I would like to start with a quote from Jud Heathcote that someone correctly applied to us:
"The good news is our entire team is back, the bad news is our entire team is back"
That sort of fits our situation.
As Tucker put it we finished "dead ass last" in passing defense last year, and everyone is back this year.
We gave up over 4,000 yards through the air last year, the most of any team since a horrible Uconn team in 2018 that went winless against FBS teams.
Unfortunately it wasn’t like we were getting any better as the season progressed, we actually gave up more than 400 yards per game in our final 5 games, which was well in excess of our 325 yard per game average for the season.
In fact the entire defense has struggled since Tucker arrived, giving up more than 400 yards per game on average since he took over.
To add to it we lost all three of our top defensive ends from last year, andPietrowski is the only returning defensive end that had more than 10 tackles the entire season.
MSU and Tennessee were the only teams that just could not get off the field on defense, both facing over 1000 plays last year to lead the nation.
So why am I excited about this years defense?
Big losses - top three defensive ends (DE) Jacob Panasuik, Drew Beesley, and Drew Jordon
Starters: DE Khris Bogle, DE Jeff Pietrowski
Starters DT Jacob Slade, DT Simeon Barrow
Backups: DE Brandon Wright, DE Tank Brown
Backups DT Jalen Hunt, DT Maverick Hansen,
Others: DE Michael Fletcher, DE Avery Dunn, DE James Schott, DE Zion Young, DE Chase Carter
DT Dashaun Mallory, DT Derrick Harmon,DT Alex VanSumeren,
DT - huge strength
Simeon Barrow and Jacob Slade return as starters, Jalen Hunt and Dashaun Mallory, and Maverick Hansen return as experienced veterans. 4 star Alex VanSumeren enrolled early and is our top incoming recruit.
We have plenty of experienced and talented bodies to absorb injuries and rotate players to keep them fresh all game.
DE - potential problem
Both starters Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley, along with top backup Drew Jordan all graduated.
We return Jeff Pietrowski, Brandon Wright and Michael Fletcher but that only amounts to 3 starts total returning.
We added Khris Bogle a 4 star senior from FL who never lived up to his ranking at FL, but definitely has the athletic ability to be a star.
Chase Carter enrolled early but was not a top recruit, however he is 6’6" and has room to bulk up from his 225# high school weight and is now listed at 250# on the new roster.
Jacoby Windmon is a linebacker transfer from UNLV who had an incredible 118 tackles last year, more than any Spartan by a long shot. He is projected to play DE in pass rush situations.
Two new coaches.
Ron Burton who led multiple top 20 rushing defenses is gone and replaced by Marco Coleman (defensive end coach at Georgia tech) and pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan.
Tucker hopes this will improve the pass rush while maintaining the stout rush defense.
The Jordan hire in particular is outside the box as he has never coached previously, but was a paid tutor for NFL players working on their pass rush techniques.
Defensive end is one of the two keys to this years defense.
Last year we misleadingly led the B10 in sacks but that was skewed as we faced more passing downs than any other team in the nation so our sacks per pass attempt was not good.
That showed out in our 11th place B10 finish in third down defense where we were unable to get off the field, and couldn’t reliably generate pressure in obvious passing situations.
This year I think we will rotate a lot more bodies at the DE position keeping them fresh all season.
Although we don’t have any proven commodities, we have lots of athletic bodies and a new pass rush specialist which should actually result in a better pass rush to help the secondary out.
Big losses - Darius Snow moved to LB
Starter: Chester Kimbrough
Backup: Caleb Coley
Others: Justin White,
Nickel - mild strength
Darius Snow was one of the team leaders in tackling at nickel back last year. Since he was so good against the run he has been moved to linebacker. This year we are using more cornerback bodies rather than safetybodies at nickel to try and improve our coverage of the faster slot receivers. Kimbrough struggled at CB last year but the hope is he will do better against the shorter less physical slot receivers. Unlike last year this year we are very deep at theCB/Nickel position and should be able to find someone that will excel here, and if not Snow can always be moved back.
Big losses - none
Starters: Xavier Henderson, Angelo Grose
Backups: Kendell Brooks, Jaden Mangham
Others: AJ Kirk, Malik Spencer, Tate Hallock
Safeties - strength
Both of our starters return including our best defensive player and team leader Xavier Henderson.
Gross was not as strong as Henderson but he has a year of experience now, and there are two new 4 star athletes in Mangham (#311) and Tatum (#279) that both enrolled early and will push for playing time.
Big losses - none
Starters: Ronald Williams, Ameer Speed
Backups: Chuck Brantley, Marqui Lowery
Others: Ade Willie, ,Dillon Tatum, Davion Primm, Malcolm Jones, Khary Crump
This is where the Jud Heathcote quote comes in as we return everyone from a very bad cornerback showing last year.
Last year we were very thin at CB and were playing obviously banged up guys at the end of the season and it showed as they got torched.
Keep in mind that last year we faced 5 of the top 10 passing offenses in the nation, and that will not be the case this year as we don’t play Western Kentucky, Miami, Pittsburg or Purdue.
Last years CB coach is out, and Tucker has personally taken over coaching the CB’s this year with Barnett is in charge of the overall secondary performance.
We added Ameer speed as a transfer from Georgia who was a top 400 recruit out of high school.
We also added Caleb Coley at top 500 recruit that enrolled early.
Charles Brantley looked great with that game ending pick against UM but then hurt his shoulder and was out most of the remaining season.
We have Ronald Williams a top 50 recruit returning and he showed significant improvement last year until he got banged up.
Williams and Speed the projected starters are both over 6’2", and we haven't had that kind of height at both CB positions in a very long time.
With actual depth, size, an extra year of experience plus hands on training from Tucker himself the cornerbacks will improve a lot this season and there is no way we are "dead ass last" in pass defense again.
Starters: Cal Haladayand Jacoby Windmon
Backups: Aaron Bruleand Darius Snow
Others: Ma’a Gaoteote, Ben VanSumeren, Carson Casteel, Quavian Carter
LB - insane strength
We are absolutely loaded at LB next year, so much so that something has to change as we only play two in our 4-2-5 defense.
Hazelton our defensive coordinator has taken over coaching the linebackers personally to try and improve their pass coverage, and maybe mix things up by playing 3 linebackers at times.
Haladay who was all B10 as a freshmen returns, plus we picked up two top 10 transfer linebackers in Windmon and Brule.
We are so deep that Gaoteote who was our top recruit last year is projected to be third string next year, along with Ben VanSumeren who started at UM before transferring here.
To put our depth in perspective Crouch who started for us last year and had 75 tackles transferred out as he didn’t see himself getting a lot of playing time this year.
Last years defense had significant depth problems in the secondary which showed when multiple players got injured and we had to play banged up guys against some very good passing offenses late in the season, leading to big losses against Purdue and Ohio State. This year we have lots ofreturning experience, and have added significant depth in transfers and recruits. Our coaching has improved, and pass rush and pass defense have been the main point of emphasis in practice. I expect our rush defense to take a bit of a fall from 15th, but expect our pass defense to take amajor leap from 130th. If you wonder if it can be done remember last year we made a huge leap in turnover margin going from one of the worst teams in thenation120th all the way up to 43rd. Another key to our defense is that although they gave up a lot of yards (111th) they didn’t give up as many points as you wouldexpect (55th). We actually gave up 9 fewer points per game compared to the 2020 season, and I expect another big improvement this year. We return nine of eleven starters, have significantly improved our depth and athleticism across the board along with our coaching, so this years defense isprimed for a huge jump forward.