Michigan State senior Taiwan Jones is moving to middle linebacker from the outside this season. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — There is little debate Michigan State has built itself on defense.
Since Mark Dantonio arrived in 2007, the Spartans have gone to a bowl each season, won two Big Ten titles and captured last season’s Rose Bowl.
Along the way, the defense has been ranked in the top 10 in the nation each of the past three seasons. Last year, they finished No. 2 overall.
But now, as Michigan State sets to prove it has reached elite status in college football, the biggest questions are surrounding the defense.
Just don’t try and convince this year’s squad there will be any drop-off.
“I think the whole defense believes, this is what Michigan State defense is,” said linebacker coach Mike Tressel, who will see the defense replace six starters. “I don’t care what the name is on the back of the jersey, this is what Spartan defense is. I think they believe that and they go out every day trying to show that.”
The best defensive back in the game last season — Darqueze Dennard — is playing for the Bengals, while a middle linebacker who was described as having the mind of a computer — Max Bullough — is getting his shot with the Texans.
Gone, too, are outside linebacker Denicos Allen, safety Isaiah Lewis and tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds.
But the Spartans are convinced the players fighting to fill those spots might be better. And more importantly, it’s not like they are a bunch of unproven players.
“I think we’ve got a lot more experience than people think,” junior linebacker Darien Harris said. “We’ve all played in big games so nobody is coming in having never really played. We just keep that Spartan Dawg philosophy going which is the next man up. We’ve all been waiting for this opportunity to start and hear our name called as the starter on this team, so we just have to embrace it.”
Harris already has gotten a taste of it after filling in for Bullough in the Rose Bowl. He is listed as the starter at STAR, one of the outside spots, but will be in the mix in the middle with senior Taiwan Jones (moving from the outside) and redshirt freshman Jon Reschke. At the other outside spot, junior Ed Davis will battle with sophomore Riley Bullough.
For defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the competition will pay off.
“Right now there are a lot of jobs open,” he said. “Everybody is fighting for a starting linebacker job.”
Narduzzi said only four spots seem like a lock at this point — junior Shilique Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush have the end spots, while senior Kurtis Drummond is the free safety and junior Trae Waynes is the boundary corner.
At defensive tackle, it could be one of the freshmen — Craig Evans, Enoch Smith or Malik McDowell — or it could be the chance for highly-touted junior Lawrence Thomas to step in.
“He’s too good of an athlete not to be on the field for us,” Narduzzi said of Thomas. “He should be a starter. We’re not gonna give it to him, he’s got to earn it. But yeah, we want him to be a starter. It’s hard to beat out Rush and Shilique, but we’ll try to get our four best out on field.”
The safety spot will be a battle between junior RJ Williamson, sophomore Demetrious Cox and redshirt freshman Jalyn Powell while sophomore Darian Hicks is in the lead at corner. He’ll be pushed by junior Arjen Colquhoun and sophomore Jermaine Edmondson. Whatever the lineup eventually looks like, there is little doubt the Spartans are confident the perceived drop-off will be just that.
“We all work just as hard as they did,” Jones said. “We’re all talented, and everybody that comes through this defense is talented. When Greg Jones left, everybody looked at Max and he stepped up and did a great job.”
It’s all part of what Dantonio and Narduzzi have built entering their eighth season at Michigan State.
“There’s a foundation of who we are that remains from within our players,” Dantonio said. “There’s a foundation there, and there’s a lot of positive energy that comes from our coaches and what we have been able to accomplish on the defensive side of the ball. Those things just springboard you into the next phase.
“We have to develop our reputation again. It’s not like we are slowing things down. We are taking things that we need to work on and working on those things. We are accelerating our pace.”