East Lansing – It was hard to notice late last season, in the midst of Michigan State trudging through the final three games of a disappointing season.
With a possible bowl bid disappearing rapidly and a defense failing to make an impact on any sort of consistent basis, there was a ray of light for the Spartans, and it happened to be right smack in the middle of the beleaguered defensive line.
That’s where a pair of freshmen – redshirt Raequan Williams and true freshman Mike Panasiuk – were showing there was something for the Spartans to build on. The defensive tackle tandem started the final three games against Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State, the first career starts for both.
And instead of taking up space while taking over for older players like Kevin Williams and Malik McDowell, they started making things happen.
After getting their feet wet in the starting lineup in a win over Rutgers, both stood out against Ohio State, a game the Spartans fell short in their upset bid by failing on a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter.
It was that game the young tackles started to stand out. Williams had three tackles, a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries while playing all but one defensive play. Panasiuk had a season-best seven tackles while getting credit for a half-sack against a team that finished its season in the College Football Playoff.
While the ends were still struggling to put pressure on the quarterback, Williams and Panasiuk were starting to establish themselves.
“Yes, there is no doubt about that,” defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said.
The play in the middle started to help the entire unit come together, and it showed in the 17-16 loss to the Buckeyes. The Spartans had five tackles for loss and three sacks, more than a quarter of their season total of 11.
“At the end of the season, we started to build up a lot more sacks and the ability to scramble the quarterback,” Burton said, focusing on what the next step is for his budding stars. “We 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.”
The idea that Williams and Panasiuk can be the catalyst for a resurgence is fine with them. It’s a duo that personifies Michigan State’s renewed focus on team chemistry – Williams is from Chicago and Panasiuk is from suburban Roselle, Ill.
The different backgrounds have washed away and the pair has become as tight as any on the team.
“Rae's my partner in crime, so I feel like this year we're going to do a lot of things together,” Panasiuk said. “Last year we were in with Malik or Kevin Williams or Brandon Clemons so we didn't really have that bond that we have now when we're together. Now that it's just me and him and the guys behind us, I feel like we'll create a bond.
“Rae is one of the greatest guys I know. The things that he says sometimes I just take it back and think, ‘Wow, what he just said really made an impact on my life.’”
It’s a mutual respect that Williams is certain will show on the field.
“That’s my guy,” Williams said of Panasiuk. “We build a lot of chemistry because we talk to each other a lot, so that’s my guy, that’s my man. We have a lot of chemistry and it feels good to come out and work with him.”
While Panasiuk played as a true freshman, Williams had the benefit of redshirting his first year. Now in his third season in the program, a big jump could be coming next.
“Yeah, I think the time is now,” Williams said. “I just continue to work and I don’t ever become complacent. I try to get better every time I’m out here with any little drill or anything, so feel like I’m ready to play this year.”
And the Spartans are hoping that means their defensive tackles will no longer be overlooked as they were late last season. The experience Williams and Panasiuk earned in 2016 was critical, now it’s up to them to let the rest of the Big Ten see they’re ready to break out.
“Our concern is to get the best out of them,” Burton said. “I think based on having the experience of last year will dictate that. I think that will be a feeder for them as far as being overlooked. But I don't want them to look at those things. I hope they are not concerned about what everybody else is saying. They need to be concerned about what is best for this football team and to improve what they are doing.”