August 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

'Mad scientist' Pat Narduzzi assures Michigan State's defense won't rest

East Lansing — For years now, the problem for Michigan State opponents has been figuring out which way defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was going next.

And just when they thought they might finally have found an answer last winter, he gave them another confusing look: Narduzzi, the 2013 Frank Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top assistant coach, decided to stay put in East Lansing.

He publicly turned down at least one job (Connecticut) last December, and the Spartans’ head coach, Mark Dantonio, insists there were other offers as well.

But the architect of one of college football’s best defenses was rewarded by Michigan State’s administration with a hefty pay raise. (He’ll make more than $900,000 this season, up from slightly more than $500,000 a year ago.) And if the past few years are any indication, that’s going to cost offensive coordinators in the Big Ten a lot of sleepless nights again this fall.

“No doubt, that’s huge for us,” said Shilique Calhoun, tabbed last week as the league’s preseason defensive player of the year.

It just wasn’t a huge surprise to Calhoun, a defensive end who passed on his own chance to leave, opting not to enter the NFL draft after a breakout redshirt sophomore season. Narduzzi said Monday he had no doubt Calhoun was coming back, and Calhoun says the same about the coach he affectionately describes as a “mad scientist.”

“We had a father-son talk,” Calhoun said, laughing. “I sat him down, I talked to him, I told him about the birds and the bees. …

“No, we jokingly played around with it. But I already knew what he was gonna do. If he wanted to leave, he would’ve told us ahead of time, because he didn’t want it to be a shock.”

No shock here, but Narduzzi, who came to Michigan State along with Dantonio in 2007, had little interest in discussing other programs’ interest in him Monday.

“Next,” Narduzzi said, smiling and calling for another question when the subject was first raised at the Spartans’ media day. “Come on. I don’t talk about that. We’re talking about football.”

Later, though, he finally relented when it was suggested the Spartans’ successful run — a Big Ten-best 42 wins the last four years — all but ensured he’ll have more opportunities down the line. And probably better ones, too, right?

“You never know,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, you don’t know. It’s a tough business out there and sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. We can be better this year and still not have an opportunity. And maybe I want an opportunity at a certain place and I don’t get an opportunity. You never know.”

Standard is set

All he knows for sure is his defense has its work cut out for it this fall, trying to live up to the standard set by its predecessors. Michigan State ranked second nationally in total defense last year en route to the 13-1 finish, including Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships. The Spartans are one of just three teams to rank in the top six defensively in each of the last three seasons. (Florida State and Alabama — the last two national champions — are the others.)

And after losing six senior starters from last year’s defense, there certainly are questions as Michigan State begins practice.

“When you watch ’em run to the ball, it’s, like, ‘Whoa,’ ” Narduzzi said of this year’s crew. “They may be as fast as last year’s defense or faster, but are they as smart or as physical or as seasoned? We don’t know that. Probably not.”

Then again, they may not have to be, provided the offense picks up where it left off last season.

“I think we started off last year thinking we’ve got to be perfect on defense,” said Narduzzi, whose ballhawking unit had twice as many touchdowns (four) as the offense did in the first two games of 2013.

Up front, where Calhoun has already declared the defensive line “AWOL” — Animals Without A Leash — this group has the makings of another monster. And there’s plenty of talent returning in the secondary, where the Spartans’ “no-fly zone” promises more of the same aggressive, press coverage we’ve come to expect.

Man in the middle

It’s in the middle, though, where Narduzzi admits he was a little bit “worried” during spring practice, wondering specifically if senior linebacker Taiwan Jones could fill the on-field leadership void left by the departure of Max Bullough.

But the first few days of August camp, Jones looks a “lot more confident,” Narduzzi says. And if it doesn’t work out, it sounds as if Darien Harris is more than ready to move inside.

Besides, as Calhoun explained Monday in talking about Narduzzi’s influence, from the well-disguised zone blitzes to his poorly-hidden passion, “He’s kind of like our middle linebacker, anyway.”

“When he comes down to the field in the fourth quarter,” Calhoun said, “it’s like when you see your mom and she gives you that look and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, what does she want?’ But you know.”

And know this, too: While Michigan State hosted 300-plus coaches this offseason — many of them hoping steal a piece of the Spartans’ defensive magic — Narduzzi and his staff hit the road in search of something new, too.

“Pat is always trying to do something to stay ahead,” said Harlon Barnett, Michigan State’s secondary coach who has spent more than a decade working alongside Narduzzi. “Every year we’re trying to go somewhere to find something to make us better.”

And why wouldn’t they?

“You’ve got to tinker a little bit,” Narduzzi said, shrugging. “But you don’t change too much, or you’re changing what you do well. We think we’ve got a good thing going.”

No, staying put doesn’t mean standing pat. But ask him why he’s still here and I think it all comes back to that.

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leads a defense that has ranked in the top six each of the past three seasons. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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