Ron Burton has his work cut out for him.
As Michigan State’s defensive line coach, Burton will be tasked with attempting to replace three of four starters, including one who was taken in last weekend’s NFL Draft.
Gone are end Kenny Willekes as well as tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. Willekes was a two-time All-Big Ten selection, the conference’s defensive lineman of the year in 2018 and the program leader in tackles for loss. Williams started 42 consecutive career games and eared first-team All-Big Ten honors twice while Panasiuk started 41 games and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten as a senior.
In other words, the Spartans lost plenty of production up front and are counting on those that backed up the trio to take the next step.
“Those guys that were in front…they were great teachers,” Burton said. “Those kids behind that had 200-plus snaps are going to have opportunity to play up front. Me understanding that is crucial, but those guys will have a great opportunity because of the guys that came before them.”
The middle of the defensive line seems most equipped to keep on moving without skipping a beat. Naquan Jones is entering his fifth year in the program and has been one of the primary backups in the interior of the line. He’s played in 13 games in each of the past three seasons and earned his first career start in 2019.
Jacob Slade was also in the rotation as a redshirt freshman. He played in all 13 games and played 262 snaps, recording 14 tackles, including 2.5 for losses and a sack. He had two tackles for loss and his first career sack in the win over Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“Naquan Jones has been an experienced player for the last four years with an opportunity to really flourish with multiple more starts,” Burton said. “He has been a great person in the classroom with the guys. He has been more vocal; he’s very energetic. He’ll double his snaps but he is a leader right now in the defensive tackle room.
“Jacob Slade, who had 200-plus snaps last year, has really come on at the end of the season last year. We expect him to be a force inside.”
Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans routinely rotated the defensive tackles, a practice that will almost certainly continue considering Burton has been overseeing the position the last seven seasons. He said to expect third-year sophomore Dashaun Mallory and redshirt freshman Jalen Hunt to get more snaps.
“Dashaun Mallory, who is a redshirt sophomore coming up this fall, is very strong at the point of attack, expecting to see him on the field,” Burton said. “Then the young man Jalen Hunt shows quickness and movement and is destructive in the backfield. Those are the top four guys that we expect to help us this fall.”
On the edge, things are a little bit more up in the air.
Senior Jacub Panasiuk is the only returning starter for a group that leaned heavily on Willekes, a two-time second-team All-American. Panasiuk started all 13 games last season and finished with 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
“He’s been a leader in the room,” Burton said of Panasiuk. “He’s been helping the young guys understand the game and the fundamentals; that’s the key to us up front. As a senior defensive end, you’re kind of taking the bull by the horns as an assistant coach and understanding the nuances of what’s going on. That really allows our guys to be prepared along with us.”
Joining Panasiuk in the end rotation could be an evolving battle, but expect fifth-year senior Drew Beesley to get plenty of work while the Spartans hope for the continued development of fourth-year junior Jack Camper and redshirt freshman Michael Fletcher. Both have battled injuries but Burton expects both to be in the thick of the rotation this season.
“We expect them to be co-starters and on the field a lot,” Burton said of Camper and Fletcher. “Jack Camper with the injury that he’s had; he’s gotten stronger, gotten better and understands the position. A young Fletcher who has not had that many snaps is just getting stronger; understanding what to do and what not to do. He’s a long player out there, asks great questions and we expect a lot from him.
“The guy on the other side, Drew Beesley, he’s had a lot of snaps and he’s going to be battling for that starting position. I think he’s going to have an opportunity to help us a lot because he’s had to play and he is a true teacher on the other side also. Very smart player and we expect a lot out of him.”