Returning Starters: Jacoby Windmon, Cal Haladay
Returning Reserves: Aaron Brule, Ma’a Gaoteote, Darius Snow, Sam Edwards, Quavian Carter^, Jay Coyne^, David Millikin^
New Additions: Jordan Hall, Aaron Alexander*, James Burbar*
^ = redshirt freshman; * = transfer
The biggest question facing MSU’s defensive coaching staff as the season approaches is what will be the base formation. Hopefully this decision is based on what will allow Tucker & Co. to get the most talent on the field at a time as opposed to trying to squeeze pieces into a predetermined philosophy. And if that decision is based on talent, then it is highly likely that MSU will have a 4-3 base defense, and will switch to a nickel package only for obvious passing situations. It is no stretch to say that the linebacker corps is the most talented of the three units on the defense, and it is particularly top-heavy.
One thing there is no question about is who the top two are. Cal Haladay led the team in tackles last season, and was second in the B1G in total tackles, not to mention first in tackles/game (I guess that means someone missed at least one game so had less total tackles but more per game). Going into his third year as a starter in East Lansing, he is the unquestionable man in the middle of this defense, and judging by his stats, he seems to be everywhere, not just in the middle. Lining up next to Haladay is redshirt senior Jacoby Windmon, who is going into his second season as a Spartan after starting his career off at UNLV. No big deal but Windmon is number two among all active FBS players in career forced fumbles with nine. Last year, of course, Windmon started the first half of the season on the line before being shifted to his current position of LB. Unfortunately for the 2022 team, he was among the players suspended for his actions in the um tunnel incident and sat out the rest of the season. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise, because I have a feeling he is coming back with a vengeance. Look for him to punch out even more footballs this year, as well as being among the leading tacklers again.
Beyond the top two of Haladay and Windmon, there is a decision to be made as to who will slide into the third starting linebacker position. This decision would hypothetically be made much easier by a return to health for Darius Snow. Snow went down with a leg injury in last season’s opener and was lost for the year. Defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton was quoted about Snow just this past week, “He’s out there, he’s able to do some drills. He’s not quite ready yet...” Considering we are just 20 days (!!!!) away from the first game of this season, it is sounding more and more likely that he will not be ready to start the season. We should see him at some point, but it is just a question of when. After originally playing in the secondary, Snow could eventually be instrumental in helping cover tight ends and even running backs going out on routes in a base 4-3 formation.
Looking at the players who should be available for the opener, the most likely candidates for that third LB spot are Aaron Brule, Ma’a Gaoteote, and Jordan Hall. Personally, I would be most excited to see Hall win the job. I say that for two reasons. First, I feel like that would indicate a big win for MSU recruiting. We know he is one of the top linebackers in this incoming class and he comes from the football factory known as IMG Academy in Florida. If we can start being recognized nationally as a place where top recruits can go and make an impact immediately, then that could bode well for future recruiting classes. Yes, I know there is the flipside of that where it could also indicate a lack of talent on the roster, but in this case I don’t think that is the issue. The second reason I would like to see him win the starting job is because then I could feel even stronger about the depth of the LB room.
Aaron Brule is coming into his second season in East Lansing and his final year of eligibility after playing three years at the MSU of the South. Last year he was second on the Spartans in sacks (4) and third in TFLs (6.5). He also logged more special teams plays than anyone else on the team, though you have to wonder if that number gets tapered down if he takes on a larger role on defense this year. Ma’a Gaoteote may be some wishful thinking on my behalf, but after playing in twenty games his first two seasons in the program and not needing to redshirt, I am predicting a big jump in his productivity as he becomes an upperclassman.
After that, the rest of the names should just be depth in the event of injuries. They will have their day somewhere down the road, but hopefully we aren’t seeing them often in 2023.
Projected Starters: Cal Haladay, Jacoby Windmon, Aaron Brule