While the Spartans’ back seven has a large number of questions marks entering the 2021 season, the defensive line has the look of a position group that is experienced, deep and potentially very talented. The defensive linemen are expected to be the anchor of the defense this upcoming season.
The Spartans lost only one key contributor to the defensive line group from last year’s team, as senior defensive tackle Naquan Jones moved on to the NFL. He is currently with the Tennessee Titans after signing as an undrafted free agent this spring.
The Spartans return graduate student and former walk-on defensive end Drew Beesley, fifth-year defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and redshirt junior defensive tackle Jacob Slade. All three are likely to nail down starting jobs once again during fall camp.
Despite having already earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, Drew Beelsey opted to return to East Lansing for a sixth year. As the Rochester Hills native explained at Big Ten Media Days, returning to Michigan State gave him “another year of school and another year of film” added to his resume. For Beelsey, there were too many positives not to return.
He is also coming off of his most productive year as a Spartan. In 2020, Beesley led all Spartan defensive lineman with 399 total snaps, as he started all seven games. He tallied a career-high 27 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss and three of which were sacks (also a career best and tied for first place on the team). Beesley was credited with three quarterback hurries, two pass breakup and one forced fumble.
In total, Beesley’s output in 2020 was good enough to earn him a spot on both the media and coaches’ All-Big Ten team as an honorable mention. In addition, he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus.
Beesley also opens the 2021 season as the clear leader in the defensive line room. Defensive line coach Ron Burton referred to Drew as “Coach Beesley” back in the spring, and Beesley was invited to Indianapolis as one of the three player representatives at Big Ten Media Days.
Anchoring the other side of the Spartan defensive line is another veteran: fifth-year senior Jacub Panasiuk. The Roselle, Illinois native also opted to return to East Lansing this year following four solid years of contribution where has played in all but two games since his first year on campus in 2017.
A three-year starter at defensive end, Panasiuk has amassed a total of 105 career tackles, 21 tackles-for-loss, and nine sacks. The younger brother of former MSU star Mike Panasiuk also has four forced fumbles, three pass breakups, and one blocked kick on his career resume.
Jacub Panasiuk came into the last season as the lone returning starter. Although he started six of seven games and recorded 25 tackles (2.5 for loss) and a sack in 2020, he later revealed that he tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer, lost 25 pounds, and did not live up to his own personal expectations. He hopes to change that in 2021.
If preseason magazines are correct, he just might do that. Panasiuk is listed as a preseason second-team All-Big Ten selection by Athlon Sports and a fourth team All-Big Ten selection by Phil Steele.
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Jacob Slade played in all 13 games in his redshirt freshman season of 2019 and started all seven games last year. The Lewis Center, Ohio native has recorded a total of 28 tackles (three for a loss), one sack and two pass breakups in his 21 career snaps.
Slade is the only returning defensive tackle with more than one varsity letter to his credit, and he is the clear leader of the interior of the line in 2021.
Competition for the fourth starting defensive lineman will be intense, but the current edge may belong to redshirt sophomore Jalen Hunt from Belleville, Michigan.
The 320-pound space-eater registered just five tackles (two for loss) over 151 snaps in 2020, but did his job well and showed promise during his time on the field. He earned his first and only start of the season against Indiana last year, and appeared to be the first defensive tackle to come off of the bench most weeks.
An injury early in the win over Northwestern cut Hunt’s season short last year, but Phil Steele lists him as a projected starter for the first game of the season in 2021.
Projected Major Contributors
In the modern era of quick-tempo college football, quality depth at all positions is critical to success. On the defensive line, having quality players on the second-string is even more critical. In 2021, the Spartans have four additional linemen who will most likely take a significant number of snaps this fall.
It is no secret that head coach coach Mel Tucker was aggressive with the transfer portal in the offseason. The defensive line only saw one addition from the portal this spring, but that addition was a significant one: graduate transfer defensive end Drew Jordan from Duke.
Jordan played in a total of 48 games for the Blue Devils over four seasons, including 21 starts. In that span he collected 102 tackles (15 for loss), 10 sacks, and four fumble recoveries.
Jordan is likely to back up Beesley this season, but calling him a backup player would not be accurate. He will rotate in plenty of times throughout each game this season. Beesley and Jordan used the spring and summer to get acquainted with each other. At Big Ten media days, Beesley mentioned that Jordan had been his lifting partner over the summer. Beesley also had glowing things to say about his new teammate:
“(Jordan) brings a lot to the table,” Beesley said. “He’s got a unique skill set. He’s a very, very big dude. He’s very fast and athletic, and his football IQ is through the roof. That dude likes to compete. I’m excited to play with him this season. He’s gonna help us to win games, for sure.”
Position coach Ron Burton has also been impressed. Back in March during a media Zoom call, Burton had the following to say about Jordan.
“With the experience of being a starter (at Duke) coming here, it is a plus for us. He is a student of the game. He has great pass rush ability, and also plays with great power...He has been a pleasure on and off the field. It is like having another coach on the field.”
The Spartans also have quality depth on the opposite side of the defensive line in the form of redshirt senior and three-year letter-winner Jack Camper.
After originally arriving in East Lansing as a tight end, the Virginia Beach native has been a regular contributor in the defensive end rotation since his redshirt freshman season in 2018. Camper had his most productive season to date in 2020, where he participated in 249 snaps total, played in all seven games, and even got his second career start at Penn State.
In total, Camper has played in 25 career games. In that span he has amassed a total of 28 tackles, (4.5 for a loss), one sack and one fumble recovery. Camper is poised to provide quality relief behind Panasiuk at defensive end.
If Jalen Hunt does not earn a starting stop at the defensive tackle position along side Jacob Slade, the next most likely candidate is redshirt sophomore Dashaun Mallory.
Mallory saw significant action in 2020, seeing a total of 200 snaps and playing in all seven games, including drawing starts against Northwestern and Ohio State. His total career stat line includes 16 career tackles (three for a loss) and two sacks.
Whether Mallory takes the field on the first snap of the season or not, when he does finally take the field, he may look like a different player. In 2020, Mallory was listed at 345 pounds. When the first fall roster was issued at Big Ten Media Days, he is now listed at 285 pounds. He clearly has taken advantage of the new strength and conditioning regimen as well as the new approach to nutrition within the program. He will factor into the rotation in 2021.
The most likely fourth player in the defensive tackle rotation is redshirt sophomore Maverick Hansen. The Farmington Hills, Michigan native earned his first letter last year after appearing in six of the seven games for a total of 53 snaps and two tackles. The bulk of those snaps took place in the final two games of the 2020 season.
Other Players to Watch For
While the eight players mentioned so far are the most likely ones to soak up the majority of snaps on the defensive lines in 2021, Coach Tucker has made it clear that fall camp will be an open competition at all positions. “The best players will play,” he said at Big Ten Media Days.
Furthermore, any position group is just an injury or two away from an untested player being thrust into a more significant role. As such, there are several other players along the defensive line who may find their way onto the field in fall.
When Beesley was asked about rising stars and future leaders on the defensive line, he was quick to point out true sophomore Jeff Pietrowski and redshirt freshman Avery Dunn as two players to watch for at the defensive end position. Regarding Dunn, Beesley said:
“He’s a special talent. He’s going to live up to expectations, for sure.”
Pietrowski lettered in his first season last year, due mostly to his presence on special teams. But, he did manage to take 48 snaps as defensive end and tallied four tackles. At Big Ten Media Days, Beesley praised Pietrowski’s vocal leadership, football IQ, and work ethic in the weight room. Following the spring game open practice, Coach Tucker also praised Peitrowski’s work, saying:
“He’s a guy that lives football and it’s important to him. He never takes a play off. He’s a strong guy and he gives relentless effort. That is what Spartan football is all about. Hard-nosed rugged guys that love the game.”
Another defensive end who may find his way onto the field, especially as a designated pass rusher in the speed package, is redshirt sophomore Michael Fletcher. Fletcher saw action on 169 snaps and in all seven games of 2020, accumulating 12 tackles (3.5 for loss), three sacks and two pass breakups.
Fletcher made his presence felt during the spring game, and may be a dark horse candidate for the most (pleasantly) surprising player on defense.
Other players on the roster at the defensive end position include junior converted running back Brandon Wright, redshirt junior Zack Slade (Zack, the brother of Jacob Slade, has struggled with injuries since he arrived on campus) and incoming true freshman Alex Okelo, a three-star prospect from Nashville, Tennessee.
When it comes to depth at the defensive tackle position, there are no other players on the roster who have seen game action. That said, redshirt freshman Simeon Barrow was in the backfield all afternoon during the spring game and has been praised by Coach Ron Burton for his aggressive pass rush.
Other younger players who could find their way onto the field include redshirt freshman Kyle King, and true freshmen Tyson Watson (a three-star prospect from Roseville, Michigan) and Derrick Harmon (a three-star prospect from Detroit, Mich.)
Other players on the roster include defensive tackles Evan Brunning and Jacob Lafave, both redshirt sophomores who walked on to the team in 2019.
Compared to the rest of Spartan defense in 2021, the defensive line unit enters the season with far fewer question marks. Even so, some of college football prognosticators are not optimistic about this group. In fact, Phil Steele ranked MSU’s unit in a tie for dead last with Minnesota in the Big Ten. Ouch, Phil.
However, when it comes to defending the run, I am optimistic that this group is up to the challenge. Even considering the number of new starters, the new staff, and the challenges of COVID, Michigan State still finished just outside of the top-40 nationally in rush yards per attempt given up in 2020.
If we factor in the experience in the two-deeps and the more normal offseason, I expect this unit to clearly be in the top half of the Big Ten against the run, if not even stronger. I expect the run defense to be stout.
But, there are still question marks about where a consistent pass rush will come from. While Beesley, Panasiuk and Jordan are all solid to very good players, none of them are likely to be circled on anyone’s scouting report as an impossible-to-block edge threat. With that, expect the pass rush to improve for MSU this season.
Perhaps one of the players we have mentioned will surprise us. Perhaps the coaching staff will scheme a way to manufacture a rush. Or, perhaps a young player such as Fletcher or Barrow will emerge as the next great Spartan pass rusher. If not, more pressure will be placed on the defensive backfield to shut down the opponents passing game, and there are far more questions marks in the back seven.
Either way, the answers to these questions and more will start to emerge now that fall camp is underway. Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage, all the way up to kick-off in Evanston, Illinois on Sept. 3 against Northwestern, and beyond. Until next time, enjoy, and Go Green.