East Lansing — Throughout Mark Dantonio’s first 10 seasons at Michigan State, there was virtually one constant — the Spartans had a defense that would get after the quarterback.
Aided by some of the top-coverage defensive backs in college football and a stockpile of talent along the defensive line and at linebacker, the Spartans were all about pressure.
It’s the type of defense Dantonio ran as coordinator at Ohio State, one that was a huge part in winning the national championship in 2002. And it was exactly the style Pat Narduzzi adopted as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator up until taking the head coaching job at Pittsburgh before the 2015 season.
And it was that exact same, suffocating approach taken in 2015 when Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel took over the defense and helped the Spartans reach the College Football Playoff.
In 2016, however, the unit on the field hardly resembled that of previous Michigan State defenses. For a team that had become accustomed to finishing in the top 10 in the nation in most major defensive categories, last season was a mess.
The Spartans were in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rushing defense (ninth), pass efficiency defense (12th) and scoring defense (10th).
But one number truly stood out, one that was almost hard to fathom: 11.
That’s how many sacks Michigan State had in 2016. It’s fewer than 14 different players totaled a season ago, and not only did it rank last in the Big Ten, only two teams in the entire nation had fewer sacks.
Michigan State was better than Texas State (nine) and East Carolina (eight) while matching the 11 sacks of Georgia Southern and New Mexico State.
“It’s my job to improve that,” defensive ends coach Mark Snyder said. “That number has got to go up.”
That might be the understatement of the off-season, but there is one key difference to why Michigan State didn’t have the sack numbers last season it had become accustomed to, and that’s the fact the Spartans didn’t have the personnel.
“It starts with players,” Snyder said. “You’ve got to have players and cut them loose a little bit.”
Starts with talent
That was never a concern in the past, whether it be linebackers like Greg Jones and Denicos Allen or defensive ends like Jonal Saint-Dic, Trevor Anderson, William Gholston or Shilique Calhoun. In the first nine seasons under Dantonio, the talent was there.
It certainly was when the Spartans won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl in 2013, and was again in 2015. The starting defensive line in the Cotton Bowl matchup with Alabama — Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath and Malik McDowell — are all in the NFL now.
And the sack numbers proved the Spartans had the players. They had 40 in Dantonio’s first season with Saint-Dic getting 10 on his own, and then had 45 in 2011, a number that ranked third in the nation as Allen led the team with 11. There were 74 sacks total in 2013 and 2014, as Calhoun and Marcus Rush bookended the defensive line, and 37 in 2015 with Calhoun joined by Thomas on the edge.
Along the way, Michigan State had the benefit of solid play on the interior of the line from the likes of Jerel Worthy followed by Damon Knox and Micajah Reynolds and eventually McDowell and Heath.
None of those players were around last season, as Michigan State struggled to find the right combination up front. Demetrius Cooper started all but one game but had just 2.5 sacks. On the other side it was a revolving door that included Evan Jones, Robert Bowers and even McDowell along with freshmen Josh King and Auston Robertson.
Of course, King and Robertson are gone this season, dismissed amid separate sexual assault investigations, and the task for Snyder and the rest of the defensive staff is to turn things around with a group of players at end that include two former walk-ons and another who’s still splitting time at linebacker.
“We’re gonna be defensive end by committee,” Snyder said. “Coop’s played a lot. Brandon Randle has shown flashes, is very athletic, a very dynamic athlete. Kenny (Willekes) is playing really well. Dillon Alexander is playing really well. That’s a position be by committee.”
It’s also a position that’s changing. It’s something Dantonio has talked about as more offenses around college football put defense in the difficult spot of defending the run-pass option, or as it’s referred to —RPO.
To that end, Dantonio decided to change up the coaching staff, moving Snyder from linebackers to focus on defensive ends while Ron Burton narrows his work to defensive tackles.
“I just felt like defensive ends with all the RPOs right now, you know, they’re becoming a little bit more of a hybrid player,” Dantonio said. “I also felt very strongly that we needed to reduce the number of player-to-coach ratio and improve that from 20 to 1. Ron Burton has done an outstanding job here and continues to do so, but we need to take that 20-to-1 ratio and make it 10-to-1. By doing that, we individualize our coaching a little bit. When you have a young football team, that individual coaching aspect and that one guy coaching what he’s seeing becomes a little bit more direct, and it becomes a little bit more, I guess, position specific.”
The hope is that it creates more pressure on the quarterback.
“We talk about it every day,” Snyder said. “You have to affect the quarterback. You have to get tackles for loss and affect the quarterback in order to play good defense. There are a lot of other elements but that’s a big, big part of it. You don’t have to sack him all the time, but get him off the mark, just get him off the spot.”
It’s not just about the defensive ends, either. When Michigan State has been good it has had solid tackle play from the likes of Worthy and McDowell that disrupted the offense.
Burton believes sophomores Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are on the verge of being those players.
“At the end of the season, we started to build up more sacks and the ability to scramble the quarterback,” Burton said. “As we get ready here everyone has a strength and everyone has a weakness. We want the best players to play. We also had a lot of missed sacks and now we need to be able to finish on the quarterback, not only getting to him but finishing on him.”
There’s no doubt the play of the tackles and linebackers will be a big factor, but eyes will be on the ends.
Cooper is a likely starter while the former walk-ons — Willekes and Alexander — will have their shot, too. After that Randle is showing flashes along with true freshman Jacub Panasiuk. Add in players like Bowers and Justice Alexander who have been around and it’s a group that feels it has something to prove.
“Playing football you have to have short memory,” Willekes said. “Eleven sacks is not something you want to remember. So, we’re hoping this year we get after the quarterback a little more. This year that’s a big focus of ours.”
Slacking on sacking
Michigan State’s sack totals and individual leaders under Mark Dantonio
2007: 40 sacks, led by Jonal Saint-Dic with 10
2008: 26, Trevor Anderson (eight)
2009: 35, Greg Jones (nine)
2010: 20, Jerel Worthy (four)
2011: 45, Denicos Allen (11)
2012: 20, William Gholston (4.5)
2013: 32, Shilique Calhoun (7.5)
2014: 42, Shilique Calhoun (eight)
2015: 37, Shilique Calhoun (10.5)
2016: 11, Demetrius Cooper (2.5)