Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down Michigan State’s defense ahead of the season opener on Saturday against Bowling Green.
Hitting the sacks
It’s a number Michigan State players and coaching staff have just as hard of a time mentioning as they do last season’s 3-9 record. That number, of course, is 11, which indicates the number of sacks the Spartans had in 2016. It was better than only two other teams in the nation and well off what MSU has become accustomed to producing. The big reason was the lack of production from defensive end, and with Josh King and Auston Robertson gone, there’s a big void at that spot. Fifth-year senior Demetrius Cooper should start at one end, but he has yet to live up to lofty expectations as his 2.5 sacks last season were the best on the team. The other side is up in the air as former walk-ons Kenny Willekes and Dillon Alexander will get a shot, and veterans Robert Bowers and Justice Alexander could get a shot, too. The wild card is redshirt freshman Brandon Randle. He’s a linebacker by trade but is splitting time between the positions, but his playmaking ability has already impressed coaches making him a potential breakout start on the defense. Also, keep an eye on true freshman Jacub Panasiuk.
Strong up the middle
While there are questions up front at end, the opposite is true inside at tackle. Sophomores Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk started to come on late last season and each is primed to make a big move this season. The upside for the Spartans is it looks like they’ve got depth in the middle, as well. Redshirt freshman Naquan Jones had a solid spring and hasn’t dropped off in preseason camp, while the likes of sophomore Kyonta Stallworth and junior Gerald Owens have also impressed, as has fifth-year senior Devyn Salmon, who has spent his career bouncing back from defense to offense but seems to have found a home and will get a shot to contribute.
Stacked at 'backer
Much like running back on offense, linebacker appears to be the position on defense that has the fewest uncertainties. Senior Chris Frey led the Spartans in tackles last season with 96 and will look to help spark the pass rush this season from the outside, while junior Andrew Dowell holds down the other outside spot and is coming off a season with 67 tackles, a sack and three pass breakups. Look for sophomore Tyriq Thompson and true freshman Antjuan Simmons to get some time spelling the starters while Randle could also work into the rotation when not playing end. In the middle, sophomore Joe Bachie takes over after getting limited work late last season. He’s light on experience, which makes the presence of fifth-year senior Shane Jones vital, as he can back Bachie as well as having the ability to play on the outside. Junior Byron Bullough also provides depth in the middle.
Experience at safety
While the starters at safety still might be difficult to determine, the Spartans do have depth. The safe bet headed into the opener is that juniors Khari Willis and Grayson Miller will be the starters. Both saw their first action as true freshmen in 2015, but both were up and down last season as they deferred to Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson. As much as the playing time helps Miller and Willis, don’t count out junior Matt Morrissey and sophomore David Dowell. Each has seen time in the past and both have played well in preseason camp. At the very least, expect all four to play significant snaps as junior Jalen Watts-Jackson provides experienced depth while redshirt freshman Austin Andrews has work to do to crack the playing rotation.
Youth served at corner
The cornerback spot could have as many players working into the mix as safety. The starters seem clear at this point, as sophomore Justin Layne has one side locked down and true freshman Josiah Scott has been good since enrolling early in January. He dealt with a minor injury in preseason camp, but indications are he’ll be fine for the opener. Waiting the wings are junior Tyson Smith and sophomore Josh Butler. Smith has starting experience, and despite battling back from a stroke suffered after the end of last season, he appears to be in better shape than ever and is drawing rave reviews from the coaches. The same goes for Butler, who has been pushing throughout preseason camp to get more playing time and will certainly get some work early in the season. Junior T.J. Harrell is a veteran still working to find his place in the rotation while true freshmen Tre Person and Emmanuel Flowers are likely redshirt candidates.