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Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio optimistic at start of camp

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EAST LANSING, Michigan — Mark Dantonio likes what he sees now and loves where his ninth Michigan State football team could finish.

After 24 wins in the past two seasons, including comeback victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls, Dantonio knows that the Spartans can "Reach Higher," this year's mantra, and wind up better than third and fifth in the country.

"We're starting from square one again," Dantonio said Saturday. "It's a new season, a new time, but a lot of big dreams and expectations come with it. ... We can't be entitled with anything we do."

That attitude was reflected in the focus of Michigan State's veterans and the enthusiasm of the newcomers. From fifth-year senior All-America candidates like center Jack Allen, defensive end Shilique Calhoun and quarterback Connor Cook to newcomers like running back L.J. Scott and defensive back Khari Willis, Dantonio had reason to smile.

"Great retention by our older players, outstanding," Dantonio said. "And our new players are figuring their way through it. It's their first day, so you're just trying to get from point A to point B. But there's talent in our freshman class. I don't think there is any doubt about that."

Darian Hicks, a co-starter at cornerback, was diagnosed with mononucleosis Friday and will be sidelined for several weeks. Otherwise, everyone expected to be in training camp is there and healthy, including wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and offensive tackle Kodi Kieler, projected starters back from injuries.

"Everyone passed the (conditioning) test," Dantonio said. "We had to run it a couple of times, but everyone passed it by their second time. Sometimes we have guys run for weeks."

With the opener on Friday, Sept. 4, at Western Michigan and with a marquee matchup against Oregon eight nights later in Spartan Stadium, a consensus top-10 team has plenty of reasons to pay attention each day, including the presence of impressive depth.

"I think every position is always up for grabs, because you don't know what the future holds," Dantonio said. "People might get hurt and get banged up, so everybody has to play to their best. You're got to rise above what you've been."

Michigan State lost leads in 2014 in a 46-27 setback at Oregon and a 49-37 loss to Ohio State, the finalists in the first College Football Playoff. Otherwise, the Spartans were outstanding in almost every game, setting school records for points (559), scoring average (43.0), touchdowns (70), total offense (6,510), rushing touchdowns (44), rushing yards (3,057) and first downs (321).

But Dantonio's program has long been built on defense, as seen in its eight straight bowl appearances and four straight post-season victories, all as underdogs. Last season was no exception for the only program to rank among the eight best in the nation in total defense in each of the past four years. Led by one of the country's deepest and most talented defensive lines, Michigan State should be stingy again.

One of the big concerns has been finding a new punter, with redshirt-freshman Jake Hartbarger projected to become just the third player to handle those duties in Dantonio's tenure, following four-year fixtures Aaron Bates and Mike Sadler.

"It has been good," Dantonio said. "And I'll tell you, Jake punted very well today. His times were excellent, and he had booming punts."

When the punting game is one of the biggest questions, a team with 17 returning starters has a lot of reasons to be confident. Dantonio knows it will take more than that, however.

"Today is a starting point," Dantonio said. "We'll have three scrimmages, and we'll go live a lot. The freshmen are just figuring it out. And so are we."

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