East Lansing — Losing six starters from a defense that was the second-ranked unit in the country last season can cause some programs to scramble.
If the first week is any indication, that won’t be the case at Michigan State.
The Spartans entered Friday’s opener against Jacksonville State attempting to replace the likes of Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. And after one game, the guys charged with replacing those players were coming up big.
Sophomore cornerback Darian Hicks had a first-quarter interception while linebacker Ed Davis had 1.5 sacks and another half-tackle for loss. Middle linebacker Taiwan Jones also had a half tackle for loss, as did defensive tackle Joel Heath. Redshirt freshman defensive end Demetrius Cooper also had a sack.
And junior linebacker Darien Harris led the team with five tackles and recorded a half-sack.
“Overall I am happy,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “We got a lot of guys playing defensively. We haven’t had that in two or three years. It seems we (always) open up in a tight game. So we get guys in who you don’t know about, who had the opportunity to get into the game confidence, me. At corner, at linebacker … I think we probably played about six freshmen defensively. So just getting guys on the field, seeing how they react in a game situation. Like I said, not being able to do that in the past. So there will be a great tape evaluation for our guys.”
The Gamecocks, who came in with a high-powered offense, were held to just 89 total yards in the first half, including only 7 on the ground, and finished with 244 total yards for the game.
There were a handful of big plays against the Michigan State defense, something that was expected with the shift in personnel. Hicks gave up a 32-yard pass completion on the first play from scrimmage before recovering to get the interception later in the quarter.
“I’m not going to lie, I had some butterflies in there,” Hicks said. “But after the play was over I was like, ‘OK, I’m good now.’ ”
It wasn’t all new faces.
Fifth-year senior safety Kurtis Drummond also had an interception as the Spartans never allowed Jacksonville State to move past the 50-yard line in the first half and Shilique Calhoun recorded a sack, one that dropped the Gamecocks back 23 yards.
It was all from a defense that is determined to show they can be just as good as they were a season ago.
“Coach (Mark Dantonio) definitely emphasized the fact that we needed to come out and prove that we belong in the Top 10 in the nation and to show that we had no drop out from last year,” Harris said. “I think we came out and made a statement in this game. The offense did a great job moving the ball, putting points on the board. The defense did a great job stopping the run first and foremost.”
A few wounds
It wasn’t a perfect night for the Spartans in terms of injuries.
Left guard Travis Jackson went down with an injury in the third quarter and did not return while running back Jeremy Langford twisted his ankle late in the second quarter. In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, wide receiver Macgarrett Kings appeared to tweak his ankle.
Langford said he could have gone back in the game, but the coaching staff was playing it safe by keeping him out. And Dantonio didn’t make it sound like the injury to Kings was serious.
The real question is the status of Jackson. Dantonio won’t talk specifically about an injury unless it is long-term, which he did not know after the game concerning Jackson. He did talk about the options if Jackson is lost, including playing freshman Brian Allen, former defensive tackle Brandon Clemons or junior college transfer Miguel Machado.
“I think Brian is that next guy, he was in there early in the game.” Dantonio said. “I think, also, we can juggle things around to create some other situations, too. We’ll see how Travis is, but at the same time I think Brian Allen is a very good player, I think that we got to get Clemons up to speed a little bit. He just moved over there but he can be a good player and we’ll (wait) what we have to do beyond that. We did not take the redshirt of Machado today but he’s a very good player as well.”
Michigan State played its share of true freshmen on Friday, including Allen on offense. On the defensive side of the ball, tackles Malik McDowell and Craig Evans played, as did end Montez Sweat. Linebacker Chris Frey and safety Montae Nicholson also saw playing time.
“It was very quick,” McDowell said of the pace. “The hurry-up offense was real quick and we had little time to process it. It was a lot quicker than I’m used to but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Narduzzi said the plan all along was to play that many freshmen, but he came away especially impressed by Nicholson.
“He was a guy who played safety for a couple of days, and then he moved to corner, and then moved back to safety,” Narduzzi said. “If he had probably played safety all camp he probably would have been in the two-deep, but we are happy where he was. You get a feel for guys for about a half an hour before the game. He had a big smile on his face. On opening kickoff I think he made that hit. I said ‘Watch Monte, he is going to go out and make a play.’ and he did. He is a football player.”
Redshirt freshman safety Jalyn Powell was not dressed for Friday’s game.
Dantonio has referenced several times over the past couple of weeks about some safeties that have been dealing with minor injuries, and it appears Powell is one of those players.
A standout in the spring, Powell wasn’t mentioned much in preseason camp and was listed No. 4 on the opening-week depth chart at strong safety.
… Defensive tackle Damon Knox and guard Connor Kruse both did not dressed, as expected, after suffering injuries during preseason camp.