East Lansing – Michigan State will be good at linebacker this season. That is not exactly a revelation for anyone who follows the Big Ten.
But what is revealed about the group that will be the heart of what figures to be another solid Michigan State defense is the fact the linebackers might also be the deepest unit on the team. The secondary has seven players who started at some point in their careers and the Spartans have three tailbacks who could be No. 1s in most Big Ten offenses.
The linebackers, however, are impressive – and there are a lot of them.
“We have an extremely talented linebacker situation,” coach Mark Dantonio said this week.
It’s easy to agree when you take a glance at the depth chart and realize one of the group’s most talented players is not yet officially on the roster. That would be outside linebacker Ed Davis, who is expected to complete one final class this summer to earn his degree and get a sixth year of eligibility.
Davis missed all of last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp. He was coming off a junior season in which he had seven sacks and was a preseason first-team All-Big Ten pick for 2015, while also making the Bednarik Award watch list for the top defensive player in the country.
His return should provide a spark for the Spartans.
“I think it means a lot (to get Ed back),” said starting middle linebacker Riley Bullough, a fifth-year senior. “Ed is a great athlete, extremely physical – all the things you want in a linebacker. To have him back would help our defense out a lot.”
He’ll have some competition to get back on the field, however. With Davis out last season, Jon Reschke made the most of his move to the strong side and started all 14 games while being named All-Big Ten honorable mention. Now a junior, Reschke had 75 tackles in 2015, including 5.5 for loss.
On the weak side, both Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell saw significant playing time with Frey proving he had a knack for the big play. He had four tackles in the win over Oregon and recorded a sack in the final minute that helped seal the win.
Frey, now a junior, will battle with the sophomore Dowell as both should see significant playing time.
Junior Shane Jones is solid as the No. 2 middle linebacker while sophomore Byron Bullough is pushing for time there, as well.
“We could go two-deep in there and every one of them could be considered starters,” Dantonio said. “We have what I consider five starters. Shane Jones is another guy I think can start. Byron Bullough is another guy that had an outstanding spring. … Joe Bachie is an incoming freshman and Tyriq Thompson is a redshirt freshman and was a high-quality guy coming out of high school and we have great expectations for him.
“So we have quite a few guys that we think will be able to play in there and gain experience.”
There’s little doubt Riley Bullough is the ring-leader, however. The brother of Byron and Max, who is now in the NFL, Riley Bullough had 106 tackles last season while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors.
He enters 2016 on the watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award (top linebacker), Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player).
But Bullough believes the competition in the linebacker room is vital to the success of Michigan State’s defense.
“It’s a battle every day for the guys trying to go from fourth and third string to second string or whatever it is,” Bullough said. “It’s a battle every day. There’s always guys constantly chasing you and trying to take your spot. That has helped us in the past.”
It figures to once again.
Michigan State’s preseason depth chart at linebacker (does not include freshmen who did not participate in spring practices):
STAR – 1. Andrew Dowell, 2. T.J. Harrell, 3. Sean Harrington
MIKE – 1. Riley Bullough, 2. Shane Jones, 3. Byron Bullough, 4. Joe Bachie
SAM – 1. Jon Reschke, 2. Chris Frey, 3. Tyriq Thompson, 4. Ed Davis