Scouting MSU’s defense: Stout against the run

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Raequan Williams

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down Michigan State’s defense.

All out blitz

Michigan State saw its sack totals increase dramatically last season, jumping from an abysmal 11 in 2016 to a respectable 28 last year. Much of that was thanks to the infusion of energy from former walk-on defensive end Kenny Willekes, who had 14.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Entering his junior year, expect Willekes to improve on those numbers, however there’s still some question to who plays at the other defensive end. Sophomore Jacub Panasiuk will get the first crack but redshirt freshman Jack Camper has also been opening eyes throughout camp. Linebacker Brandon Randle will continue to be used as an end in certain packages and the linebacking group as a whole has put an emphasis during the offseason of becoming a better blitzing unit. Will any of it help the Spartans reach the sack totals they saw previous to 2016? That’s harder to answer, but don’t expect MSU to change its approach as it still intends to do whatever it takes to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.

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Pushing back

While there are questions when it comes to rushing the passer, there are no such concerns when it comes to the Spartans stopping the run. A season ago, Michigan State allowed just 95.3 yards a game on the ground, second-best in the nation behind Alabama, which allowed 94.7. With junior tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk back to man the middle of the defense, along with backups Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens, there should be plenty of room for junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie to surpass the 100 tackles he had last season. Senior outside linebacker Andrew Dowell (74 tackles) is also back, as is senior safety Khari Willis (71 tackles). With expected improvement from sophomore linebacker Antjuan Simmons and junior Tyriq Thompson likely moving into a starting role, the Spartans don’t expect to give an inch to opposing backs.

Shakur Brown

Next man up

Ever since Mark Dantonio came to Michigan State, the Spartans’ defense has been known for producing top cornerbacks, including first-round picks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. Whether a first-rounder is on this year’s roster remains to be seen, but even with sophomore Josiah Scott missing the first few games with an injury, the Spartans should be in good shape. Junior Justin Layne (6-foot-3) has NFL size and speed and has started 14 games over the past two seasons after moving over from receiver while junior Josh Butler has played in 23 career games. While MSU waits for Scott to return, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Shakur Brown and freshman Kalon Gervin. Brown redshirted last season as he made the move to corner and it paid off with a solid preseason camp. Gervin enrolled early and played well enough in preseason camp that it could warrant some early playing time to see if he’s a candidate to avoid redshirting.

Depth aplenty

As deep as Michigan State is in the back end, the linebacking crew has a similar makeup. Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell are the certain starters in the middle and on the weak side and each has plenty of talent backing them up. Fifth-year senior Byron Bullough can step in for Bachie while also having the ability to play on the outside while Antjuan Simmons had 34 tackles as a true freshman backing up Dowell. The strong-side linebacker spot, called the money linebacker, is where the depth really comes into play. It’s been a battle all camp to see who gets the nod, but the reality is the Spartans will use several players there, including junior Tyriq Thompson and sophomore Brandon Randle as well as sixth-year senior Jon Reschke, who started 14 games at the position when MSU reached the playoffs in 2015. Also, keep an eye on freshman Chase Kline and Jeslord Boateng, who could get a shot at some point this season.

Jake Hartbarger

Leaning on Hartbarger

While some believe Mark Dantonio is embellishing a bit when he says it, the MSU coach believes the punt is the most important play in a football game. While that is debatable, having a reliable kicker is key to keeping a defense from playing on a short field, and Michigan State believes they have that kicker with senior Jake Hartbarger. The Ray Guy Award candidate has 36 punts of 50 yards or more while he’s placed 69 of his 180 career punts inside the 20-yard line, including 36 inside the 10. It won’t get near the attention of sacking the quarterback or intercepting a pass, but an effective Hartbarger will go a long way in Michigan State’s defense remaining among the best in the Big Ten.