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East Lansing — Replacing Pat Narduzzi will be no simple task at Michigan State.

Before accepting the job as head coach at Pittsburgh, the Spartans' defensive coordinator built his unit into one of the best in the nation.

But nearly four weeks into spring practice, the transition has been a smooth one.

"We're gonna miss Pat, obviously," coach Mark Dantonio said Thursday during the Big Ten spring teleconference. "You always miss great coaches as they move forward, but coaching is about day-to-day things, about interaction with players, about relationships with players.

"And our position coaches have kept those relationships extremely strong, so there's a lot of confidence on the defensive side of the ball, and we'll continue to play well."

The Spartans have certainly done that, finishing in the top 10 in both total defense and rushing defense in each of the past four seasons. Last year, they ended eighth in the nation in total defense and were the best in rushing defense, allowing 88.5 yards a game.

Dantonio believes Michigan State will be able to produce similar numbers with the promotion of Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel to co-defensive coordinators. Barnett, who is also the team's associate head coach, continues to work with the secondary while Tressel will continue his work with linebackers.

But the Spartans have also added former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder to coach linebackers and special teams while Ron Burton continues as the defensive line coach.

"It allows for continuity with all of our position coaches returning," Dantonio said. "Coach Barnett and coach Tressel work very well together and have been on the same staff for 11 years, and they know each other very well. I don't think there has been an issue at all in that area.

"We hired Mark Snyder as linebackers coach and Ron Burton completes our defensive staff, and they are all doing a tremendous job. Based on how we scrimmaged last weekend, I don't see any dropoff."

The defense won that first scrimmage and returned three interceptions for touchdowns.

Defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who will be entering his final season in the fall, hasn't seen a change in mentality despite the departure of Narduzzi, and he credits Snyder's passion for much of it.

"(Narduzzi) was a great defensive coordinator for us and did great things for the program and was a father figure to me," Calhoun said.

"But it hasn't dropped in any way. We still have coach Barnett and coach Tressel and a new member to our staff. He is picking up where coach Narduzzi left off. He's fired up and ready to go every practice. He brings enthusiasm, and it's nice to see the transition. We haven't lost a step at all."

The rivalry continues

The rivalry with Michigan never seems far from the surface, and Dantonio was asked during Thursday's teleconference if he thought the matchup would pick up in intensity with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh as the Wolverines' coach.

"It is as it is," Dantonio said. "It always has been and it always will be. It just didn't start today or a couple months ago, it's been an ongoing thing, so we approach it like that daily."

Dantonio was then asked about his feelings about the Spartan statue being pained in maize and blue overnight and whether that comes into play with his team.

"There's always little things that get to you one way or the other, either way," he said. "I would imagine most people … I usually say everybody's got a story, whether it was the Rose Bowl when we played there or whether it's talking about a rivalry game and a certain situation that went down. So we all have our issues, I guess, to deal with.

"As I said earlier, we didn't start this. This (rivalry) has been in existence for a long time. It just didn't start when Mark Dantonio came to Michigan State. I felt it from the first time I was here and I'm sure it's always been like that."

Testing position switches

Spring practice is often a time to experiment with position changes, and the Spartans are seeing how a couple might play out.

Running back Gerald Owens, who redshirted last season, has been playing defensive line the past couple of weeks. His weight is listed at 263 pounds but it is higher than that, and he played defensive line in high school, prompting the shift.

"We want him to get more reps and we can always move him back," Dantonio said. "He needs to get an opportunity, but from what we saw the other day (in the scrimmage) he's going to get a great opportunity on the defensive line. He can play end or tackle. He's an explosive guy and we've got to try and keep his weight around 270 – we'll have to do something there – but he needs to be on the field for us somewhere."

Defensive lineman David Beedle, who redshirted last season, is also working at offensive line.

"He has been a force for us on defense," Dantonio said. "But we felt like this was an opportunity to look at him on offensive line for the future and the time is now to do that. We'll make a decision based on that, but he was impressive the other day. We'll see how it goes."

Dantonio said Owens and Beedle will play both offense and defense in the spring game April 25. He also said Nick Tompkins, who will be a junior in the fall, has returned to tailback after playing cornerback last season.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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