MSU defense expects to be ‘fine’ without Narduzzi

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Chicago — As Michigan State has emerged as a Big Ten power and a factor on the national stage the last five seasons, there has been little doubt defense has been the biggest reason.

In each of the past four seasons, Michigan State is the only FBS team to rank in the top 10 in the country in total defense and rushing defense.

While plenty of playmakers return this season, however, it’s hard to ignore the fact the leader — defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi — is gone. He left to take over at Pittsburgh, forcing Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio to enter a season with a different coach in charge of his defense for the first time.

Narduzzi was with Dantonio for three years in Cincinnati, followed by eight at Michigan State.

“We’ll still be the same Spartan Dawgs,” senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said at the Big Ten media days. “The coaching staff does a great job, and it was never coach Narduzzi handling everything. Everyone had a hand in what we did, so there is no need for picking up the slack. Coach Narduzzi is irreplaceable but at the same time he would have never left us in terrible condition.

“I know we will have a great year with the same swarm to the ball defense with all the green helmets and the live sidelines.”

The key to keeping the defense at the top of its game could be one thing Dantonio has preached throughout his career — continuity.

Co-coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel have been with Dantonio since Day 1 in Cincinnati, and know the defense as well as anyone. Add in line coach Ron Burton and the arrival of linebackers coach Mark Snyder, and Dantonio is convinced his defense is in the right hands.

“(Barnett and Tressel), I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them, the job that they’ve done,” Dantonio said. “They’ve both had opportunities to leave and become coordinators or go into the NFL and those type of things, and they’ve stayed the course. I think they deserve this opportunity.

“We’re going to be fine, and we’re going to pick up exactly where we left off.”

It’s easier to pick up where they left off with a defensive front as talented as any in the Big Ten.

Calhoun decided to return for his final season, and is joined on the line by loads of talented players. Lawrence Thomas makes the move to end in his final season, but can play almost anywhere. And inside, fifth-year senior Joel Heath is a steady force next to standout sophomore Malik McDowell.

The depth is impressive, too, with the likes of Demetrius Cooper at end and experience and talent inside with senior Damon Knox and redshirt freshmen Enoch Smith Jr. and Craig Evans.

“This defensive front is maybe as talented a group as we’ve had since I’ve been at Michigan State these last nine years, and I would put it very much on par with the defensive line we had at Ohio State,” Dantonio said, referencing the national championship year in 2002 when he was the Buckeyes defensive coordinator.

While the Spartans will be breaking in another new middle linebacker — likely junior Riley Bullough — they are tough on the outside with seniors Darien Harris and Ed Davis.

The biggest questions are likely at both cornerback positions, which are up for grabs. But playmakers abound in safeties RJ Williamson and Montae Nicholson, as well as junior Demetrious Cox, who will start at corner but also will work at safety.

“We’ve gotta find out a lot about our corners,” Dantonio said. “Our freshmen need an opportunity. Those first 10 days of camp are going to be very interesting.”

It’s made even more interesting because a familiar face — and voice — will be missing. And how Michigan State moves on will say a lot about the program.

“There’s an adjustment, but through all this you always look to get better at what you’re doing,” Dantonio said. “Through the losses, something we look at is, how can that make Harlon Barnett a better coordinator? What’s in store for him next? What’s in store for Mike Tressel next? How does our defense change?”