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

Tough tackles

They don’t get the notoriety of some of the other players on Michigan State’s roster, but the defensive tackles are as important as any to the Spartans ranking as the best rushing defense in the nation.

Fifth-year senior Raequan Williams is the leader of the group after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last season from the Associated Press and being named this season to the Outland Trophy watch list. He’s joined in the starting lineup by senior Mike Panasiuk, who has started 29 consecutive games and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades last season.

Junior Naquan Jones rotates in and likely would start on most Big Ten teams, while redshirt freshman Jacob Slade looks like the best bet to join the playing group. Redshirt freshman Deshaun Mallory could also see some time if the Spartans run into any injury issues.

Feeling the rush

Getting after the quarterback was one of Michigan State’s main points of emphasis this offseason, and having fifth-year senior Kenny Willekes back is an important first step. He had 20.5 tackles for loss last season, including 8.5 sacks and after breaking his leg in the Redbox Bowl, Willekes opted to return for his final season. That’s huge for the Spartans, but he’ll need some help if they’ll improve on the 28 sacks they recorded last season.

Junior Jacub Panasiuk should start on the other side and, if he can remain healthy, could be primed for a big season with so much attention being paid to Willekes. Sophomore Jack Camper is also pushing for playing time along with junior Drew Beesley. Also, keep an eye on true freshman Michael Fletcher, who was one of the top players in the Midwest last season at Flint Carman-Ainsworth.

No ordinary Joe

The Spartans might be as deep as any team in the Big Ten at linebacker, led by All-American candidate Joe Bachie.

The senior middle linebacker has led the Spartans in tackles each of the past two seasons and has been named to a handful of preseason All-American teams. He’s the quarterback of the defense and is rarely out of position.

Bachie is joined on the outside by the likes of fifth-year senior Tyriq Thompson, junior Antjuan Simmons and junior Brandon Bouyer-Randle. All three have played significant snaps and can play multiple positions, with Bouyer-Randle especially adept at getting after the quarterback.

There’s plenty of talent pushing for playing time, too, just in case injuries creep in. Sophomore Noah Harvey has had a solid preseason camp, while redshirt freshmen Jeslord Boateng and Edward Warinner have put themselves in position to see more playing time.

Heading it off at the pass

While Michigan State has consistently been one of the best defenses in the nation against the run, its pass defense has sometimes been vulnerable to giving up its share of yards through the air.

Last season, the Spartans allowed 225.2 yards passing a game, some of that attributed to the fact teams sometimes abandoned running the ball. Still, the Spartans expect to play better in the back end this year, even after losing cornerback Justin Layne and safety Khari Willis to the NFL.

With junior cornerback Josiah Scott healthy and fifth-year senior safety David Dowell leading the way, the secondary won’t be lacking in talent or depth. Fifth-year senior Josh Butler likely will start at cornerback, with sophomore Xavier Henderson taking over at safety. Juniors Tre Person and Dominique Long will push for time at safety, while loads of young talent reside at cornerback. Freshmen Kalon Gervin and Davion Williams are waiting in the wings, with sophomore Shakur Brown coming off an impressive spring and preseason camp.

Welcome back

It’s not often a team goes through more than a couple of punters in a season, let alone five. But that’s exactly the position Michigan State was in last season after Jake Hartbarger suffered a broken leg in the second game of the season.

It led to a parade of legs that even included backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi that night at Arizona State. Freshmen Tyler Hunt played five games before an injury knocked him out as Michigan State also used freshman Will Przystup and brought in Bryce Baringer midseason.

All but Przystup are back, as Hartbarger was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA and expects to be back to 100 percent by the time the season begins.

The Spartans also brought in true freshman Jack Bouwmeester, a native of Australia who joined the team in the spring.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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