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Michigan State Football: Why the defense is poised for a major leap

Major holes on defense held the team down often last season, but there are reasons to expect strong improvements in 2022.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Michigan State at Pittsburgh Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mel Tucker’s modernized use of the transfer portal translated into swift success for Michigan State in 2021. With a few more high-impact transfers coming in for this upcoming season, the Spartans look to build off of last year’s surprising 11-win season, and appear to be one of the more intriguing teams heading into 2022.

With small expectations following a 2-5 start to his tenure, which was dominated by COVID-19 during the 2020 season, Tucker was able to transform MSU into a playoff contender by November of 2021.

Kenneth Walker III’s explosion on to the national scene gave the team a clear identity, but the progression of Payton Thorne with dynamic weapons on the outside provided balance. It’s safe to say the offense was the catalyst for this turnaround.

With Walker, Connor Heyward and Jalen “Speedy” Nailor all forgoing their remaining years of college eligibility for the NFL, the team will be searching to replace major production. However, for the Spartans to do so, it actually requires improvements on the other side of the ball for the team to be successful as a whole.

While losing Walker is a huge blow, the Michigan State offense likely has enough playmakers returning to still be a relatively strong unit. However, struggles on defense, especially late last season, lowered MSU’s championship ceiling.

The secondary was abused too often, but the defensive backs may actually take too much of the blame. The front seven had difficulties getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks against above average offensive lines, which allowed more time for receivers to find their spots. Against ranked opponents, the “bend-don’t-beak” shattered like porcelain. In many ways, there is nowhere to go but up, but MSU is making strides to improve significantly.

Key players returning

DT: Simeon Barrow, Maverick Hansen, Derrick Harmon, Jalen Hunt, Dashaun Mallory, Jacob Slade

DE: Itayvion “Tank” Brown, Michael Fletcher, Jeff Pietrowski, Brandon Wright,

LB: Ma’a Gaoteote, Cal Haladay, Darius Snow, Ben VanSumeren

S: Kendell Brooks, Angelo Grose, Xavier Henderson

CB: Charles Brantley, Marqui Lowery, Ronald Williams

NB: Chester Kimbrough

Along with new faces, the Spartans return starting talent at each position group with another full offseason of growth under their belt.

Up front, defensive tackle may be the deepest and most talented position on the team. All six players listed above should see the field in 2022 and will be expected to plug holes and keep opposing rushers in check. Hansen, Barrow and Slade combined for nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year. The rush defense (15th in the nation) was one of the few bright spots on that side of the ball and may be even better heading into next year.

The top four tacklers on the team all return, and having Henderson back for a fifth season should be significant. His extension of the coaching staff on the field and overall production will give the team major confidence.

Haladay returns after an outstanding freshman All-American season and has quickly become a fan favorite. With Darius Snow moving to linebacker (although, we may still see him playing nickelback as well), the Spartans should have four starting caliber players to shift through at the position.

Kimbrough has seen most of the reps at nickel this spring and may be a better fit in the middle of the field than he was on the outside last year. Snow carried most of the load at nickel, but the coaching staff feels he may be best as a thumper at linebacker.

More incoming talent

Key transfers: DE Khris Bogle, LB Aaron Brule , CB Ameer Speed, LB Jacoby Windmon

Tucker once again went out to the portal and got guys to fill some wide holes from last year’s units. All four transfer players here should be able to come in and make an immediate impact. All four players have a chance to start start early, or will at least see significant reps in games.

Speed should be a big help and is the second cornerback talent Tucker has poached from a national championship team (Ronald Williams Jr., Alabama). The former Georgia Bulldog played in 13 games (including three starts) for a team that just saw five players get taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and had a record 15 players drafted overall.

Bogle, a former top-75 recruit, may be able to step in and pick up where Jacub Panasiuk left off. After starting just three games for the Gators this past season, combined with the departure of head coach Dan Mullen, Bogle looks for a fresh start in East Lansing.

Brule and Windmon add major depth to an already talented linebacker room and should both see a good amount of playing time. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Brule entered the portal after posting 53 tackles and eight tackles for loss in 12 games this season for Mississippi State. Windmon, who is 6-foot-2 and 230 pound, was an All-Mountain West pick this past fall with UNLV and had 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

There will likely be freshman that standout and sneak their way into the rotation, hopefully the same way Haladay did last year. Defensive tackle Alex VanSumeren was the highest-ranked recruit in the 2022 class and is a name to look out for. In the secondary, keep an eye on Jaden Mangam, Dillon Tatum and Caleb Cooley.

Possible scheme change/coaching staff changes

The Spartans actually improved in some aspects last season, but still finished ranked 111th in the country in total defense (441.9) while giving up more passing yards per game (324.8) than any other team. On third down, MSU ranked 83rd but it felt worse during big games.

Overall, things needed to be modified and shakeups with the coaching and schemes are inevitable. The 4-2-5 set that defensive coordinator Scottie Hazleton brought over was picked apart too often and it’s no secret Tucker wants to develop more of an SEC style approach, with perhaps more of a 4-3 or 3-4 set. It will be intriguing to see how the new faces and versatility on the roster will impact the approach schematically, but it may also depend on the matchups. While the 4-2-5 will likely remain prevalent, the Spartans now have the personnel to be versatile on defense.

Marco Coleman has replaced Ron Burton as the defensive line coach and Tucker brought in Brandon Jordan as the pass rush specialist. Hazelton is now coaching linebackers, while special teams coordinator Ross Els is working with nickelbacks and Tucker (a former defensive back) will likely assist with coaching cornerbacks, while Harlon Barnett continues to oversee the secondary as a whole. Last year’s cornerbacks coach, Travares Tillman, has departed for Georgia Tech.

It may not be easy to measure how much the coaching carousel will affect production, but the idea of change just feels positive. We’ll see how it plays out.