The Michigan State defense returns a lot of experience from a group that finished seventh in the nation in total defense, and second in the nation in rush defense. The back seven for the Spartan defense should once again be a major strength, and it starts with a linebacker group that is both talented, experienced, and deep.
Key Losses: Chris Frey
Frey was a captain on last year’s team, and started all 13 games for MSU. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss. He also picked up four sacks, forced a fumble, and recovered three more.
Frey was the most experienced starter coming into last season after leading the team in tackles the year before. He started every game of his final two seasons in East Lansing.
Returning Starters: Joe Bachie, Andrew Dowell
Bachie and Dowell were top two on the team in tackles last year, with Bachie reaching the century mark with an even 100 tackles.
Bachie was also second on the team in tackles for loss (8.5), had 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, two forced fumbles and recovered another fumble. It was one of the most well rounded seasons a Spartan linebacker has had under Mark Dantonio, and was the reason he was voted as the team MVP.
Dowell had 74 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He also broke up four passes. He will enter his senior season with 21 career starts at the Star linebacker spot, including 16 straight starts.
Other Returning Players: Antjuan Simmons, Tyriq Thompson, Brandon Randle, Byron Bullough
Simmons was the biggest contributor of this group, playing in all 13 games and racking up 34 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman. Thompson is a junior who appeared in 12 games and had 11 tackles. Randle is a sophomore who has some ability as a pass rusher. Bullough, a senior, will likely be Bachie’s backup at the middle linebacker spot.
Possible Impact Freshmen: Edward Warinner
Warinner played significant reps in the spring game and may very well get a chance to play as a true freshman, even in a depth role. Last year showed that Dantonio is not afraid to play true freshman if they earn the reps, especially in the name of keeping everyone fresh.
As mentioned at the top, this is a deep and experienced group. Bachie emerged last year as the leader and QB of the defense, and has established himself as the Spartans next great middle linebacker. He is a difference maker and still has two seasons left in East Lansing. By the time he is done, he may go down as one of the best linebackers of the Dantonio era, and that is a pretty elite group.
Dowell is experienced and about as solid as they come. You don’t have to worry about him being out of position or blowing an assignment. With Dowell and Bachie you have two guys who will get the job done almost every play they are out there.
Having experience with Bullough in a backup role as well as having almost everyone else having at least some game experience will help in case of an injury, or just to help keep guys fresh.
Negatives: There isn’t a clear cut starter at the Sam linebacker spot heading into the fall. Tyriq Thompson was one of the backups at that spot a year ago, and Randle’s pass rushing ability makes him an interesting option there as well. Simmons was effective last year but was listed mostly at Star linebacker.
It is entirely possible that there will be a rotation of players at the Sam spot in the early going of the season. Dantonio and company have been known to try out different players throughout the early part of the season until someone asserts themselves and takes over the starting role.
X-Factor: Brandon Randle
Randle is a guy who has played both linebacker and defensive end. He has the speed and size to be a potential matchup problem from the outside linebacker spot. With experience at the other two spots, Randle could be used in a role that is heavily geared toward rushing the passer. The Spartans haven’t had a big time sack season from a linebacker in a few years, but Randle could be the one to step up and fill that role for the 2018 team.