There is no position with more depth on MSU's roster than linebacker. Back in 2009, when the defense couldn't stop anything, Pat Narduzzi's desire to stick with the base 4-3 team was getting them shredded, and people were calling for a coaching change.
But once the players Narduzzi and Mark Dantonio recruited got in and grew up, the defense took off, and a big reason was the linebackers, specifically Eric Gordon and Greg Jones. Now, that linebacking talent is even better, and Narduzzi's 4-3 blitzing schemes are hard to move against.
The only notable loss in this unit was Chris Norman, who had basically been unseated by Taiwan Jones by the end of the season, so it's debate whether or not MSU has three returning starters. You'll notice a lot of seniors here, so it will be important the crop behind them get some experience this year. There are five Joneses on the roster, btw.
Here's a look at likely contributors this fall:
Max Bullough (SR): The latest great player in the Bullough line. Going into his third year as a starter, Max has been named a preseason All-American by some outlets. When he replaced Greg Jones in the middle, there were questions, but Bullough was groomed for this. Bullough posted 111 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss en route to first-team All-Big Ten honors last year. The unquestioned leader of the defense, he is expected to have another big year and get drafted into the NFL.
Denicos Allen (SR): Most were first introduced to Denicos Allen when he blocked a punt against Purdue in 2010. In 2011, the undersized Allen made his mark on defense, racking up 11 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, earning All-Big Ten honors as a speedy SAM linebacker off the edge. There was a dropoff in 2012 (three sacks, 10 tackles for loss) as offenses began to gameplan for him. He'll look to get back to to 2011 form, but remains one of the best rushing linebackers in the Big Ten.
Taiwan Jones (JR): The only scholarship true freshman to play in 2011, Jones took over as STAR linebacker, which drops into pass coverage more than the SAM. Jones has shown a great ability to diagnose plays. He was listed as a co-starter with Jarius Jones at the beginning of camp, but he's getting most of the first-team reps, and it may have been more about motivation. Jones has an incredible mix of size (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and speed and he could have a professional future.
Kyler Elsworth (SR): This guy just makes plays. Period. Every time he's out there (usually on 3rd-and-long), he's making a big play. He had a big third-down stop and blocked a punt against Wisconsin in 2011. Last season, he had 2.5 sacks and he will be a backup to Bullough. You're going to hear the former high school All-American wrestler's name a lot in big situations.
Jarius Jones (SR): A converted safety who couldn't get on the field consistently, it was surprising to see Jones listed as a co-starter at STAR on the preseason depth chart. But MSU defensive coaches visited with LSU in the offseason and this Jones could see time in a hybrid role.
Ed Davis (SO): A touted recruit out of Detroit, we'd heard some good things from Narduzzi, but he made a statement with four sacks in the most recent scrimmage. He'll back up Allen, and it looks like he may have similar pass-rush skills.
Darien Harris (SO): Another guy who has drawn good review in practice, but he hasn't been able to get much playing time because of so much depth. Appeared in 13 games on special teams last season. Don't be surprised to see Harris make a big jump as an outside backer in 2014.
Jon Reschke: (FR): A true freshman, Reschke is expected to back up and learn from Max Bullough like Bullough did with Greg Jones in 2010. Reschke appears to be the heir-apparent to the middle. He also played defense end in high school, so he turns the edge well. Here is his Welcome Aboard page.
Shane Jones (FR): Another true freshman, Jones was a highly-touted recruit, choosing MSU over offers from Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan, Texas A&M and others. Jones has a great mix of speed and size, and he'll probably get some playing time on the outside and on special teams. Here is his Welcome Aboard page.