Sophomore cornerback Darian Hicks, left, wraps up receiver Tony Lippett in the Green and White game in April. Hicks is one of the new faces on the Michigan State starting defense. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — When Michigan State lines up on defense Friday night, there certainly will be a different look.
That’s to be expected when the likes of Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis are gone. That’s four of six starters missing from a defense among the best in the nation for the last three years — all years they were a key part of the defense.
Should a bit of a drop-off be expected? Perhaps.
Just don’t try to convince the guys still around.
“It’s gonna be the same nasty defense,” said nose tackle Lawrence Thomas, one of the new starters. “We are pretty athletic and I think you’re going to see more guys running to the ball. We’ll be the same nasty defense you saw last year.”
That’s a lofty prediction considering the Spartans have led the Big Ten in defense for three straight seasons and ranked in the top 10 in the nation those three years, as well. Michigan State is one of two teams (Alabama) to rank in the top 10 in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense in the last three seasons.
Still, the change in personnel can’t be denied.
Taiwan Jones, who has plenty of starting experience, is making the move from outside to middle linebacker while Ed Davis and Darien Harris are getting their shot to be full-time starters on the outside. Junior RJ Williamson steps in for Lewis at strong safety while Darian Hicks, a sophomore, is the newest cornerback.
And up front, where tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds are gone, Thomas and fellow junior Joel Heath step in with a large group of freshmen pushing for time.
But for Jones, the one who has drawn the most scrutiny as he attempts to replace Bullough, there is no doubt as to the talent of this group.
“We take it as a challenge,” he said of a perceived drop in production. “We’re going to come out and try and meet that challenge and show everybody we are not worse than last year and we might be just as good and maybe even better.”
Much of that will fall on Jones, who held off redshirt freshman Jon Reschke to be the opening-week starter.
But for linebackers coach Mike Tressel, it was clear.
“Taiwan’s our (middle) backer,” Tressel said without hesitation. “But every game’s a test, so he needs to go out there and perform.”
Jones said there wasn’t a moment when he felt he had wrapped up the No. 1 spot; he just felt he was becoming more consistent and comfortable as the days wore on.
“He probably went through the first 10 practices of camp and only had one that I would call a down day,” Tressel said. “So that’s pretty consistent, especially in the dog days of summer camp. So I said, ‘OK, that’s the consistency we’re looking for.’ That was the key.”
Reschke will get his chance to play, Riley Bullough has been very good at both outside positions, and fifth-year senior Mylan Hicks will play plenty at the “star” spot behind Harris.
Sure, the defense won’t have the same look as the last three years, but it will be just as important to the Spartans success.
And Jones can’t wait to prove this will be another outstanding defense. “I’m really looking forward to this game,” he said. “I’m anxious. I just want to play.”