A position-by-position look at the 2013 Spartans. Since the quarterbacks are battling and it's going to draw the most ire, I'm working backward. First up: the defensive line.
While MSU's defense has been among the nation's best for the past two years, there was major dropoff in negative plays (3.21 sacks/game in 2011 to 1.54 in 2012 and 7.57 TFL/game to 6.23). The pass defense and rush defense numbers were great, but the loss of Jerel Worthy was noticable.
Although MSU is a heavy blitzing team, they didn't get into the backfield at the snap nearly as frequently without Worthy. Even if the line takes on blocks better, it frees up linebackers for more negative plays. What turned MSU's first three defenses under Narduzzi from being a trainwreck to the next three being good was line play.
Will Gholston was criticized, but he still led the team with 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, so that needs to be replaced as well. Against so many dual-threat quarterbacks, MSU ends are often asked to contain more than straight rush. Heck has looked at the chances of MSU's defense remaining elite this year. I think they'll be great again, but the defensive line will be the difference between great and elite. The good news for the future is that this year's line is young.
Here's a look at the likely contributors on the line.
Marcus Rush (JR): It feels like Rush has been around forever, but he's only going to be a redshirt junior this year. He drew rave reviews during his redshirt year and was rewarded with a starting spot as a freshmen, and he's been in that position since. Rush is a bit undersized for an end (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), but he's very athletic. He posted 7.5 TFLs, two sacks, five pass breakups and five QB hurries last season. MSU flips its ends depending on the hashmark on the field, so Rush isn't always in the best spot to pick up sacks. He's a solid All-Big Ten player and should have another good year if MSU gets a pass rush from the other end.
(Video of him beating Taylor Lewan on a clean spin for a sack in 2011 would go here if YouTube stopped taking stuff down. Lame.)
Shilique Calhoun (SO): The New Jersey product has been hyped up by Pat Narduzzi for quite some time, and it didn't take long for him to lock down the starting spot in place of Gholston. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, he's the big, quick pass-rushing end MSU loves. Calhoun posted one sack, 2.5 TFLs and five QBHs in limited time. When he got increased playing time in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, he posted two TFLs and the sack against TCU, which MSU hopes is a sign of things to come
Denzel Drone (SR): Another guy who has been around a long time, but he's never locked down a starting spot. Drone was a backup defensive end, then briefly moved to tight end before returning to the line. Drone's greatest value came while playing in MSU's three-down front in 3rd-and-long situation, seemingly always putting solid pressure. He won't be a starter this year, but he should again have solid contributions. It's the last year we can make the timely drone pun
Joel Heath (SO): Another big guy getting hyped by Narduzzi, who has compared Heath to Gholston and Julian Peterson. That praise may be a bit much, but, at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds with speed, he's got everything Narduzzi wants in an end. There's a lot of depth on the line, so it will be interesting if Heath can earn a No. 2 spot and find some playing time in the rotation.
Jamal Lyles (RS FR): Lyles redshirted last season, but he's listed as the No. 2 end behind Calhoun on the depth chart, so the coaches are clearly high on him. He was a four-star linebacker out of high school, but moved to end in the spring, compiling three tackles (one sack) in the spring game. He's got a lot of physical ability, and that's about all of us on the outside know right now.
Demetrius Cooper (FR): True freshman from Chicago whom I imagine redshirts. He's a tall, but thin, end who missed most of his junior season with an injury.
Tyler Hoover (SR): Talk about being around forever, this is year No. 6 for Hoover, who has dealt with injury problems in recent years. Despite being 6-foot-7, he was moved inside from the end a few years ago. He started the final three games of the season and is listed as the starter on the depth chart.
Lawrence Thomas (SO): It's been an interesting career thus far for MSU's second-ever five-star recruit. He was injured early and redshirted in 2011. With a deep line last season, MSU decided to move him to fullback, and he did a pretty good job with seven catches for 78 yards. While some looked at the temporary move as him being a bust, the reasoning was actually opposite. The coaches feel he's such a good athlete that he had to be on the field in some form. There were too many talented veterans ahead of him last year, so they he moved to fullback. He's back on the defensive line now, but he's been dealing with an undisclosed injury. Though he just got back on the field, it's unclear what level he's at.
Micajah Reynolds (SR): When he's not saving gunshot victims, Reynolds has been bouncing back and forth between offensive and defensive line, but he's made a push to be the starter at nose tackle in 2013. He started the first six games of last season, but was passed a bit. He's reportedly having a good camp.
James Kittredge (JR): Another New Jersey product and former Vanderbilt transfer, Kittredge seemed to come on late in the year. However, he had hernia surgery in June and his weight is down. He needs to get that back up to get back to level of play he was at last season.
Mark Scarpinato (SO): This guy could be the surprise of the group. At 6-foot-3, 286 pounds, he's a bit light for a nose tackle and has drawn comparisons to Kevin Pickelman. Narduzzi said he's right there with Reynolds for the starting spot.
Damon Knox (SO): Played in two games last season, but is reportedly pushing his way into the top four rotation.
Brandon Clemons (SO): The highly-ranked recruit was redshirted n 2011 and missed most of last season with a foot injury.
Next up: Linebackers