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The 2011 Michigan State Spartan Defense and Special Teams -- Five Questions

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The bookend to yesterday's piece, these five questions will be more opinion based than a couple of yesterday's questions.  Dissent is not only accepted, it is encouraged.

5.  Does it matter who the long snappers and holder are?

Short answer?  Yes.  Long answer -- in what frame of reference?  I think we all know how good Aaron Bates was as the field goal holder last season.  Likewise with Alex Shackleton's long snapping abilities.  This year fith-year senior wide receiver Brad Sonntag will be the holder, and the long snapper will be either freshman Matt Giampapa or redshirt sophomore Steve Moore.  Both are similar in size (6'2", 222 for Giampapa, 6'3", 223 for Moore). 

I assume that the long snapping and holding will be slightly bumpier than last year, if only because the special teams work last year was so good.  I'm just unsure what information can be gleaned by knowing that Giampapa and Moore are close in terms of ability, or that Sonntag's the holder.  I know as fans we can be eager to divine any piece of information possible from the depth chart...but there's nothing to see here until we see them in the game.  That Michigan State has a new holder and long snappers are news, but it doesn't matter who it is to me until I see them live.

4.  So...how 'bout that Mike Sadler, eh?  How well can he punt?

If he can do as little as hit his average from his senior year of high school two years ago, he'll be decent.  Sadler averaged 39.9 yards a punt in 2009, and that average would have put him around 75th in the FBS last season.  I don't think it's too much extrapolation to assume he'll add three yards to that average to put him at 42.9 yards a punt.  That average would have put him at 33rd in the FBS.

How far a punt goes is only one side of the coin though; how high it goes is the other.  While Aaron Bates had good distance on his punts his freshman and sophomore years, those balls were nearly line drives at times which allowed much of that yardage gained to be negated by the return.  Mark Dantonio told Joe Rexrode a few weeks ago that Sadler has been getting about five seconds of hang time on his punts, and the only piece of information I could find to determine if five seconds was just good or extremely good is this kicking camp website which states that 4.5 seconds of hang time or better in college is optimal.

If Sadler can get a little over 40 yards a punt plus get close to five seconds of hang time per punt, the Spartans will be fine, trick plays not withstanding.

3.  I know Max Bullough will do a good enough job at middle linebacker.  How about the ones on the outside?

The depth chart for Youngstown State has only one linebacker without the dreaded "OR" next to his name, Max Bullough.  Chris Norman is at the STAR, Steve Gardiner is at the SAM, and Denicos Allen is at both positions.  IF you're wondering what the difference is, I believe the Sam is more focused on stopping the run while the STAR is the linebacker that drops into pass coverage if need be.  I could also be very, very wrong on these assumptions, please correct me lest I make us all look like idiots.

ANYWAY, I assume Norman will eventually drop the "OR" next to his name, since all 11 starts among the linebackers belong to him.  This leaves Gardiner and Allen to vie for the SAM spot, and if I had to guess, I'd say Allen wins the SAM spot.  As for how they'll do?  I think Norman will do a fine job, but Allen has a big hole to fill where Eric Gordon left.  The good news is that Allen definitely has the speed (4.56 40, for what it's worth) to function in pass coverage.  If Allen can prevent a disaster like the '09 Penn State game, aka Wheel Route-o-rama, the Spartans will be sound.

2.  How much improvement can we expect out of the defensive line?

The defensive line returns 47 starts, more than any other unit on the defense.  A caveat -- of those 47 starts, a little more than half (24 to be exact) belong to defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.  Worthy has been dubbed a top ten draft pick in the NFL by way too many sites to list here, and this year he'll have the help he needs to give him a proper showcase.  The other tackle, Anthony Rashad White, won the position in camp from Kevin Pickelman who has eight career starts, so logic dictates that White is an upgrade over Pickelman. 

The defensive ends have the potential to cause night tremors in opposing quarterbacks.  The only bit I'm confused by is how they're listed in the depth chart.  The two biggest ends, William Gholston and Tyler Hoover, are both listed as co-starters in one spot, while Denzel Drone and Marcus Rush are listed as co-starters in the other.  My best guess is that the defensive coaches want someone a little smaller and more explosive to act as a pass rusher, thus the discrepancy. 

Let me return to the question -- Jerel Worthy should see a lot more single teams this season thanks to the emergence of Gholston and company.  He should improve on his eight tackles for a loss and four sacks, and so should the defensive line into one of the top three in the Big Ten.

1.  One side of the secondary will be solid with Johnny Adams and Trenton Robinson.  Please tell me opponents won't be able to pass at will on the other side.

I'd like to?  Johnny Adams and Trenton Robinson will provide solid coverage at one of the corners and free safety.  Isaiah Lewis is the starter at strong safety over Kurtis Drummond and R.J. (nee Roger) Williamson...for now.  Once Jairus Jones returns from an ACL injury he could very well take the starting spot from Lewis.

Darqueze Dennard started in place of Chris L. Rucker for two games when he was suspended, and his most memorable play for me is the opposite of Lewis's: his strip of Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins caused a turnover, and helped preserve a 26-6 MSU win over Illinois.  I don't think he's going to be as good as Rucker was, as Rucker had a rare blend of size and athleticism at corner.  He'll be better than the repurposed running backs MSU was running out during the John L. Smith era (no disrespect to Jeremy Langford).

I'm most curious to see how Tony Lippett does as the backup to Johnny Adams.  Lippett had some great play in the spring game with one major brain fart.  He let Keshawn Martin slip by him for a 30+ yard touchdown, which to be fair could've happened to half the starting corners in the Big Ten.  I don't think he'll take Dennard's starting spot, but he'll be one to watch.

I don't think the secondary will be as good as it was last year, as the inexperience worries me.  They'll be tried by fire, and by November, I believe they'll be able to come close to the quality of last year's secondary.