Riley Bullough’s absence continues to haunt MSU’s ‘D’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State has dealt with its share of injuries, and none might be more critical than the loss of linebacker Riley Bullough.

The fifth-year senior has missed three straight games with a shoulder injury, and his status for Saturday’s game against Northwestern is uncertain.

“He’s close,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday.

With the defense continuing to falter late in games and failing to get off the field on third down, it’s easy to wonder how much of that can be attributed to Bullough’s absence.

Through five games, Michigan State is allowing a 45.2-percent conversion rate on third down, better than only Purdue in the Big Ten.

While junior Shane Jones has played well starting in Bullough’s absence — he had 13 tackles last week against BYU — there’s no doubt Michigan State could use Bullough in the middle.

“It’s gonna be nice when we do (get him back),” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We go in every week and he watches film. ... You go out there Tuesday (at practice) and they line up in a certain formation and he’s calling out the play. It’s that fast and clicks in his head.”

Bullough isn’t the only injury the Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) are facing as they try and end their three-game skid. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Raequan Williams did not play last week, while senior cornerback Darian Hicks (undisclosed) was dressed but did not play.

Fifth-year senior Kodi Kieler is listed as the starter this week at left tackle after missing the second half last week, and junior linebacker Jon Reschke (ankle) is out.

The injuries have created plenty of shuffling. After starting the first four games at right guard, senior Brandon Clemons played defense last week, drawing a significant number of snaps at tackle. That appears to be the plan this week — Clemons is listed on defense on the depth chart.

That leaves fifth-year senior Benny McGowan and junior Brian Allen handling right guard and center, while redshirt freshman Tyler Higby is coming off his first start at left guard.

MSU likes Barnett

A report from 247sports.com said Michigan State is among the teams interested in former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett, who left the Crimson Tide program after freshman Jalen Hurts won the starting job.

Barnett has enrolled at Palomar Junior College in California.

Jeff Steinberg, who coached Barnett in high school, told 247sports that officials from Oregon, UCLA, Washington and California have spoken with him about Barnett. The report also said Florida, Miami, Michigan State and and Texas A&M are interested.

“I could see him narrowing it down fairly quickly and trying to make a decision by Christmas time,” Steinberg said.

Barnett (6-5, 200) was a five-star prospect in 2015 and redshirted at Alabama before starting the opener this season. He was replaced by Hurts and decided to transfer at the end of September. The move to a junior college means Barnett will be eligible on calendar year from the transfer date, meaning he would be available to his new school by late September.

Versatile freshman

Freshman Justin Layne saw his first action two weeks ago against Indiana, and by last week became the latest two-way player for Michigan State, playing most of the fourth quarter at cornerback.

Layne was listed as the No. 2 cornerback behind sophomore Vayante Copeland on the depth chart, and No. 3 at receiver behind freshman Donnie Corley and sophomore Brandon Sowards.

“There is some ability there that we could see could him being a special player at corner,” co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Harlon Barnett said. “Not that he doesn’t want to continue to play some receiver, but he could be a really good corner for us.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @mattcharboneau