Last season wasn’t a banner year for Michigan State. Chris Frey is well aware of that.
Frey, a senior linebacker, was one of a few returning starters for a team that went 3-9 as the Spartans fell off a precipitous cliff only one year removed from a College Football Playoff appearance.
At Big Ten Media Days in July, Frey made it clear that he wants to put that all behind him. He wants to leave East Lansing as he arrived — staring at a championship banner.
“We want to be able to put a Big Ten championship banner on the wall,” Frey said in July. “We want to take the last Big Ten championship banner off the wall and spray paint on it. … We want to be a playoff contender. We want to win the East. And that’s the legacy we want to leave behind as a senior class.”
The Daily spoke with Frey at Big Ten Media Days in July to discuss his team’s turnaround, the development of younger players and whether there were any structural changes made to Michigan State’s defense.
Q: Do you guys think you’re closer to turning this around than saying, ‘Oh, we’re 3-9, we have a way to go.’ Do you think you’re closer than people think from the outside?
CF: Like you said, going into the season, we’re a 3-9 team. It doesn’t matter. We’re here to put that behind us. But last year we were in a lot of close games and we failed to contend in the fourth quarter, and I think that’s where a lot of our downfall came, not being able to finish games. I honestly don’t know the stats of how close we were and certain things last year and I couldn’t tell you, but I do think we have a really good chance at turning this around. Not even a chance — I think we have a really good opportunity to turn this around. We have a lot of great guys on this team, guys that know what it takes and are going to give everything that they have.
TMD: You mentioned before the sophomores who had game experience last year. What about the freshmen and sophomores who haven’t played in games — how do you bring them along on that fast track?
CF: It comes down to reps in practice, honestly. During camp, they’ve got to step up if they want to play. They’ve got to step up and make plays in practice. Getting to know the guy that’s next to you, learning a lot from him, will help those guys be able to become better players and learn more on the field.
TMD: Without a bowl game last year, did that place a heightened emphasis on spring practices this past year?
CF: We moved spring practice up two or three weeks this year. We finished last year at Penn State on a Saturday and started workouts on Monday. So it was way, way fast-tracked and we were able to put the past behind us right there and start working for this year. We’ve been working for this year for eight, nine months now, and we’re ready to go. We’re just ready to put the pads on and start hitting.
TMD: Is there any added pressure on the linebacking corps to be the lynchpin of the defense considering the inexperience of the line and secondary?
CF: I don’t think there’s any pressure. I just think every year that’s something that we have to deal with. I think every single year the linebackers are the anchor of our defense, the guys that have the most playing time, the most reps and most starts, so I don’t think it’s an added pressure. I just think it’s something we’ve gotten used to over the years.
TMD: Last year, you guys finished last in the Big Ten in sacks. Is there more emphasis this year on blitzing linebackers?
CF: Definitely. Not just blitzing linebackers, but more of an emphasis on pass rush and drills to better ourselves at that.
TMD: (Michigan State Coach Mark) Dantonio talked a fair amount last year about RPO (Run/Pass option) and how that gave you trouble at times as a defense. Has that been an emphasis this offseason, any structural changes, anything like that to try to defend those?
CF: I don’t think it’s a structural change. I just think it’s trying to figure out the best way to defend it. We’ve changed a few things, but no matter what defense you play, it’s going to be hard to guard the RPO. You always want to play the run first, you can’t give up the run, so the second you see that run, you’re going after it, and when they realize you’re biting on the run, they’re passing the ball. It doesn’t matter which defense you’re playing in. You’ve just got to recognize the flow and trying to get a feel of if there’s a giveaway to whether they’re going to RPO or not.
TMD: Is that the toughest scheme for a young defense to play against?
CF: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially our STAR, our outside backers, because of trying to read the tackle and the guard and the running back and the quarterback, you can’t tell if they’re pass-setting or if they’re handing the ball off because the running back’s doing play action. You can’t really tell. So it’s really hard on our outside backers to make our read and then try to decide on what we think it is.