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DBs are young, but MSU defense could be ‘excellent'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Ed Davis

Since Mark Dantonio took over at Michigan State, the Spartans have had their share of dominant defenses.

From 2011-14, the Spartans ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total defense. They took a step back in 2015, but there are signs things could turn around in 2016.

At least, that’s the way Dantonio sees things.

“I hope we’re always getting better,” Dantonio said on the Big Ten’s spring teleconference Thursday. “That’s my expectation and I think that’s everybody’s expectation as you move into the next year, that you always want to be better.

“We have a chance to have an excellent defense, but time will tell. There are a lot of good offenses out there, too.”

One place there could be significant improvement is in the secondary.

The Spartans suffered their share of injuries last season, which led to plenty of playing time for younger players. Grayson Miller and Khari Willis both had starts at safety as true freshmen while Grayson Miller saw work at safety as a redshirt freshman. Tyson Smith also saw some playing time at cornerback as a true freshman.

But Vayante Copeland is back for his sophomore season after he was knocked out in the second game last year with a neck injury. And add the experience of safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson, as well as cornerback Darian Hicks, and it could create in imposing unit.

“Our back end, we played a lot of young players last year, so we have a lot of depth and we have talented players there,” Dantonio said. “I think they’re having a great spring.”

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They’ll be playing behind a linebacking corps that is, once again, shaping up to be one of the better groups in the Big Ten.

Fifth-year senior Riley Bullough anchors things in the middle with junior Jon Reschke handling one outside position. Junior Chris Frey has been having a solid spring and is battling sophomore Andrew Dowell on the other side, while Ed Davis is expected to be ready after he missed all of 2015 with a knee injury.

“Keep in mind last year we lost Ed Davis on the third day of camp,” Dantonio said. “I think he is a tremendous football player and he’s on track to be back with us. I don’t think there’s any question that he’ll be involved. I think our linebacker corps is very strong, very athletic.”

The biggest questions for the defense come up front as ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas, as well as tackle Joel Heath, are all off to the NFL.

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Tackle Malik McDowell is poised to have an outstanding junior season and the Spartans are counting on junior Demetrius Cooper to make a big jump on the outside.

“Up front, Malik McDowell anchors it,” Dantonio said. “Demetrius Cooper has been a very dominant player when he has played. We have a good core. Damon Knox is back for his sixth year and we’ve got other young players playing forward.”

One of those younger players that looks to jump out this season is tackle Raequan Williams, who redshirted last season.

“One guy that sticks out is Raequan Williams,” Bullough said. “He’s a bigger-body guy, hard to move. He’s young but I think he will be a great player for us. He’ll get some reps, get some experience and I think he’s gonna be one those guys that emerges that not many people know about now. But they will come the season next year, so I’m excited for him.”

Quarterback battle

The biggest position battle this offseason for Michigan State is at quarterback, and Bullough has a unique perspective on it from his middle linebacker spot.

He sees fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor having the edge in terms of leadership and experience, but he’s been impressed with each of the other three quarterbacks, including junior Damon Terry, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and freshman Messiah deWeaver.

“I think they’re going to keep completing, which is the best thing for them at this point,” Bullough said. “Whoever emerges, the team and myself will have all the confidence in the world in them and I feel like quarterback will be a strength of our team.”