Five key issues for Michigan State's defense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State opens its season Friday, Sept. 4 at Western Michigan. Here are five key issues facing the Spartans' defense.

Dantonio's best

Coach Mark Dantonio can't remember when he's had a defensive line as good as this Michigan State crew appears to be. Led by fifth-year senior end Shilique Calhoun, the defensive front will be the heart of the Spartans' defense as talent and depth are evident at each position. Fifth-year senior Lawrence Thomas makes the move out to end and seems primed for big things while sophomore Demetrius Cooper has a high ceiling. Inside, fifth-year senior Joel Heath and Damon Knox are steady while it is expected that sophomore Malik McDowell will have a huge impact. Other young players will continue to push, as well, including redshirt freshmen Enoch Smith Jr. and Craig Evans, and freshman Raequan Williams.

Montae Nicholson

Linebacker shuffle

The Spartans were prepared to head into the season with three starters that would have been as quick and as athletic as they have seen in some time. But the loss of fifth-year senior Ed Davis to a knee injury has created some angst as many of the options to replace him are long on skill but short on experience. Fifth-year senior Darien Harris and junior Riley Bullough will be solid, but which young player steps up remains to be seen. Sophomores Chris Frey and Drake Martinez appear the most ready, but sophomores Jon Reschke and Shane Jones continue to push while redshirt freshman T.J. Harrell and freshman Andrew Dowell could figure in the mix.

Demetrious Cox

Corner carousel

After losing a cornerback to the first round of the NFL draft two straight years, Michigan State now finds itself looking for the next star. Junior Demetrious Cox, who has played mostly safety, starts at one corner spot. After that, it's up for grabs. Fifth-year senior Arjen Colquhoun and junior Jermaine Edmondson had solid springs while junior Darian Hicks is being slowed by mono. Redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland also played well in the spring and will get a shot, as will a group of true freshmen, including Josh Butler, Kaleel Gaines, David Dowell and Tyson Smith.

Safety stuff

One of the most underrated losses from last season was that of safety Kurtis Drummond. He was the leader in the secondary and one of the team's most respected players. Fifth-year senior RJ Williamson has the most experience of the group and played alongside Drummond often the past two seasons, but he'll need to be more consistent this season and avoid giving up the big play. Sophomore Montae Nicholson started three games last year and appears on the verge of a breakout season.

Life after Narduzzi

The Spartans have turned into one of the nation's top defenses since Dantonio arrived in 2007, and much of that was a credit to Pat Narduzzi. But the former defensive coordinator took the head coaching job at Pittsburgh and the Spartans move on without him. However, his staff remained, including Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, the co-defensive coordinators. They worked with Narduzzi for 11 seasons, and while there are sure to be some tweaks to the system, the transition should be fairly seamless.