The entire Michigan State defense was excellent last year, finishing tenth in the nation in total defense, and eighth in the country in scoring defense. But where the Spartans really dominated, was against the run, where they finished number one in the country, allowing just 77.92 rushing yards per game. That was more than 17 yards per game better than the next best team, and more than the gap between the number two and number 12 rushing defenses in the country.
Obviously, the MSU defensive line was a big reason for that dominance against the run. And it was quite dominant. The Spartans allowed the second fewest runs of 10+ yards with just 30 all season. They only gave up FOUR runs of 20+ yards all season, also second fewest in the nation.
So when you think about the dominance the D-Line had last year against the run, it’s very comforting to know that Michigan State returns all four of their starters on that line. This is a group that is very seasoned up front, and could be one of the best units in the entire country once again.
Kenny Willekes, Defensive End, Senior
The reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the year is looking for a storybook finish to his storybook career at Michigan State. The former walk-on has become a force up front for the Spartans defense, and earned first team All-Big Ten and second team All-American accolades last year. He has appeared as a pre-season first team All-American on five separate lists.
Willekes led MSU last season with 8.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. The 20.5 TFL’s were the second most in a single season in MSU history, and Willekes enters the season with the ninth most TFL’s in school history, just 13 behind Julian Peterson for the career record. He also enters the season tenth in career sacks.
The big, and really only question, hanging over the head of Kenny Willekes is how well he has recovered from the broken fibula he suffered in the RedBox Bowl last December. If he is fully healthy and ready to go, I expect Willekes to once again live in opposing backfields as he has for most of the last two seasons.
With another season similar to his last two, Willekes will likely finish his MSU career as one of the most accomplished defensive ends in school history. Not bad for a former walk-on.
Jacub Panasiuk, Defensive End, Junior
Opposite Willekes will be the younger of the two Panasiuk brothers on the D-Line. Jacub started 11 games for MSU last season, after playing in all 13 games as a freshman the year before that. He had 31 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and two sacks.
The word on the street from camp is that Panasiuk has slimmed down this year and the hope is that the newer, sleeker physique will increase his speed at getting to the quarterback.
Panasiuk is the returning starter most poised to have the proverbial “breakout year.” He has experience, and has improved each of his first two years, but now looks like someone ready to take the next step. It also helps to be playing on a D-Line as stacked as this one, with someone like Kenny Willekes on the opposite end of the line.
Mike Panasiuk, Defensive Tackle, Senior
From one Panasiuk to the other, we come to older brother Mike, who has started 29 consecutive games at defensive tackle for MSU. In his career he has made 65 tackles, with nine tackles for loss and two sacks. He also has an interception, three pass break ups, and a blocked field goal to his name.
Panasiuk was honorable All-Big Ten last year by both the coaches and the media, and finished fifth on the team in TFL (6.0). He ranked third on the defense overall in production points according to the coaching staff.
Panasiuk has been consistent as a member of the Spartan defensive line, but has never really had a monster season statistically. That will happen when you are on a defense with guys like Willekes, Bachie and the like. But like his brother, Mike has a chance to have a big season.
Panasiuk is listed at 6-4, 300 pounds, and is going to be tough to get through once again. Additionally, I expect him and his brother to spend more time in the backfield than they have in the past. Teams will be forced to key on Willekes and Williams, and that should give the brothers Panasiuk ample opportunities to rack up some tackles for loss.
Raequan Williams, Nose Tackle, Senior
And that brings us to the other man in the middle, Raequan Williams. Like his fellow D-Tackle, Williams has started 29 straight games in the interior of the MSU defensive line.
Williams has 112 career tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, six pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles in his 37 career games. He checked in second on the team last year with 10.5 TFL’s. He was named third team All-Big Ten last year and is on a couple of pre-season second team All-Conference lists this year. Williams also finds himself on the Outland Trophy watch list to start the year.
Williams had his breakout year last year, piling up double digit TFL’s and posting a career high 53 tackles overall.
This year, Williams could be looking at a monster season, and one that could move him up high onto NFL draft boards should he build upon last year’s production level.
Raequan checks in at 6-4 and 303 pounds. Combining that with Panasiuk that is a lot of mass in the middle of that MSU D-Line. And that is two guys who have played a lot of games next to each other.
I am not sure you are going to find very many better defensive lines in the country than this one, and you certainly aren’t going to find a more experienced group.
Other Defensive Lineman on Roster:
· Naquan Jones, DT, Junior: Jones is a two year letter-winner who has 39 tackles, 6.5 TFL, and two sacks in 26 career games. At 6-4, 338 pounds, Jones can slide into the middle of the D-Line and provide a breather for either of the two starters without missing a beat. I would expect his playing time to increase, with him set to take over a starting role next season.
· Jack Camper, DE, Sophomore: After transitioning from tight end to defensive end at the end of the 2017 season, Camper has shown some good flashes. He had nine tackles last year, with 2.5 TFL and a half a sack in 213 snaps. The 6-4, 258 pounder from Virginia should see some more action this year, especially if the staff is taking it easy with Willekes early on.
· Drew Beesley, DE, Junior: A two time academic All-Big Ten honoree will also work into the mix at defensive end. Beesley played in 10 games last year, and did some of his best work late in the season, including a pair of tackles, a pass break-up and a fumble recovery against Ohio State.
· Jacob Slade, DT, RS Freshman: The 6-3, 298 pounder out of Ohio looks like he’s got a good shot to get some playing time in the interior D-Line rotation. Slade was a top 100 D-tackle prospects in the country out of high school, so the pedigree is there.
· Adam Berghorst, DE, Freshman: Ranked the number two defensive end prospect in the state of Michigan last year, Berghorst is the freshman prospect with the best chance to make a splash this year. The first team All-State player from Zeeland passed on a possible baseball career to play at MSU. Berghorst was chosen in the 14th round by the Texas Rangers as a pitcher, but instead the 6-6, 250 pound freshman will be looking to pile up sacks instead of strikeouts.