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Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch and Detroit Free Press / LSJ MSU beat writer Chris Solari break down the Spartans’ spring game Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Graham Couch / Lansing State Journal

Spartans coach doesn’t say much, but his work is cut out for him to clean up after 3-9 season followed by controversies

EAST LANSING – Oh, they tried to make it look normal.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio stood on the field behind the offense, just like normal, as the Spartans held their spring game Saturday afternoon.

But nothing about this was normal.

This was football straight from the Twilight Zone.

An absolutely meaningless game with a surreal undertone.

MSU put out a roster with 86 players, but it felt like that roster was written in disappearing ink.

Fifteen players were on the roster but not in uniform.

Ten players were on the sideline in sweatsuits.

Three players and a staff member missed the game because they have been suspended for circumstances involving an alleged sexual assault.

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Several other players were nowhere to be seen.

And one player was in uniform but didn’t play.

Which players were suspended for the sexual assault case? Who is suspended for other reasons? Who is injured? Dantonio wouldn’t say.

“We don’t talk about injuries,” Dantonio said, “and obviously we aren’t talking about any other suspensions.”

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Then, a short time later, he started talking about an injury. Because he was pressed. Because a reporter asked a player on the field why he wasn’t playing. So Dantonio did take the mystery off one player when he acknowledge that running back LJ Scott, was out because of injury.

“He had surgery at the end of the season,” Dantonio said. “So he’s out for the spring.”

Lucky for Scott. At least there won’t be a cloud over him.

But for the rest?

Dantonio has left them in the lurch.

“I’m not going to talk about the issues at hand,” Dantonio said. “But when things happen negatively for a group of people, they normally bind together and they go forward. And that’s what our football team has done.”

After last season’s disappointing 3-9 season, Dantonio should have spent this spring pouring all of his energy and focus into reviving this team.

But instead, he has had to deal with controversy after controversy.

A linebacker left the program for making “an insensitive and totally regrettable comment.”

A defensive end, who was expected to sign with MSU, was charged with armed burglary and theft of a firearm. The scholarship offer was pulled.

There is the whole sexual assault case.

Are all of these situations linked? No.

But the accumulation is noteworthy and troubling.

And now, it all falls on Dantonio to fix it.

I believe he’s a fine man, but this situation ultimately falls on him.

“You gotta have great leadership,” Dantonio said. “I think a player-led team is always going to be better than a coach’s led team. I do believe that. Because at the end of the day, they have to be able to stand on the field by themselves. At the end of the day, they stand off the field and they have to handle themselves accordingly.”

What can you make of the game itself?

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Mark Dantonio addresses Michigan State’s spring football workouts after the scrimmage at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Video by Chris Solari, DFP.

A few things did stand out.

Rising sophomore Trishton Jackson, a wide receiver from West Bloomfield, had a fantastic performance, catching eight passes for 168 yards.

“He’s a great football player,” Dantonio said.  “He can really run. He has size and great hands.”

Jackson was a multiple-sport start in high school. A fantastic dual-threat quarterback. And a smooth, athletic basketball player. But he played wide receiver only a few times in high school and even less on defense. So he didn’t do a lot of hitting.

“He’s gotta get tougher,” Dantonio said. “You can print that. That’s what I’m always telling him, ‘You gotta get tougher.’ But he has a very unique skill set.”

After the game, the Spartans did not make any players available for interviews. This program that is known for amazing access closed up ranks.

“We are going to recollect ourselves and go again,” Dantonio said.

So it’s all on Dantonio now.

To right this ship.

To make changes, find the fixes and change course.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.