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Michigan State Football Spring Game Observations: Defense

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The spring game provided a potential sneak peek of what to expect from the Spartan defense this fall.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Saturday, April 16 Michigan State officially brought the spring practice season to a close with the annual spring game. The event was more of an open practice than a game, and the action was fast paced and at times very hard to follow, even from the warm confines of the press box.

That said, and while a lot will change from now until the start of the season, it was possible to gain some insight into what to expect from the 2022 version of the Spartans. Let’s review what we learned about the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Ends

Players Lost:

  • Jacub Panasiuk (started all 13 games in 2021)
  • Drew Beesley (nine starts in 2021)
  • Drew Jordan (one start and played in 12 games in 2021)
  • Jack Camper (played in three games in 2021)
  • Zach Slade (played in two games in 2021)

Returning Players:

  • No. 47 Jeff Pietrowski (junior, started three games in 2021)
  • No. 26 Brandon Wright (senior, former running back played in all 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 5 Michael Fletcher (junior, played in seven games in 2021)
  • No. 19 Itayvion “Tank” Brown (sophomore, played in six games in 2021 as a linebacker/edge rusher)
  • No. 98 Avery Dunn (sophomore, played in one game in 2021)

Newcomers:

  • No. 2 Khris Bogle (senior, started three games for Florida in 2021)
  • No. 17 Chase “Simba” Carter (freshman, three-star recruit and early enrollee)
  • James Schott (freshman, three-star recruit, enrolls in summer)
  • Zion Young (freshman, three-star recruit, enrolls in summer)

The Spartans lost both starters (Panasiuk and Beesley) as well as one major contributor (Jordan) from 2021, but Michigan State appears to be reloading at this position in 2022. Five returning players saw significant action last year either in East Lansing or in Gainesville (in the case of Khris Bogle).

During the spring game, Pietrowski, Wright and Bogle took the majority of the snaps during the scrimmage portion of the event. They appear to be the top-three players in the rotation at the end of spring practice. Pietrowski and Bogle appeared to be the two players to take snaps with the No. 1 defense, so that pair appears to have the current edge as starters if the season were to start today.

It was rumored that both Brown and Dunn were “nicked up,” so their absence during the spring game is not a complete surprise. Carter, an early enrollee freshman, was observed during drills and did take a few snaps, but the status and health of Fletcher, who did not participate on Saturday, is unknown.

In addition to the three defensive ends listed above, the Spartans also experimented on Saturday with several current linebackers as stand-up edge rushers during passing situations. No. 4 Jacoby Windmon (transfer from UNLV), No. 7 Aaron Brule (transfer from Mississippi State), and No. 13 Ben VanSumeren all took snaps while lined up on the line of scrimmage on Saturday. Pietrowski was often rushing from a standup two-point as well.

As for the effectiveness of the defensive ends, it was hard to gauge considering that the defensive line was going against a make-shift skeleton crew of an offensive line all afternoon. They all looked strong and fast, and able to get to the quarterback quickly on multiple occasions, but we won’t know much more until this unit goes up against a healthy unit this fall.

Defensive Tackles

Players Lost:

  • Kyle King (played in eight games in 2021)

Returning Players:

  • No. 64 Jacob Slade (senior, started 12 games in 2021)
  • No. 8 Simeon Barrow (sophomore, started 10 games in 2021)
  • No. 94 Dashaun Mallory (senior, played in all 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 97 Maverick Hansen (junior, started three games and played in all 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 99 Jalen Hunt (junior, started one game and played in 11 games in 2021)
  • No. 41 Derrick Harmon (redshirt freshman, played in four games in 2021)
  • No. 57 Evan Brunning (junior walk-on who played on the offensive line in the spring)

Newcomers:

  • No. 91 Alex VanSumeren (freshman, four-star recruit and early enrollee)

With both Slade and Barrow returning from last year, and with several other players returning with significant game experience, the middle of the defensive line seems to be in great shape headed into 2022.

As expected, Slade and Barrow appeared to take the first snaps with the first-string defense and are the likely starting combination in the interior. Harmon took quite a few snaps as well and appeared to be the first interior lineman off the bench. Hansen also saw significant action. That pair would be my best guess for the current second-string if the season were to start today.

That said, Hunt, Mallory and true freshman Alex VanSumeren are all in the mix for playing time in the fall. Hunt was observed in the position drills with the rest of the defensive lineman, but did not participate in the live scrimmage, based on my notes. Mallory and Alex VanSumeren did not appear to be dressed for the event. Note that Brunning, a walk-on, is listed in the media guide as a member of the defensive line, but he played on the offensive line on Saturday, most likely out of necessity due to injuries.

Similar to the defensive ends, it was difficult to evaluate the defensive tackles due to the patch-work nature of the offensive line during the spring game. Based on depth and experience, however, the middle of the line should be a strength for the Spartans this fall.

Linebackers

Players Lost:

  • Noah Harvey (started four games and played in 11 games in 2021)

Returning Players:

  • No. 27 Cal Haladay (sophomore, started 12 games in 2021)
  • No. 6 Quavaris Crouch (senior, started nine games in 2021)
  • No. 13 Ben VanSumeren (senior, played in all 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 10 Ma’a Gaoteote (sophomore, played in nine games in 2021)
  • No. 42 Carson Casteel (redshirt freshman was injured and did not play in 2021

Newcomers:

  • No. 7 Aaron Brule (graduate transfer, started eight games for Mississippi State in 2021)
  • No. 4 Jacoby Windmon (senior transfer, started 12 games for UNLV in 2021)
  • Quavain Carter (freshman, three-star recruit, will enroll in summer)

The Spartans will continue to primarily utilize a 4-2-5 defense in 2022 where there are only two “pure” linebackers on the field in most situations. That said, the spring game clearly showed the linebacker position will be one of mix-and-match flexibility and there could be three linebackers on the field in certain packages.

As noted above, several players listed above as linebackers lined up as stand-up designated pass rushers throughout the scrimmage portions of the spring game. Furthermore, Darius Snow played both the weak-side (WILL) linebacker position as well as the nickelback position.

In the postgame press conference, Xavier Henderson and Snow mentioned that the goal for 2022 will be to structure the defense more like an NFL defense where matchups will dictate the defensive personnel.

The spring game featured mostly five of the eight linebackers listed above, all of whom participated in roughly the same number of snaps. Newcomers Brule and Windmon appeared to be paired as the first-string linebackers, but Haladay and VanSumeren also saw significant time, as did Gaoteote.

Crouch was known to be out with an injury in the spring, and Casteel was at least spotted on the sidelines during the scrimmage.

It is likely too early to make a prediction as to the starting pair of linebackers this fall. Brule and Windmon may have the early edge, but I would also expect Haladay to start or at least get significant playing time. In general, I think that the usage of the linebackers will be very situational in 2022. I would expect different packages of personnel for obvious running downs, obvious passing downs, and the red zone, for example.

Cornerbacks

Players Lost:

  • Kalon Gervin (played in four games with two starts in 2021 before entering transfer portal)
  • Antoine Booth (redshirted as a true freshman, did not appear in a game)

Returning Players:

  • No. 12 Chester Kimbrough (senior, started 11 games in 2021)
  • No. 9 Ronald Williams (senior, started nine games in 2021)
  • No. 29 Marqui Lowery (sophomore, started two games and played in seven games in 2021)
  • No. 0 Charles Brantley (sophomore, started one game and played in eight games in 2021)
  • No. 30 Justin White (junior, played in all 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 14 Khary Crump (sophomore, played in two games in 2021)

Newcomers:

  • No. 18 Ameer Speed (graduate transfer, started three games for Georgia in 2021)
  • No. 37 Caleb Coley (freshman, three-star recruit and early enrollee)
  • No. 20 Ade Willie (freshman, three-star recruit and early enrollee)

Similar to the situation at defensive tackle, there were no significant departures from the cornerback room this offseason. The Spartans have four returning players with starting experience from 2021 and then added a major transfer from Georgia, the defending national champions (Ameer Speed), as well as two promising freshmen.

During the spring game, it was quite clear that the two first-string corners are Speed and Lowery. Both players took the majority of the snaps during the scrimmage portions and Speed in particular was a major topic of discussion in the postgame press conference.

That said, Williams was not able to play due to an injury and Brantley wore a red non-contact jersey signifying that he was less than 100 percent. Both players will be in competition for a starting spot this fall, but Speed looks to be a near lock for one of those two positions.

As for Kimbrough, he also saw a lot of time in the scrimmages on Saturday, but the majority of the time he was lined up at the linebacker level as the nickelback. White and Coley (true freshman) also took several snaps at the nickelback position.

Willie, a true freshman and Crump, a sophomore, participated in the drills and the scrimmage. At this point they are likely to supply depth at the position as they gain experience.

Safeties/Nickelbacks

Players Lost:

  • Michael Dowell (started four games and played in 12 total games in 2021)
  • Emmanual Flowers (played in 12 games in 2021, played wide receiver, safety and cornerback while at MSU)
  • C.J. Hayes (played in seven games in 2021)
  • Spencer Rowland (played in six games in 2021)

Returning Players:

  • No. 3 Xavier Henderson (graduate student, started 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 15 Angelo Grose (junior, started 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 23 Darius Snow (junior, started 9 games in 2021)
  • No. 33 Kendell Brooks (senior, played in 13 games in 2021)
  • No. 28 Tate Hallock (junior, played in eight games in 2021)
  • No. 40 A.J. Kirk (redshirt freshman)
  • No. 31 Kobe Myers (sophomore)

Newcomers:

  • No. 1 Jaden Mangham (freshman, four-star recruit and early enrollee)
  • No. 21 Dillon Tatum (freshman, four-star recruit and early enrollee)
  • No. 38 Kaleb Elam (senior transfer from Davenport)
  • Malcolm Jones (freshman, three-star recruit, enrolls in summer)
  • Malik Spencer (freshman, three-star recruit, enrolls in summer)

Similar to the cornerback position, the safety playing group brings back a lot of experienced players and also has added some significant depth in the off-season. Last year’s starters, Henderson and Grose, both returned and both were clearly taking first-string safety reps in the spring game.

As for the current second-string, Mangham (true freshman) and Brooks (senior) both saw a lot of snaps in the scrimmage portion of the practice as well and seem like the first two players off the bench at the safety positions. Hallock, Kirk, Myers, Tatum and Elam all participated on Saturday and will provide depth to the position.

As mentioned above, the biggest wildcard in the safety room is Snow, a Spartan legacy player. He also took several snaps at nickelback, where he seems likely to be the starter this fall, but additionally played weak-side linebacker, where defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton likes his fit.

In the postgame press conference, Snow mentioned that he can play up to five positions on defense and prefers to just be referred to as a “football player” and not a safety or a linebacker.

The fact that Snow was also asked to speak to the media following the game was an indicator of his importance to the team both as a player and as a rising leader. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if Snow represents Michigan State at Big Ten Media Days this summer and is voted as a rotating team captain for at least one week this fall.