer to the line of scrimmage.
But spring practice has been different this year, he says.
"I think there is a little bit of an edge to us," McGaha said, "that being Big Ten champions three-way wasn't good enough for us."
Michigan State went 11-1 in the regular season in 2010 and finished 7-1 in the Big Ten, tied with Wisconsin and Ohio State for the conference crown.
"What we're saying on the offensive line and to the young guys on the team is: Three-way champs? That ain't good enough," said McGaha.
McGaha is repping as the first string left-tackle this spring. The 6-foot-6, 292-pound native of Powell, Tenn., has toiled as a solid utility back-up over the past two seasons. In 2010, he started at left tackle against Purdue in place of injured D.J. Young and at right guard in place of injured Chris McDonald. In the comeback victory at Northwestern, McGaha subbed in for important stretched at left tackle and right tackle.
But now, with Young having graduated, McGaha was given the initial shot at becoming the new left tackle. McGaha has done nothing to lose that title this spring.
"I think Jared is having a good spring," said first-year offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who formerly served as McGaha's position player as o-line coach. "He is playing hard, he is playing physical. He is bouncing in from left tackle to left to left guard, and there are some real encouraging things there, so he is going to be right in the mix."
McGaha is being backed-up by sophomore d-line transplant Dan France. Junior college transfer Fou Fonoti will arrive at mid-summer to compete with McGaha for the job.
"I feel like my game has elevated since I've had a chance to concentrate on my position and what Coach (Mark) Staten wants me to do," McGaha said. "It's been a key for me to be able to focus and tune-up the finer points of my game, as far as playing a new position.
"As far as the team goes, it's about being able to sell out for the team in every practice. And that's what I'm trying to do for my team."
What does McGaha feel he needs to exhibit in order to win the job?
"I don't think it is anything technical, anything strength-wise, I think it's the toughness that you have to bring and that I'm bringing every day," McGaha said. "The toughest guy at the end of the game is always going to win."
Center Of Attention
Elsewhere on the Spartan o-line, there has been little separation in the three-way battle for the starting center job. Junior Ethan Ruhland repped as the No. 1 center on Tuesday, but all three candidates continued to get equal or near-equal reps through Friday's practice.
Ruhland served as the No. 2 center last year, and may have had the inside track toward winning the job this spring. But redshirt freshman Travis Jackson and veteran d-line transplant Blake Treadwell are charging hard.
Which of the three centers graded out the best during last weekend's Jersey Scrimmage?
"At the end, it was really close between Travis and Blake," Roushar said. "They both did a really good job. Where they were deficient was probably assignment; some things got away from them that they will learn from, but fundamentally I thought they both did a pretty good job. It's going to be a great battle."
About That Jackson
Jackson has stood strong as one of the more intriguing stories of the spring. He began the spring as one of four contenders for the starting center spot. When sophomore Nate Klatt went down with a broken foot, Jackson survived into the top three. He hasn't budged since.
"My first spring ball has been a great experience," said Jackson, of New Albany, Ohio and Columbus St. Francis DeSales High. "Blake is awesome and Ethan is awesome so it has been a fun competition. We all help each other, so it's been a fun experience.
"Coach Staten does a good job of mixing up the offensive line. He is trying to find five guys, if not 10, that can just go in there and mesh really well."
Treadwell and Ruhland have gotten reps at offensive guard, in addition to competing at center. But Jackson's practice time has been exclusively at center, as Staten tries to soak the rookie with as many reps and teaching points as possible.
"It's hard for a lot of the first-time guys because the nerves are pretty high out there," Jackson said. "So try to play hard while relaxed, to an extent."
What were the teaching points coming out of the first of three spring scrimmages?
"Staying low, getting after it, recognizing the defense really well, and calming down and relaxing," Jackson said.
"Well, you need to calm down and read the defense. Coach Narduzzi is throwing all kinds of crazy blitzes at you, so just calming down, slowing down and trying to take it one play at a time."
Jackson has impressed at least one veteran teammate.
"I think Travis is great," McGaha said. "He's a great worker. If he messes up, he is messing up at a hundred miles an hour, which is what you want from a young guy, and we can't ask for anything more than what he's giving. All that we can do as teammates is help him go in the right direction."
At 265 pounds, Jackson is light. But at 6-foot-3, he carries it pretty well. He's not thin. He plays low and strong, and his speed to the perimeter is something MSU is looking for at center. But he will need to add more quality mass to be a true contender at the spot.
"All in all I think he is going to be a great player as he develops," McGaha said. "He brings toughness every day. He might hurt his hand on one play and sit out one play and then he's back in there the very next play. Toughness, he's got it."
This And That
Lewis closed Friday's practice with a hard hit on running back Edwin Baker during a short stint of 11-vs.-11 work. It was a stretch (outside zone) play. "I was just doing my thing, reading my keys," Lewis said, "and came down and there was a big open hole and it was my opportunity to make a play so I hit it."
Treadwell served as the No. 2 right guard at the outset of practice on Tuesday, the only practice session media have been allowed to view this spring.
"Sometimes I'm doing more guard in practice, some practices more center," Treadwell said. "It doesn't both me. I just want to make sure I get my snaps good at center, and guard will take care of itself."
Le'Veon Bell was listed at 230 pounds last year as a true freshman running back. He is listed at 237 this spring, with added leg mass and strength. "He's a monster. He's physical," Roushar said. "He is seeing things better and he understands what we're doing better. He has had a very good spring."
Sophomore tight end Dion Sims has missed practices this week with a turf toe. "Dion has done very, very well," Roushar said. "Hopefully the toe doesn't set him back too far, but he has a chance to really be an outstanding player."
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