MSU Preseason Football Preview- Defense Edition

What happened last year

What an absolutely delightful surprise last year was. A lot of moving parts had to be replaced from a 'good, but not great' 2010 defense, but in an outcome very few could have expected, every new starter (Allen, Bullough, Lewis, Rush, Gholston, Pickelman, Dennard) basically either matched or exceeded their departure's production.

With the increased team speed (led in part by Allen, a HS safety, now playing OLB; and HS linebacker Gholston who was slid down to DE) to both cover for their own mistakes, and to force mistakes from opponents, the defense was able to change their mindset as well as how other teams approached them. By improving coordination, positioning and tactical know-how (in part through the strong leadership of Robinson and Bullough), a unit that in past years simply flipped the switch between hyper-conservatism (the near constant cover-2/cover-4 soft zones) and hyper-aggression (the cover 0 blitz vs Iowa in '09, and near constant blitzing of Greg Jones) from play to play, or drive to drive, found a way to cull the best of each mindset into a disciplined aggression and intelligence in 2011.

Continue after the jump for the full defensive preview...

The result was an efficient (just 4.3 yards per play, 5th in the nation), but not reckless (only 42 twenty-plus yard plays given up, tied for 21st in the nation) defense, that forced teams to abandon the run (opponents got just 2.3 yards per carry, good for 7th in the country) while still being strong against the pass (opponents averaged 6.2 yards per passing attempt, tied for 12th in the country). Additionally, the defensive was incredibly disruptive (7.57 TFLs per game, good for 10th in the nation, and 3.21 sacks per game, good for 4th), and capable of forcing mistakes from opposing offenses (1.29 interceptions per game, good for 15th in the nation), really lagging behind only in forced fumbles (just .93 per game, tied for 63rd in the country).

When removing opponent's special teams scores from the consideration, the defense gave up just a little over 17 points a game, with a sizable chunk of those points coming in situations where it would be hard to fault them for letting the other team score (turnovers in opposing territory, special team's coverage errors, etc.), as I'll discuss more later. There were many strengths and precious few weaknesses in the MSU defense last year. If we as Spartan fans are lucky enough, we'll see a unit of such abilities again this year.


Three players to watch on defense

I'm operating under the logic that naming say, 'Allen, Lewis, Rush' would be an acceptable, but unfulfilling response to this question.

With that in mind, here are the real other two players on this list besides A.R. White: whoever wins out at Free Safety, and whoever wins out at 3-Tech Defensive Tackle (Worthy's old spot). But, because I can't guess the starters at those positions for the life of me right now, I'm going with a couple other guys I think will see the field throughout the year.

1. Anthony Rashad White

Here's a guy whose starting spot is, to my knowledge, not in doubt. The coaches have been rather confusing on this issue but, last I heard, White was slotted in at Pickelman's nose tackle position, the same spot that White played with great success in the Georgia game. This position requires you to be big (check, at 6'2, 330 he's the heaviest man on the Spartan roster), and strong enough and quick enough to hold the attention of the center and one guard (mostly-check, performance varied on this front last year). In White's position, if he can command that double team play-in and play out, then the other three lineman can all work essentially one-on-one against another lineman, and the LBs are free to roam about behind him and make plays. The nose is a tough, almost entirely thankless job, but one that can have a big impact on the performance of the rest of the defense. You don't have to watch him all game, but once or so every series keep your eye on big #98 and see just how much attention he's commanding in the middle of the line.

2. Shilique Calhoun

Calhoun is a player somewhat without a position on standard downs. He is 6'4, but only 240 pounds, and though he is by all accounts a freakish pass rusher, according to defensive line coach Ted Gill, he isn't yet strong enough in playing against the run. So, a fast, tall, somewhat undersized, pass rush specialist? Sounds like the perfect DE for MSU's 3-3-5 Delta package on 3rd downs. In those sorts of situations, Narduzzi can get him snaps by throwing him on the field on 3rd down passing situations and saying, "go kill the quarterback", much as they did with Will Gholston in 2010. This will hopefully allow Calhoun to make an impact while masking the parts of his game that might not be fully polished yet. Additional snaps spelling Marcus Rush will show whether his run defense chops are sufficient for increased playing time.

3. Lawrence Thomas

If Calhoun is somewhat a player without a position right now, then Thomas is really a player without a position. Thomas committed to MSU out of high school as a 6'4, 235 pound middle linebacker with massive hype. About two years later, after a red-shirt, he is now a 6'4 285 pound, uh... well... I'm sort of interested to find out. He's mentioned in the 3-deeps at defensive end, but it's tough to see him jumping the backups at those positions this year. Where it is extremely easy to see him, is somewhere alongside Calhoun in the 3-3-5 on 3rd downs (he's listed as the second string NT in that formation). With his former experience at linebacker, his impressive pass coverage skills, and his Big Ten ready size, it wouldn't be hard to see him getting occasional snaps at any of the 3 DL or LB positions in this package. When Narduzzi mentions that "he has added a few wrinkles to the defense" I strongly suspect that getting Thomas and his 'Swiss army knife' versatility onto the field for a couple third down snaps a game is one of those wrinkles.

The unit will be successful if...

They do the same things they did last year.

Oh, that's not good enough? Fine.

Ok, they will be more successful if they learn how to be just as sound and disruptive, while clearing up two flaws in their control, and one flaw out of their control:

1. Extreme vertical plays and extreme horizontal plays

When you are aggressive, when you attack offense's north to south, you are by definition committing resources that will not be in the East, West, or North. For this reason, on rare occasions you'd see the MSU defense get blown up on a deep route (Notre Dame, Georgia, Wisconsin) or a horizontal running play (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska) or on a catch and run (Minnesota). I'm not sure how much you can mitigate this without taking away from the disruptiveness of the defensive, no reward without risk and all that, but team's like Alabama have proven it's still possible to hit a higher level. To be just as aggressive, but even stingier and safer. To their credit, I think the team knows this and works on it, it's just a matter of putting the pieces together.

2. Penalties

MSU ended the year 80th in the country in penalty yards per game, at 55.4 per game. With no way to tell which penalties were assessed to offense, defense, and special teams, it's difficult to assign an exact amount of blame to the defense, but they were certainly responsible for their fair share.

An earlier investigation of this issue, showed MSU was a team that racked up lots of little penalties. It's one thing if the success of the MSU defense necessitates the occasional defensive holding, or false start, or face mask, but you have to wonder how much more effective the defense would be if they could cut out most of these yellow flags. Consider: MSU gave up the fewest 1st downs in the conference on the ground, was tied for 6th in the conference through the air, and was dead last in the conference in first downs given up by penalty flag.

3.Not getting screwed on field position

Want to be a little over 2.5 times more likely to score on the MSU defense? All you have to do, and it's real easy, is start your drive with the ball in your own territory. Turnover, special teams play, doesn't matter. You start with the ball on the 50 yard line or closer, and you've got about a 57% chance of scoring a TD or a FG. Not great, but all things considered, pretty good. You start back in your own territory though, and your chances drop to under 23%. Don't start in your own territory.

Your Drive Starts in...

MSU territory

Opponent territory

Scored TD

8

23

Scored FG

4

4

Didn't score

9

119

Drives

21

146

Points

68

173

Points per drive

3.24

1.18

Chance of scoring

57.14%

22.69%

Drives per TD

2.63

6.35

Drives per FG

5.25

36.5

Drives per TD or FG

1.75

5.41

Problems that could arise...

If Johnny Adams or Darqueze Dennard go down. While Adams and Dennard are one of the top corner pairings in the nation, the depth after them is either totally inexperienced or underwhelming in limited playing time. Because much of what MSU is allowed to do with various blitzes starts with its CBs locking down their assignments, the loss of either of them for significant time could be painful.

If neither of the new-ish DTs can't get push up the middle, and allow the linebackers and secondary to get swamped under blockers at the second level, you might see more big plays on the ground.

If safeties and corner backs continue to make a few too many mistakes in handing off players in deep zone coverages, you could see more long touchdowns like in the Georgia game.

If Cruel, Old Testament God decides he's seen quite enough joy out of the MSU fanbase.

What you think will happen

I think anything outside of a top 20 defense would have to be viewed as a major disappointment. You can't return all that MSU has, and be happy with any backslide greater than that. With that noted, this unit was so good last year that a regression to a 'disappointing' top 20, top 15, defense wouldn't be that big of a surprise to me. And I would normally ask fans to temper their expectations a little bit.

But you know what? No. Fuck. That. Noise.

Listen everyone, if you can't believe in this defense, in a defense that returns its entire coaching staff, and 8 starters; in a defense that returns 82% of last year's total tackles, 79% of last year's tackles for loss, 78% of last year's interceptions, and 81% of its sacks, each of those last three categories being things the team was already doing at elite levels last year; if you doubt the potential greatness of that defense, Ladies and Gentlemen, here in the preseason where every team is undefeated and where every team may be great... Then I submit you have never had faith in the greatness of any football unit in your life.

In this dumb sport, which inevitably makes stupid jerks of us all, you receive no surefire bets, but some bets are much surer than others. This is the closest I think MSU has ever been to being able to say in the preseason, "This side of the ball on MSU should be in the top 10, top 5" and to feel this confident about it. You have my permission to believe. Because if not now, then when?

What do I think is gonna happen? I think they're gonna be awesome. And I plan on enjoying it.

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