It’s easy to assume the Michigan State defensive unit will improve as a whole, considering there's no where else to go but up from last season — at least when it comes to defending the pass.
Despite the all too consistent breakdown in coverages, there’s reasons to believe there will be major steps across the board defensively, most notably at linebacker. Why? Depth. The unit loses one of its more productive players in Quavaris Crouch to the transfer portal, but there were rumors that Crouch did not completely buy into the team’s culture, and the Spartans still return several players while also bringing in some new faces.
Head coach Mel Tucker is looking to bring a more NFL style approach to the defense, so it’s not surprising to see the types of players he’s brought in. With the mix of guys coming back and talent from the outside, there’s a lot to like with the linebackers.
Last year’s Freshman All-American Cal Haladay should be the catalyst in the middle and will look to at least match his overall production from year one. Haladay was tied with Xavier Henderson for the team lead in tackles with 96, and while he has room to improve in coverage, he was instinctive in the passing game with two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Haladay’s unlikely breakout now gives the defense a nucleus to build around, and the sophomore's Big Ten style of play has already made him a fan favorite. With that said, it will be interesting to see if Haladay’s role changes at all with the newcomers likely to get plenty of reps.
Other notable returnees include sophomore Ma’a Gaoteote and redshirt senior Ben VanSumeren, both of whom had somewhat indecisive offseasons before ultimately deciding to remain with the team.
Gaoteote who was the poster of the boy of the 2021 recruiting class, entered his name in the transfer portal in January, only to withdraw a few weeks later. The freshman played sporadically throughout the season on just 65 defensive snaps, recording seven tackles, a pass defended and a forced fumble as a true freshman in 2021. He also played 46 special team snaps. Gaoteote is someone to keep an eye on in 2022.
VanSumeren also flirted with the portal while remaining active with the team throughout spring practice, but eventually withdrew his name in April. The recent transfer from Michigan played the fourth most snaps last year at linebacker (122), recording 12 total tackles. He also played 133 special teams snaps. VanSumeren should see be in the rotational mix in 2022. He will now be joined by his brother, Alex VanSumeren, the Spartans’ highest-rated freshman from the 2022 recruiting class.
Other returners from last year’s squad include Sam Edwards (redshirt sophomore), Kobe Myers (redshirt sophomore) and Carson Casteel (redshirt freshman). Additionally, junior Darius Snow and redshirt sophomore Itayvion “Tank” Brown return as well, and both are now listed as linebackers on Michigan State’s 2022 roster. There will be more on Snow and Brown below, but first, let’s talk about the newbies.
Just like with Crouch last year, Tucker went to the portal to add depth at the position with a duo of athletic veterans. Jacoby Windmon and Aaron Brule each played large roles during their tenure for their respective schools and will join a Spartan defense that should give them an opportunity to flourish.
Windmon may be the biggest addition from the portal and was extremely productive in his three years at UNLV. He played at defensive end in his first two seasons before making the switch to linebacker in 2021. Last year, he totaled 119 total tackles, which was good for 13th in the nation and led the team in sacks at 6.5.
It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses Windmon now that he is in the Big Ten — will he line up next to Haladay, or even cut into Haladay’s snaps? Or will the team use him more as a stand-up edge rusher? Perhaps all of the above. Regardless of where he lines up, Windmon’s speed and athleticism should allow him to find the field in several different packages and he should play a lot of snaps.
The other splash addition to the unit is Brule, who brings a similar playing style as Windmon. In 40 career games with Mississippi State, he totaled 141 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. As the Spartans struggled to get to the quarterback in key games last year, both transfers will bring a much needed element of speed and agility that should open up holes for others as well.
Both players joined the team in spring, giving them time to adapt to their new teammates and schemes. Don't be surprised to hear their names in bunches on Saturdays come this fall.
Other things to watch for
The biggest thing to watch for in the unit outside of the core, is how the coaches decide to use Snow, who played mostly at nickelback last year, but also started at safety in the Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. Snow spent the spring with the linebackers and, again, is now listed at the position on the fall camp roster. His versatility and hitting ability will get him on the field often, but it will be interesting to see how much he’ll actually be used at linebacker considering the depth there. No matter where he plays, Snow will have a crucial role on the defense.
In another recent transition, Brown is now listed as linebacker but may see more time at defensive end. Brown played linebacker his freshman season at Minnesota before coming to East Lansing, but shifted to the edge before the start of last year. He only played a handful of snaps in 2021 due to injury, but has the talent to be productive.
Aside from the two transfer additions, Quavian Carter comes in as the lone true freshman recruit. He actually played safety in high school, but was recruited to MSU as a linebacker. The team has also recently added true freshman walk-on Jay Coyne.
The Spartans have nine total scholarship linebackers as it stands today, but the competition at the top should play itself out. Having too many guys is typically a good problem to have, and that is especially true for this unit.