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Michigan State Football Positional Breakdown: Linebackers

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

After beginning on the offensive side of the ball with the running backs and wide receivers, our 2019 Michigan State Spartans positional breakdown series continues on the defensive side of the ball with the linebackers.

This should be a group that the coaching staff and Spartans fans alike can be confident in. The defensive unit as a whole is expected to once again crack the top-10 nationally, and the players at the second level are a big reason why. Let’s highlight the linebackers in more detail:

Joe Bachie, middle linebacker (MIKE), senior

Team captain, preseason All-American, preseason All-Big Ten, Bronko Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Dick Butkus Awards watch lists member — you name it and Joe Bachie likely is being considered for that particular accolade heading in the 2019 season. Taking over as a sophomore in 2017 as a relative unknown, Bachie quickly made a name for himself and became the leader of the defense. The Brook Park, Ohio native has led MSU in tackles in each of the past two seasons, and is the active leading tackler on the team. He was voted first-team All-Big Ten in 2018.

2019 outlook: Bachie will rarely, if ever come off of the field defensively. He will lead the team with his play on the field and leadership off of it. Look for him to once again lead the team in tackles, earn another first-team All-Big Ten nod and be in the running for All-American status and a few other prestigious awards. Bachie is a clutch player whose infectious energy will catalyze the entire defense.

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

Antjuan Simmons, weak-side linebacker (STAR), junior

Simmons is expected to take over for Andrew Dowell as the STAR linebacker. Originally a four-star commit who was from Ann Arbor and flipped from Ohio State to Michigan State (talk about sticking it to multiple rivals), Simmons was one of the highest-rated outside linebackers in the entire 2017 class. He played behind Dowell in his first two seasons, but saw the field plenty, playing in 128 snaps as a true freshman and 284 snaps as a sophomore. He has recorded 66 tackles in 26 games, but finally gets his chance to play full-time in 2019.

2019 outlook: Simmons is one to watch. A highly-touted recruit who has flashed his potential in limited snaps now gets his opportunity to shine as the weak-side linebacker. The gap that Dowell leaves shouldn’t be taken for granted, as he was a three-year starter and playmaker for MSU, but Simmons should be a fine replacement. We will soon find out how Simmons fares in his new role, but he has the potential to be the next great Spartan linebacker.

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

Tyriq Thompson, strong-side linebacker (SAM), senior

A three-year letterwinner, Thompson is a returning starter on the strong-side. He started 12 games at SAM in 2018, recording 31 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception. The former Detroit Martin Luther King standout is also a member of the team’s Eagle Leadership Council, along with Bachie. In 2018, Thompson also earned the football program’s Danziger Award, which goes to the team’s most outstanding Detroit area player.

I attended the Purdue game last season and will never forget this play Thompson made. At a clutch time in the fourth quarter, he absolutely rocked Purdue’s tight end, Brycen Hopkins, jarring the ball loose, and scooping the ball of off Hopkins’ legs for an interception.

2019 outlook: Thompson has the starting SAM spot locked up, however, he will concede some snaps to Brandon Bouyer-Randle. As the strong-side linebacker, Thompson will also likely come off of the field in nickel and dime packages that require more defensive backs. His primary job is to fill his assigned gap and provide run support on the power side, but he also needs to be versatile enough to drop into pass coverage in base sets. Thompson looks to impress NFL scouts as a senior.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Brandon Bouyer-Randle, strong-side linebacker (SAM), junior

Bouyer-Randle is an athletic player who can play both the SAM linebacker and defensive end positions. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2016, before playing in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2017, seeing action at both aforementioned spots. Last season, we didn’t see much of Bouyer-Randle as a defensive end, but he played 269 snaps in 13 games (including one start at Arizona State). He recorded 21 tackles, five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

2019 outlook: As mentioned, Bouyer-Randle will see the majority of his snaps at strong-side linebacker in 2019. It will be interesting to see if the coaching staff puts him in rotation at defensive end or not, but when he is on the field, he is likely to be sent off of the edge on a blitz either way as a stand-up edge rusher or hand-in-the-dirt defensive lineman. His job is to create pressure on opposing offenses.

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

Other linebackers on the roster:

  • Chase Kline, redshirt freshman: Kline, a Chardon, Ohio native, was considered a four-star recruit by Rivals and three-star recruit by 247Sports. He didn’t see any game action in 2018 and redshirted. This season, he will have competition, but should very well see some snaps at the STAR spot when Simmons need a breather. For more on Kline, check here.
  • Jeslord Boateng, redshirt freshman: Similarly to Kline, Boateng is an Ohio product who redshirted in 2018. Boateng may have a tough slate finding playing time on defense behind Thompson and Bouyer-Randle if he’s at SAM, but could very well play STAR as well, as he did in the spring. “I see myself as a rush outside linebacker,” Boateng told me in 2017.
  • Edward Warinner, redshirt freshman: Just like Kline and Boateng, Warinner was another member of the 2018 recruiting class who redshirted last season. Warinner could be the primary backup at middle linebacker behind Bachie, which makes sense, as Warinner told me in the past that he prefers playing the inside linebacker spot over outside. His dad, Ed Warinner, is the offensive line coach at Michigan.
  • Dante Razzano, junior: Razzano redshirted in 2016, and didn’t see game action in 2017, before finally seeing the field in 2018. He played in all 13 games as a special teamer last season and earned his first letter. He also earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. He will compete with Warinner for the backup MIKE role.
  • Noah Harvey, sophomore: After redshirting in 2017, Harvey saw action on special teams in 12 games last season. He’ll provide depth at outside linebacker, most likely STAR, but is not likely to crack the rotation, barring injury.
  • Luke Fulton, freshman: A three-star recruit, Fulton was considered the No. 23 inside linebacker in the 2019 class by 247Sports, and No. 19 by Rivals. The coaching staff seems high on Fulton, and he could push for the backup MIKE spot. However, Fulton did not enroll in the spring, and given the depth already there, a redshirt as a true freshman seems likely.
  • Marcel Lewis, freshman: Lewis, a Clinton Township, Michigan native, joins Fulton as an inside linebacker who is part of the 2019 recruiting class. He ranks as the No. 41 inside linebacker in the class, per 247, but isn’t likely to see playing time this season. A redshirt looks inevitable here.
  • Terry O’Connor, redshirt freshman: O’Connor made the team as a preferred walk-on in 2018 before taking a redshirt and not seeing any game action. He will provide depth at outside linebacker, but isn’t likely to see any playing time outside of special teams. No relation to Tyler O’Connor, from what I can tell.
  • Peter Fisk, junior: Another former walk-on, Fisk redshirted in 2016 and did not see game action in 2017 or 2018. That trend will likely continue in 2019, unless he finds a spot on special teams. Originally, from Grand Rapids, Fisk was a standout running back and linebacker at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts before enrolling at MSU.
  • Tanner Hallock, sophomore: Yet another walk-on, Hallock made the team out of Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central in 2017. He redshirted that year, and did not see game action in 2018. He has has a long road ahead for playing time defensively. His brother, Tate, is an incoming freshman at the safety position.
  • Charles Willekes, freshman: Willekes is a true freshman walk-on out of NorthPointe Christian. MSU fans are hoping he is the second coming of another former NorthPointe Christian walk-on, his brother, Kenny. Those are unfair expectations, but following a likely redshirt season in 2019, we’ll find out what the future has in store for the younger Willekes.

The Spartans return an experienced linebacker unit, with two seniors and returning starters (Bachie and Thompson), as well as a junior who has played over 400 snaps in his career (Simmons). Meanwhile, Bouyer-Randle provides great depth and will have plenty of opportunities to see the field at SAM. The young depth pieces, such as Kline, Warinner and Boateng are intriguing prospects to watch.