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MSU 2016 Position Preview: Linebackers

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Would it really be a Spartan defense without a Bullough at the helm?

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan State
Riley Bullough will be called on to run the entire defense again this season
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Follow me on Twitter @acsmith06 . I’ll be the one standing in line for the buffet.


If you’ve watched a Michigan State football game anytime since the 1950’s, chances are a member of the Bullough family was involved in it, in some way, shape, or form. After all, six of them have played — or are playing — for the Spartans and one even stuck around to coach.

It’s fair to say the family is Spartan royalty.

Luckily for fans of the program, the current ruler of the MSU defense — Riley Bullough — comes from this prestigious bloodline.

Already battle-tested, Riley led the team with 106 tackles a year ago, becoming the first Spartan to top 100 stops since — you guessed it — his brother Max, in 2012.

After being outranked by seniors Shilique Calhoun and Darien Harris a year ago, 2016 marks Riley’s chance to lead a defense the way he was seemingly born to do.

Max ran with some incredible players, but even he might be envious of the depth of talent of this year’s linebacking corps. MSU returns six ‘backers who have played meaningful snaps in their careers and has depth — including yet another Bullough — to spare beyond that.

That combination of talent and experienced depth makes for a group capable of leading a stifling defense. Given the questions surrounding the other two defensive units, they couldn’t have come along at a better time.

WHO’S GONE?

Big Ten Championship
Harris played like a Senior on the way to winning the Big Ten a year ago
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Darien Harris (signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bengals)

Two years ago, Harris was part of the group tasked with replacing one of the most productive linebacking tandems in school history — Denicos Allen and Max Bullough.

No pressure, right?

He had his ups and downs as a junior and early on last season, but as his senior year wore on Harris became a tacking machine, finishing second on the team with 90 takedowns.

His coup de grâce came in the Big Ten Championship when he registered nine tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, against Iowa. I hesitate to even mention the Alabama massacre but he did have eight stops and helped MSU hang in that one until halftime.

He is a perfect example of a guy who knew his time as a college athlete was coming to an end and wanted to make the most of it. Considering he left as part of the winningest senior class in school history, I’d say he did just that.

BULLOUGH AND THE BOMB SQUAD

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Michigan State
Riley gets the headlines but Reschke is a major part of the Bomb Squad
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Riley Bullough (R-Sr) Jon Reschke (R-Jr) Andrew Dowell (So)

This is where I start to feel bad for Harris because, as crazy as it sounds, MSU shouldn’t miss him all too much.

Replacing a player who was in on the biggest stop in school history and started all but two games over the past two seasons is normally something a fan base — especially one that can suffer from “sky is falling syndrome” like MSU’s — openly frets about.

But unless you have a soft spot for well spoken interview answers, you won’t miss him this fall. Don’t beat yourself up, that’s not an indictment of Harris as a player; rather it’s indicative of the amount of talent MSU is bringing back.

It starts with yet another Bullough in the middle. This one calls himself Big Daddy and you can see why when he hits the field. Riley is a more athletic, relentless version of his brother and is entering his third year of serious playing time. His experience and bloodlines make him as good an option as there is.

He will be flanked by one highly productive player from a year ago — Jon Reschke — and one who may end up being the best of the entire bunch — Andrew Dowell.

Reschke came to MSU as a MIKE linebacker, but after Ed Davis’ injury shifted over to SAM, where he fit right in, racking up 75 tackles. He’s a load against the run but was impressive in pass coverage as well. With a year of starting experience under his belt, Reschke figures to put up even more impressive numbers this fall.

Dowell has the highest upside of any linebacker on the roster, which is saying something. At 6’1” 218 Dowell has the size and toughness to play in the box and the speed and quickness to cover backs and tight ends from his STAR position. That is what they call “the complete package”. Now he’s only a true sophomore, so there are sure to be some bumps along the way, but when it clicks Dowell has the makings of a star.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Big 10 Championship Game - Ohio State v Michigan State
Ed Davis is a major X-factor
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ed Davis (Sr-6) Shane Jones (R-Jr) Chris Frey (Jr) Byron Bullough (R-So) Tyriq Thompson (R-Fr)

What sets this group apart from past units is the depth, starting with junior Chris Frey. Frey bring a rare energy and plays like his (very long) hair is on fire at all times. His motor helped him got on the field two years ago as a true freshman and, despite increased competition, keep his sizable role last season. It will be interesting to see how much time he splits with Dowell, especially on pass rushing downs. One thing is for sure, when you see him he will be running. Fast.

Shane Jones is another veteran who serves as a great insurance policy. Jones has frequently carried a bit too much weight but seems to have gotten to a solid playing level and will look to build on his most productive year yet.

Byron Bullough (no, really) and Tyriq Thompson will have to scrap and claw for snaps, but both have been praised by coaches to this point in their careers and are only a year away from being part of the rotation. Each will be looked upon to contribute heavily on special teams, as well.

Finally, there’s Ed Davis. Eddy Kane was one of the most productive members of the 2014 defense and was poised to be a force a year ago, before a knee injury in fall camp cost him his season. Luckily, Davis was able to file an appeal with the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility and, even though his waiver has not technically cleared, Mark Dantonio fully expects him to be a part of the playing group.

Some advice to MSU fans: be patient.

Davis needs to not only shake off a year’s worth of rust but also find his spot in a crowded rotation. Once he regains confidence in that knee, the Davis we all know and love could be back, but that might not be until mid-season, if at all.

If everything goes right MSU will add a major weapon to its already full arsenal.

THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE DEFENSE

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan State
Andrew Dowell could be a star
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Dantonio era has produced some great linebackers like Eric Gordon, Greg Jones, Taiwan Jones, Allen and, of course, Max, but this group has a chance to be special.

How Mark Snyder chooses to rotate this incredibly talented group will be interesting. It’s hard to picture Riley standing on the sidelines for more than a few snaps a game but given the depth of talent there could be a lot of situational switching elsewhere, especially against up-tempo offenses like Indiana.

No matter how you slice it, these guys are going to be fun to watch. Really fun.

Entering a season with a lot of question marks about both the line in front of them and the secondary behind them, this unit will have to be the steadying force on defense.

With a Bullough in the middle and a ton of ready-to-roll talent around him, that’s exactly how Spartan fans should want it.