This week in The Only Colors’ positional preview series, we’re taking a look at the linebackers for Michigan State. The linebacker position has often been a strong suit for the Spartans over the years, contributing greatly to the program’s defensive success under former Spartan head Coach Mark Dantonio. In 2020 though, the defense took a step back, and the linebackers especially — perhaps outside of Antjuan Simmons — were below their usual level of production.
If the Spartans want to get back to the days of elite defense and run-stuffing ability, the linebackers will need to show improvement from the 2020 season. With that said, let’s take an in-depth look at what the position will look like for Michigan State in 2021, following many transfers both and out of the program at the position.
Simmons declared for the NFL draft this offseason, which means the Spartans are losing a lot of production at linebacker from 2020. The good news is there’s plenty of talent and athleticism on the roster still, and head coach Mel Tucker brought in even more talent via recruiting and the transfer portal. Still, though, those are some pretty big shoes to fill for a younger player.
One of the biggest pickups the Spartans landed from the transfer portal was Quavaris Crouch, a 6-foot-2 linebacker from the University of Tennessee. Crouch started 11 games for the Volunteers between 2019 and 2020. He also finished the season with 57 tackles, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and a pass break up in 2020. During the season finale, Crouch tied a career-high 11 tackles against the fifth-ranked Texas A&M Aggies. Crouch is a player who just flies around the field and can make big-time plays. Don’t be surprised if Crouch gets the start at one of the linebacker spots come Sept. 3 against Northwestern.
Another transfer comes to East Lansing from a familiar school. Ben VanSumeren transferred to Michigan State from the University of Michigan, making his story a bit more interesting. In 2020, VanSumeren played in all six games for the Wolverines and started at linebacker twice. Prior to 2020, VanSumeren was actually a fullback on the Wolverines’ roster and saw a good amount of time on special teams. His stats don’t exactly jump off the page, but with him getting a second year at his new position, VanSumeren can make some progress and earn a starting role or provide valuable depth at linebacker for the Spartans. His brother, 2022 four-star defensive tackle Alex VanSumeren, committed to MSU in July.
Minnesota transfer Itayvion Brown redshirted in 2020 as a freshman and didn’t see any game action for the Golden Gophers. However, he was a highly-ranked recruit coming out of high school, being rated as a four-star recruit by both Rivals and 247Sports, as well as a top-25 outside linebacker in the 2020 class by both outlets as well. Brown is likely to see his first action at the college level in 2021. He was seen working as a stand-up pass-rusher in practice this week.
Minnesota transfer and former four-star prospect Tank Brown (6-4; 230 pounds) working as a stand-up pass rusher in practice. No. 19 in this clip. I’m intrigued. pic.twitter.com/bctwzuWa4I— Colton Pouncy (@colton_pouncy) August 11, 2021
True freshman Ma’a Gaoteote has some potential to find meaningful playing time early in his Spartan career. The true freshman out of Las Vegas was an ESPN top-100 prospect in the 2021 recruiting class, and ranked No. 161 overall according to the 247Sports’ Composite rankings, and that’s for good reason. His senior year at Bishop Gorman was disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as a junior at St. John Bosco in California, Gaoteote recorded 61 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and three sacks. It is possible the staff wants to redshirt Gaoteote as a true freshman, but if not, he shouldn’t find playing time early in his career on defense or special teams, and when he does, he’s likely to make an impact.
Other newcomers include Army prep transfer Samih Beydoun (sophomore) and true freshman Carson Casteel.
Chase Kline is one player who seems ready to step up for the defense in 2021. In 2020, Kline recorded a career-high 29 tackles and tied for second in the Big Ten with two forced fumbles. In 2021, Kline should see a bit more playing time and perhaps a starting job.
Noah Harvey started all seven games in 2020, recording a career-high 54 tackles. Harvey also logged five tackles for loss, which ranked him third on the team in that category. As one of the most experienced linebackers on the roster, Harvey will be able to take charge of the linebackers and become a leader for the defense in 2021.
Others returning who haven’t seen much playing time previously include Terry O’Connor (redshirt junior.), Cole Demarzo (redshirt freshman.), Cal Haladay (redshirt freshman.) and Sam Edwards (redshirt freshman).
Michigan State made massive improvements to its linebacker room during the offseason, which should be an encouraging sign heading into the 2021 season. If the Spartans want to achieve success, then the defense needs to take a step forward from where it was in 2020, and having a solid core of linebackers will really help with that. As we move through fall camp and into the regular season, seeing which players step up and become leaders for the defense, as well as how all of the new transfers and freshmen fit in with the team, should be very interesting. There is a lot to work with here for the Spartans.