July 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

College football

Five players to watch on Michigan State's defense

Taiwan Jones is moving to middle linebacker, replacing Max Bullough. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

East Lansing ó Michigan Stateís defense has been among the best in the nation for three years running and the Spartans will expect no less in 2014.

But six starters are gone from a unit that finished second overall in the nation last season as Michigan State attempts to defend its Big Ten championship.

Here is a look at five key players for the Michigan State defense heading into preseason camp, which begins in less than a week.

Taiwan Jones, LB

The senior has had three productive seasons playing on the outside, but now he is being asked to make the transition to middle linebacker, replacing Max Bullough, who is off to the NFL. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Jones has the size to be effective in the middle but the question remains whether he can handle all of the defensive calls the way Bullough did. Heíll be pushed in preseason camp by redshirt freshman John Reschke while others like Riley Bullough and Darien Harris could also figure in to the battle. But Jones will get the first shot and his progression will be key to Michigan State remaining a dominant defense.

Demetrius Cooper, DE

How much time the redshirt freshman sees behind the likes of Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush remains to be seen, but there is a consensus among the coaches that Cooper has the chance to be an impactful player even in limited time. He came to Michigan State at less than 200 pounds last season but is better than 230 now and appears ready to prove he is just like Calhoun, not only in size and stature, but in production on the field.

Lawrence Thomas, DL

It still isnít known if Thomas will play inside or out on the defensive line, but his ability to be a difference-maker could be key for the Spartans. The former five-star recruit has battled injuries as well as moves from defense to offense and back. But the defensive line appears to be where he is most comfortable and he put together an impressive spring. There will be plenty of opportunity for the junior this season, and if he can stay healthy, it could finally be his breakout season.

Darian Hicks, CB

There might not be another player with as much pressure on them entering 2014 than Hicks, but that is expected when youíre replacing the Jim Thorpe Award winner. Gone is Darqueze Dennard, but Hicks, who saw limited action as a true freshman in 2013, has been holding off the likes of sophomore Jermaine Edmondson and junior Arjen Colquhoun. Heíll have plenty of help with a veteran secondary around him, but there is little doubt Big Ten offenses will be looking toward Hicks as a place to potentially exploit the Spartans defense.

Ed Davis, LB

The junior was primarily a third-down specialist last season but heíll get the chance to be the full-time starter at SAM outside linebacker this year, replacing Denicos Allen. Davis proved late last season how productive he could be, collecting 17 tackles while notching a sack and three stops in the Big Ten championship game.