The last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place for the Michigan State Spartans defense in 2019, as All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes announced his plans to return to East Lansing for his senior season:
Joining Willekes for their senior seasons will be middle linebacker and captain Joe Bachie, and the run-stuffing, gap-plugging interior defensive lineman Raequan Williams. Both of whom announced their decisions to return earlier this offseason. These are three huge pieces for the Michigan State defense, as all were likely to be NFL draft picks this April had they declared.
Willekes, a former walk-on who is now one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, broke his fibula in the Red Box Bowl against Oregon. Whether or not that affected his decision to enter the draft, or whether or not that would have impacted his draft position, is uncertain, but it no longer matters.
In his letter, Willekes said “I have decided this is not the way I want to end my career at Michigan State.” It’s unclear if he means the injury, Michigan State’s disappointing 7-6 record, the fact that the Spartans didn’t win (or even come close to winning) the Big Ten East or a mixture of all of the above. Regardless of the reasons, the Big Ten Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year and Michigan State’s 2018 MVP will be back causing havoc in opposing backfields in 2019, and it cannot be overstated how big of a deal that truly is.
Bachie, the leader of the defense and 2017’s team MVP, is the heartbeat of the team. He is a tackling machine, who constantly makes big plays (four interceptions, four fumbles forced, two fumbles recovered, seven passes defended and 3.5 sacks over the past two seasons). He will surely remain a captain in 2019. There should be plenty of confidence in Michigan State’s defense with Bachie back to lead the unit.
Raequan Williams is fully entrenched as the team’s starting nose tackle. A hawking presence at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Williams was a big reason why Michigan State had the nation’s best rushing defense. He is also a leader of the team as member of the team’s Eagles leadership council (as are Bachie and Willekes). Head coach Mark Dantonio is convinced Williams will one day be the mayor of Chicago.
Obviously, those are three huge players for the Spartans’ plans next season. Remember, this is a unit that ranked No. 1 in the entire NCAA against the run (77.9 ypg), No. 8 in scoring defense (17. 2 ppg) and No. 10 in total defense (303.2 ypg). The passing defense was also much improved by the end of the year (225.2 ypg).
Now, the unit is still losing some key players, of course. Justin Layne, who had a very good 2018 campaign, is forgoing his senior season and entering the NFL Draft. Captain and starting strong safety Khari Willis, as well as starting weak-side linebacker (STAR) Andrew Dowell are lost to graduation. Depth players Matt Morrissey and Jon Reschke are also moving on after using all of their eligibility.
But in addition to the aforementioned three players, many other starters are expected to return: cornerbacks Josiah Scott and Josh Butler; strong-side linebacker Tyriq Thompson; free safety David Dowell; defensive end Jacub Panasiuk; defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk. Additionally, many depth players are returning and Michigan State is also bringing in a talented 2019 class, which includes four-star defensive back Julian Barnett, and some highly recruited linebackers and defensive ends.
So, yes, this unit should absolutely remain elite in 2019. And for the love of all that is holy, let’s hope the Spartans have any semblance of a decent offense in 2019. If so, a Big Ten title run is very much within reach.