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Michigan State 2020 Positional Breakdown: Linebackers

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Antjuan Simmons leads a solid group of returning linebackers

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

We continue our positional breakdown series with a look at the Spartan linebacking corps. This is a position group that tends to be pretty strong historically for MSU under Mark Dantonio, and that should carry over to the start of the Mel Tucker era as well. While the defensive line is probably the deepest group on the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers possess the best overall playmaker.

Losses From Last Season

The MSU defense will be looking to replace two very experienced members of the linebacking group. Joe Bachie and Tyriq Thompson were both seniors with a lot of starts under their belt. Before he was ruled ineligible, Bachie was headed towards being one of the top couple linebackers of the Dantonio era, and was the quarterback of the defense for the last three years.

Even with Bachie only playing in eight games, he still ranked fifth on the team in tackles and tackles for loss, fourth in sacks, had an interception, and four pass break ups.

Thompson ranked fourth on the team in tackles, and the two of them combined for 146 tackles overall.

Returning Starters

Antjuan Simmons

Maryland v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Simmons is the Spartans best player on defense, and might be the best player on the team overall. The pre-season Bednarik candidate led the team last year with 90 tackles and was second on the team with 15 tackles for loss. He also added 3.5 sacks, and interception, and a forced fumble.

Simmons is an explosive playmaker from the outside linebacker position, and can get into the backfield to make stops with the best of them. He hits hard and plays at a high speed all the time, and really leads by example while on the field.

Off the field Simmons has also taken control of the leadership role and will surely be one of the team’s captains this year. Simmons is outspoken and the perfect player-leader to see the transition into year one of the Mel Tucker era.

Noah Harvey

I am including Harvey in this group because he did get five starts last year, including three at the middle linebacker spot when Bachie was ruled ineligible.

Noah ranked eighth on the team with 49 tackles, added five tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble, and four pass break-ups.

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

With his role expanded for the last five games of the year, Harvey averaged 8.4 tackles per game, including a 14 tackle performance against Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Harvey is a redshirt junior, so he has been around the program for a while. He gave a solid performance when asked to take over for Bachie, and I expect his production to increase this year as the full season starter at the MIKE linebacker spot.

New Likely Starters

Chase Kline

The redshirt sophomore played in all 13 games last year, and recorded 12 tackles and one sack. Most of his production came on special teams.

Kline played some defensive end last year in addition to playing linebacker, and could end up having a kind of a combo role in Mel Tucker’s new defense.

Kline has good size at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, so he certainly isn’t going to be overmatched against a full Big Ten slate of opponents. He is big and athletic, and given his experience with playing some DE, I would love to see him used as a blitzer on passing downs in certain spots.

Other Rotation Players

Luke Fulton

A redshirt freshman from Youngstown, Fulton checks in at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, and brings a solid recruiting profile.

Fulton didn’t see action at all last year, so this season will be his first chance for the former four-star recruit to show what he can do on the field in an MSU uniform.

He is the most likely candidate to back-up Harvey at the middle linebacker spot.

Jeslord Boateng

Another Ohio native, Boateng is a redshirt sophomore who saw action in 11 games last season. He recorded 10 tackles and played 59 snaps on defense.

Boateng was one of the top-10 outside linebackers in the state of Ohio coming into college, so again there is a solid pedigree there.

Boateng is most likely to back up Simmons, but could see action at either outside linebacker spot.

Marcel Lewis

Lewis is a Michigan native, and appeared in three games last year before preserving his redshirt status.

Lewis was a part of Chippewa Valley’s undefeated state championship season as a senior and was chosen as the MLive Dream Team Defensive Player of the Year.

Another outside linebacker backup candidate, Lewis should see rotation work behind Kline.

Possible Impact Freshman

The linebacking group is pretty deep, so it is tough to say if any freshman will get a chance to see the field this year. The top two candidates might be a couple of early enrollees in Cal Haladay and Devin Hightower.

Haladay was ranked as the top inside linebacker prospect from Pennsylvania last season and Hightower was the Ohio Prep Sportswriter’s Division 2 Defensive Player of the Year.

Cole DeMarzo, who could play either outside linebacker or safety, is the other true freshman coming in with the 2020 class. Fellow freshman Darius Snow is listed on the spring roster as a safety, but also has the skillset to play linebacker.

Others on the roster:

  • Tanner Hallock, redshirt junior
  • Charles Willekes, redshirt freshman
  • Terry O’Connor, redshirt sophomore

Overall

The Spartans should continue their tradition of solid linebacking as they transition to a new system under Mel Tucker and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. While this won’t be one of the top linebacker groups of the last decade or so, they should be a solid group with good upside. And from your linebackers, solid goes a long way.