Up next in our position preview series are the big boys up front on the defensive side. The MSU defensive line was the first line of defense for a group that finished second in the NCAA in rushing defense last season allowing just 95.31 yards per game. They improved their sack numbers from 11 in 2016 to 28 last year.
Key Losses: Demetrius Cooper
The only real loss of the defensive line from a year ago is Cooper, who played in all 13 games last year and started 10 of them. Cooper logged 29 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss while also registering 2.5 sacks. He also tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles.
Returning Starters: Kenny Willekes (DE), Raquan Williams (DT), Mike Panasiuk (DT)
The Spartans bring back three of the four starters on the defensive line, led by last year’s breakout star Kenny Willekes. Somehow only named to the third-team All-Big Ten, Willekes led the team with seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last year. He was third on the team in tackles with 73, recovered two fumbles, and forced another one. The former walk-on will be a junior this year, and appears to have taken over the role as the leader on the D-line.
Raquan Williams (JR) started every game at defensive tackle last year for the Spartans and finished third on the team in tackles for loss with six while also logging 2.5 sacks and 31 tackles. He was also credited with seven quarterback hits, tied for third on the team.
His partner in crime in the middle is Mike Panasiuk (JR) who also started every game at D-tackle for MSU last year, and has 16 consecutive starts dating back to his freshman year. Mike had 25 tackles, with 2.5 tackles for loss last season.
Other Returning Players: Mike Panasiuk (DE), Naquan Jones (DT), Gerald Owens (DT), Justice Alexander (DE), Dillon Alexander (DE)
Mike Panasiuk will take over as the starter at defensive end opposite Willekes. He played in all 13 games last year and had 15 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack.
Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens both saw plenty of action last year, with Jones appearing in all 13 games and Owens playing in 12 of them. Jones had two tackles for loss and Owens had one last year while the two combined for 24 total tackles backing up the duo of Williams and Mike Panasiuk.
The two Alexanders will provide some veteran depth at defensive end despite limited game experience a year ago for Justice.
Possible Impact Freshmen: Parks Gissinger, Dashaun Mallory, Jacob and Zach Slade
This year’s recruiting class brought some mid-level recruits to the defensive line, probably due to the fact that the Spartans are already deep with underclassmen at the position already. It is hard to say if any of these four will see action this year, but with the new red-shirt rule, Coach Dantonio can throw them out and see how they perform for a little bit before having to make that decision. MSU is pretty deep up front, but injuries are always an issue on the lines, and this coaching staff has not shied away from playing freshman up front in the past.
A theme that will exist throughout these pieces is experience. MSU is bringing back a ton of experience from last season. Three of the four starters are back and the newest starter played in all 13 games a year ago. There are capable and experienced backups at defensive tackle as well as a group of potential backups at defensive end waiting to get a chance.
This group was very good against the run last year, and I expect them to be that way again this year. Willekes was the breakout star at defensive end that the Spartans badly needed a year ago. Mike Panasiuk could take that step this year and create a formidable tandem with his brother on the inside.
We saw how important sacks are to a defense over the course of the last two years at MSU. The low sack totals in 2016 led to all kinds of problems for the defense. Last year was a big improvement, but Willekes carried a lot of the load in that department. No other player besides Willekes had more than four sacks last year and no other defensive lineman had more than 2.5 sacks. Michigan State needs to be able to get to the quarterback regularly, and someone besides Willekes needs to show that they can get the job done.
If either Willekes or Panasiuk go down at defensive end, there is a drop-off to some level of uncertainty with the Alexanders and everyone else. And a sudden drop off in sacks could have big consequences for one of the better defenses in the nation a year ago.
X-Factor: Jacub Panasiuk
The sophomore will need to step up and show that he can be a big time pass rusher this year. The duo in the middle is experienced and, according to the coaches, getting better. Willekes showed what he can do last year. This year it is up to Jacub to be the breakout star of the defensive line and get into the backfield regularly.