August 12, 2014 at 7:32 pm

Retooled Michigan State defense looks to take shape

East Lansing — On Monday, Mark Dantonio wasn’t about to admit the Michigan State offense was ahead of the defense a week into camp.

After an impressive performance in the first scrimmage last weekend, it was an obvious question.

Dantonio, however, wouldn’t bite.

“I would say we’re right where we need to be, and we’re gonna keep gaining,” he said.

But defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was on board with the idea the offense is ahead — sort of.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got a lot of talented receivers, I can guarantee you that, and the quarterbacks are good. Connor Cook, I still believe, is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, so I would say the offense is ahead of the defense.”

Narduzzi did point out, however, how he is always committed to stopping the run and that the rushing numbers from the scrimmage were far from impressive.

It highlighted the constantly changing perceptions of a defense that will be under the microscope as it replaces six starters. In one moment, Narduzzi says he is “very happy with where our (No. 1) defense is and we gotta develop our backups. Our depth’s not good enough, but I felt pretty good with the way the ones played.”

The next moment, when asked if the defense is where it needs to be, he said, “Never. No. Hell no. OK? It’s never been where it needs to be, it never was this year or last year or the year before. It’s never there.”

Needless to say, the defense is a work in progress, focused on a few areas.

At linebacker, the depth chart appears to be changing constantly. Taiwan Jones is No. 1 in the middle while Ed Davis and Darien Harris are on the outside. But there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.

Redshirt freshman Jon Reschke has played well in the middle, while Riley Bullough has had a solid camp. Bullough’s play could cause a shuffle of the outside linebackers that moves Harris back to the middle. And fifth-year senior Mylan Hicks has vaulted into the competition on the weak side.

But like everything else, nothing is certain.

“It’s too early to say,” Narduzzi said. “Riley Bullough is doing a heck of a job when you look at linebacker. ... Reschke played great, so did Taiwan Jones. Both those guys played very well.”

It’s just as jumbled on the interior of the defensive line.

Junior Lawrence Thomas has drawn plenty of raves from the staff, while junior Joel Heath is holding down the other starting spot. But freshmen Malik McDowell and Enoch Smith are pushing for playing time. Fellow freshmen Craig Evans and David Beedle also are getting a shot.

“We got the best freshman class of D-tackles in the country, I think,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know how many are gonna play for us this year, but at least two of them and possibly three, but who knows? I’d like to think two are; it’s too hard to say.”

The end spots are locked down with Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, but the backup battle is an interesting one.

Plenty is expected of redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper, and true freshman Montez Sweat has impressed early in camp.

“Sweat is a puppy and is doing a great job,” Narduzzi said. “He is tough, he’s athletic and we got to get him ready to go. Cooper’s playing good. He’s got to be more consistent but he’s got ability. … Coop’s gonna be a good player for us.”

The cornerback position is also hotly contested as sophomore Darian Hicks continues to hold off the competition, including junior Arjen Colquhoun and sophomore Jermaine Edmondson.

But true freshman Montae Nicholson is turning heads. He has played safety, learned a few plays at receiver, and is working at corner.

“He is a baby, just trying to learn,” Narduzzi said. “Heck of an athlete, about as physical a DB as we’re gonna have. ... He is really, really raw right now.”

Darien Harris is part of a Michigan State linebacker crew that appears to be in flux. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News