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Green and White Game Preview: Defense

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Can MSU get back to being the Spartan Dawgs of old or has the No Fly Zone flown the coop for good?

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Last time, we previewed the offense, which was a disaster a season ago. This may shock you, but the defense was pretty much just as bad.

The Spartans were routinely carved up — including surrendering a Spartan Stadium-worst 54 points to Northwestern — were unable to create turnovers (13 total; MSU’s -5 turnover margin tied for 98th nationally) and inept at getting to the quarterback (11 sacks; 124th nationally).

The good news is that the path to improvement is pretty obvious. Even getting back to being mediocre in a few areas like rushing the passer and stopping the run should make a tremendous difference. The (maybe?) bad news is that a lot of familiar faces are gone.

Will it be change for the better or more of the same? Let’s check it out.

(Again, no speculating as to who is or is not involved in the ongoing investigation.)


Florida State v Louisville Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

Defensive End

Favorites: Demetrius Cooper (RS Sr), Robert Bowers (RS Jr)

Competition: Justice Alexander (RS Soph), Auston Robertson (Soph), Josh King (Soph), Mufi Hunt (RS Fr)

Departures: Evan Jones, Gabe Sherrod

The Spartans can improve at every level of the defense but getting to the quarterback more often is an absolute must.

MSU’s defensive line was embarrassingly ineffective at rushing the passer last year, finishing with only 11 sacks, a total better than only Texas St and East Carolina among D-1 teams. For a major conference program, let alone one that has made its name on defense, that is simply unacceptable.

Co-Defensive Coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressell will take a pass rush from anywhere they can get it, but defensive end is generally a good place to start.

The only two departures from this group, Evan Jones and Gabe Sherrod, are low impact, but they do leave the door open for a few guys who Spartan fans have waited a long time for in Demetrius Cooper and Robert Bowers. Cooper and Bowers have been “the next guy up” for a few years and will have the chance to make a name for themselves this season. They will be pushed, however.

Auston Robertson and Josh King, especially, will figure heavily into the rotational mix. Both were high four-star recruits that played as true freshmen a year ago and clearly improved as the season went along. It would not be a surprise to see one of them end up a starter before too long.

Justice Alexander and Mufi Hunt are sleepers, but have excellent size and length. MSU loves to rotate along the line, so both figure to get snaps. It’s also possible true freshman LaShawn Paulino-Bell and Jacub Panasiuk see time, as well, but they won’t be on campus until the fall.

WHAT TO WATCH: Who starts and who flashes

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Defensive Tackle

Favorites: Raequan Williams (RS Soph), Mike Panasiuk (Soph)

Competition: Gerald Owens (RS Jr), Cassius Peat (RS Soph), Kyonta Stallworth (RS Soph), Naquan Jones (RS FR)

Departures: Malik McDowell (NFL Draft), Kevin Williams

Let’s start with the obvious — losing Malik McDowell sucks.

McDowell was, at times, a one man wrecking crew and on talent alone would probably be a Top 10 pick in this year’s NFL Draft. However, injuries held him back a bit and rumor has it he wasn’t the best locker room influence. You hate to lose such an immense talent, but all things considered this is something MSU can weather.

The reason for such seemingly misplaced optimism is the deep and talented group making its way to the field. A couple players — Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk — have already been indoctrinated to Big Ten Football, playing last year as a redshirt and true freshman, respectively. Both showed major potential not only in stuffing the run but supplying some pass rush up the middle, as well. They figure to be the starters, but have a lot of pressure because there is some real talent behind them.

Two players in particular — Naquan Jones and Cassius Peat — will almost definitely be pushing for immediate playing time. Jones, a former four-star recruit, was thought by some to be the best of his loaded class and, had it not been for a nagging injury, would have almost certainly had a role last year.

Peat, however, is a much different story. After initially committing to MSU as part of the 2015 class, the brother of former first rounder Andrus Peat, transferred back to a community college in his home state of Arizona a year ago in order to deal with some family issues. Dantonio never let him out of the Spartan family, though, and after a year of getting his affairs in order, he has re-committed to MSU and figures into the DT rotation right away. Had he been around in 2016, he almost certainly would’ve had a role to play. Instead he gets to make up for it in 2017 and beyond.

Owens and Stallworth are more wild cards than anything else. Owens is a former running back who has yet to carve out a role, while Stallworth had flipped between offense and defense in the past and could be the new Brandon Clemens.

WHAT TO WATCH: Are the youngsters big enough and can anyone push the pocket?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker

Favorites: Chris Frey (Sr), Shane Jones (Sr), Andrew Dowell (Jr)

Competition: Byron Bullough (RS Jr), Tyriq Thompson (RS Soph), Joe Bachie (Soph), Brandon Randle (RS Fr)

Departures: Riley Bullough, Ed Davis, Jon Reschke (Transfer)

The linebackers were hit as hard as any group by departures, losing three former impact players in Riley Bullough, Ed Davis and Jon Reschke. Bullough and Davis graduated, but losing Reschke under some very unpleasant circumstances has to sting.

Reschke was playing the best football of his career before an injury shut him down for the better part of last season, but he still figured to be an impact player upon returning to health. However, his completely unacceptable comments to a teammate drove a wedge even further into an already divided locker room and his relationship with the team proved beyond reconciliation. Dantonio said Tuesday that this offseason was a chance to “reset” the program. Getting rid of guys like Reschke is a necessary step towards doing just that.

Now, back to the field. While the Spartans did lose that trio of playmakers, none of them were exactly key cogs a year ago. Reschke had the aforementioned injury, Bullough was in and out of the lineup and later admitted to playing with a broken shoulderblade and Davis was scraping off an entire year’s worth of rust all season long. The good spin is that MSU doesn’t have to replace nearly as much as you’d expect at first blush, but the bad spin is that the linebacker play was not very good last year and a lot of those snaps are returning.

Chris Frey is back for his 400th season in East Lansing and figures to be the vocal leader of the group. The long-haired wildman is known for his hustle but has to start taking better angles to the ball. He was routinely caught out of position a year ago, and has to improve in that regard.

Andrew Dowell has always been a plus athlete (remember this?) and is a natural at the Star position. However, he also needs a little better football awareness. He can cover as well as any backer but needs to get his nose dirty a little more often.

The final starting spot, likely the MIKE unless Frey slides inside, is up for grabs. Senior Shane Jones has had his moments in the past but can be a bit slow and yet another Bullough (Byron) showed real potential a year ago. For now, the edge goes to Jones, but that battle is very far from over.

The depth here is exciting, as well. Tyriq Thompson was a four-star recruit once upon a time, but is similar to Jones in his foot speed and may even moonlight at DE. The other two — Joe Bachie and Brandon Randle — are young but have very high ceilings. Bachie was lowly-recruited but impressed coaches so much a year ago that they took off his redshirt and Randle is supposedly an extremely good athlete. Finally, there’s incoming freshman Antjuan Simmons, one of MSU’s biggest gets in last year’s class. He won’t be in until the fall, may play running back and could redshirt, but the coaches are never afraid to play young guys and if he’s up to it, he might just jump a few of the aforementioned.

WHAT TO WATCH: Which MIKE takes the lead and do Bachie or Randle look ready?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback

Favorites: Vayante Copeland (RS Jr), Justin Layne (Soph)

Competition: Tyson Smith (Jr), Josh Butler (RS Soph), Kaleel Gaines (RS Soph), David Dowell (RS Soph), Josiah Scott (Fr)

Departures: Darian Hicks

The cornerbacks took a lot of heat last year and, for the most part, deservedly so. More often than not they were chasing down opposing wideouts instead of staying in front of them but, in fairness, the anemic pass rush put them at a major disadvantage from the get-go. An improved defensive line would certainly help, but the corners need to step their game up regardless.

The starters appear to be solid. Vayante Copeland has been the “next member of the No Fly Zone” for the last two years but has been mostly injured or struggled. The talent is there and as a junior, he will counted on to hold down a starting spot.

The other starter, Justin Layne, came to MSU as a four-star wideout but due to desperate times was moved over to corner midway through his true freshman year. He ended up starting the rest of the way and while he did have a few “freshman moments” looked like potential stud in the making. An offseason could launch him to stardom.

The rest of the group is muddled. Tyson Smith has started a few games and looked solid, but has lacked consistency. Josh Butler, Kaleel Gaines and David Dowell have all flashed, but none have been able to separate themselves from the pack. Finally, there’s true freshman Josiah Scott who will probably end up redshirting. Again, even a mediocre pass rush will help exponentially, but someone needs to step up or this group will be flown on quite a bit.

WHAT TO WATCH: Layne’s progress and who else pops

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Safety

Favorites: Grayson Miller (Jr), Khari Willis (Jr)

Competition: Matt Morrissey (RS Jr), Jalen Watts-Jackson (RS JR), Demetric Vance (RS Fr), Kenny Lyke (RS Fr)

Departures: Demetrius Cox, Montae Nicholson (NFL Draft)

Safety is the back bone of the Pat Narduzzi “quarters” defense, which makes this is the scariest position on a defense loaded with them. Gone are Demetrius Cox and Montae Nicholson, who made the surprising decision to declare early for the NFL, in their stead are a whole bunch of question marks.

There are positives and negatives to losing Cox and Nicholson. The negatives are you’re losing two multi-year starters, plus athletes and a captain. The positives are that neither of those two starters were very good in coverage, despite their physical ability, and that captain was also arrested for punching a cab driver before what would have been his final game as a Spartan, in his home state no less. Generally, this would be the perfect example of “addition by subtraction” but their replacements aren’t exactly world beaters, either.

Grayson Miller and Khari Willis do not lack for experience. The duo started against Michigan in 2015 as true freshmen and performed pretty well. They both also saw extended run in 2016 when the starters were either injured, ineffective or suspended. They are, by all accounts, leaders and generally know what they’re doing at their position. The rub (there’s always a rub) is they are nowhere near as athletically gifted as their predecessors and, at safety, that can be exploited rather easily by a good offense.

If Miller and Willis don’t answer the bell, it’s hard to tell who will. Matt Morrissey has very little experience and Jalen Watts-Jackson can’t seem to stay healthy (but I think we can all agree he’s done his part). The underclassmen, Demetric Vance and Kenny Lyke, were both highly-touted recruits but neither have seen the field so far.

At the very least, MSU needs a few of these guys to be playable, but in the best case scenario they push the incumbents to new heights or jump them in the process.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can Miller and Willis close the seams and which of the rest stand out?