March 30, 2012

Hoover ready for the challenge inside

EAST LANSING - Tyler Hoover said he had an idea it was coming.

He could see the look in defensive line coach Ted Gill's eyes whenever there was a mention of the possibility of him moving inside to defensive tackle and off the end.

"It was more of like a laughter. Like, 'oh Hoover, you can come over here,' '' Hoover recalled. "Obviously, he wasn't that pushy with it but I could tell (he wanted me inside) because he was kind of hinting at it.''

That move was confirmed, when Hoover walked onto the field for his first spring practice after sitting out most of last season with a fractured rib.

The 6-foot-7, now nearly 300-pound Hoover is going to be getting a few more scratches and gouges on his helmet this season as he butts heads on the inside of Michigan State's defense. But he said the added physicality is something he won't have a hard time adjusting to.

"You've just got to take it and that's a mental thing,'' Hoover said of the expected increased contact. ''Physical-wise, I can obviously take it. I have a big frame and big body but mentally, you just have to bear up and take it.''

Of course, some may ask why now, especially after the fifth-year senior put together some pretty good stats on the outside.

Hoover will enter his final season in East Lansing with 49 tackles, four for loss, three sacks and three pass breakups

But with the early departure of Jerel Worthy, the Spartans are left with a lack of experienced depth on the inside. So his move should help MSU in an area of need.

"We talked about it a little bit last year and when everyone came back we started talking about it more and I had to tell them 'yeah, I want to try this.' ''

Hoover is getting plenty of help with the move, from coaches, to present teammates, and even ex-teammates like Kevin Pickleman, who Hoover said will serving in a grad assistant role this season.

"It's been great because I've been using Pick as a coach. It's been tough mentally because it's a different aggression going on the inside but I'll be able to pick it up. The biggest thing is shortening up my steps and really being able to play low. At d-tackle, you've got two visions and you have to be way more choppy, way more quick (with your first step) and better with your hands. That's going to be the biggest adjustment that I'm still working on. You have to use that explosiveness in that first punch rather than a quickness.''

With that being said, what does Hoover think about the idea that the move may not work?
"No, there's no way it's not going to work.''

HIGH PRAISE: Mark Dantonio is not known for heaping praise on young players unless he has a good reason.

But when he compared redshirt freshman defensive end Shilique Calhoun to former Spartan standout and All-American Julian Peterson, everyone, including Calhoun - who opened spring football practices No. 2 on the defensive end depth chart behind sophomore Marcus Rush - wondered what Dantonio saw so early in the process of preparing this year's team for the upcoming season.

"I've actually heard that a couple of times. A couple of people told me he said that,'' he said. "Uh, I feel really good that he thinks of me that highly and I hope that I can keep it up so he has me in his heart as that good of a player. I don't know Julian Peterson myself but I've heard that he's a very good player. So I'm going to try and work up to the expectations.''

Of course, it's not like the potential hasn't been on display.

Last season, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound New Jersey native, earned Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week honors three times, the most of any Spartan, and also earned Scout Team Special Teams Player of the Week for the Florida Atlantic game.

Despite the compliment and Calhoun's belief in his abilities, he said he does feel that he has some things to live up to.

"It's a little pressure. Coach is always trying to apply the pressure to everyone. So I'm just taking it as another goal that I have to try and reach.''

Calhoun added though that in order to reach that goal, he will have to continue to work on something he had a trouble with early on.

"Just understanding the plays. Trying to understand what the coaches were getting at and how they wanted things done. High school and college is a lot different. Right now, we play as a system, as a unit. There's more unity. I've tried not to question too much because that only gets you into trouble. I've just been trying to put my head down, listen to what (Dantonio) said and get it done because right now, I'm just trying to make my way to the top spot.

FIGHTING HIS WAY BACK: Skyler Burkland said getting used to coming back after a season-ending injury required a mental toughness he never experienced in his rise to a starting tackle position last season.

Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Burkland earned a starting spot on MSU's offensive line, achieving a longtime dream of starting for a major Division I program.

But when he went down with a broken ankle during the first half of MSU's loss to Notre Dame it was more than just a disappointment because it was the first injury that not only ended his season but the first injury that had ever taken him out of a game. Burkland said that realization and the battle he would need to endure the rehab necessary to get required a different frame of reference about football.

"Since the day I broke my ankle, it's been a hassle,'' he said. "It's been a long road, a long time but being out there (on Tuesday) was a relief. I didn't think I'd be back so soon. Right now, it's a dream come true because my biggest fear was never playing football again.''

The 6-foot-7, 315 pound Ohio native, listed No. 2 on the spring depth chart at left tackle behind Dan France, has a new motivation for this season, especially after missing last season's victory at Ohio State. A stadium he never played in during his prep career.

"I expect a lot more than I did last year. I feel like last year, going in as a starter after busting my butt to get out there and play as a freshman, that there's a lot more things I need to work on now. Especially since I was out for so long and there are people in front of me. When I was out everyone was getting all those reps, so I'm just hoping to get back where I was and now that I'm on the left side, there's a lot more work to be done.''

Burkland said the toughest lesson he may have learned was understanding what it really means to be able to play and perform at this level on a consistent basis.

"You always think your invincible. Like I can do anything I want, I can't get hurt but when it actually happens, it startles you and you realize, you're just like everybody else and it's going to be a long road to get better. And it was. So now, I'm just trying to do everything I can to make sure I take advantage of every opportunity I have.''

MOVIN' ON UP: Connor Cook didn't have much to worry about last season.

All the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Ohio native had to do during his redshirt season last year was run the opponent's offensive sets.

That all changed as soon as former Spartan Kirk Cousins walked off the field in an MSU uniform for the last time after the team's Outback Bowl victory over Georgia.
Cook immediately became the No. 2 quarterback.

"Last year, Kirk was the guy and my main goal was to be the best scout team quarterback,'' Cook said. "This year, the spot's open and I'm just trying to take advantage of actually getting to learn our offense as opposed to last year, where it was just all scout team the whole year, trying to mimic other team's offenses.

"Now, I'm No. 2 as of right now, so I'm working with our offense and actually running our plays. Now, I have to know what we're doing.''

That's a big jump that required Cook to make a drastic change in his offseason routine.

"The whole offseason, I just watched film. That's what you've got to do. You come out here and throw to your guys in their routes out here. But to me, to know our offense and to know what we're doing, the main thing you have to do is go in and watch film.

"I'd go in Sunday nights or if I'd have a class and then a tutor, and I would go in between my class and tutor and watch film. It's all mental after that. After you go in and watch film, you've got to define what you watched on film and (carry that through) on the field.''

Cook said depending on his schedule, he was watching film three days a week.

"Wednesday's were my busiest days (classwise) but any free time I had, I'd be in there watching film.''

And while he is No. 2 right now, Cook is not going into his upgraded situation just being satisfied with his natural ascension to backup role.

"I'm No. 2 right but that's everyone's dream - to be the guy. They want to be the starter but I'm just taking it day-by-day. Taking the reps and going out there working my hardest and focusing on what I need to be doing. Then, I think everything will take care of itself. But everyone wants to be 'that guy,' and that's my main goal.

"I don't really feel like there's much pressure. I just want to go out there, do my job, do what I've got to do and try and make my teammates better.''

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