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MSU’s defense: Five key points

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke power the MSU linebacker group.

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News analyzes five key points for Michigan State’s defense this season.

Linebacker U

Michigan State has produced its share of talented linebackers of the years, but this year’s group is among the best it’s had under Mark Dantonio. Fifth-year senior Riley Bullough is the leader of the group, makes all the defensive calls and should be primed to improve on the 106 tackles he had a season ago. He’s not alone, however, as junior Jon Reschke had a breakout season on the outside in 2015 while junior Chris Frey proved to be a playmaker on the other side. But the talent doesn’t end there as the depth is almost as impressive. Sophomore Andrew Dowell saw extensive action outside last season while the biggest lift on the team could come from strong-side linebacker Ed Davis. The sixth-year senior is returning after missing all of 2015 with a knee injury. If he can return to the form of 2013 and 2014, when he had 11 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, the Spartans’ defense could be among the elite.

Darian Hicks

No Fly Zone?

Injuries were the story last season in the secondary as the usually top-notch defensive backfield was decimated. It led to plenty of players seeing action, and that could help turn this season’s group back into what the Spartans are used to having. Sophomore cornerback Vayante Copeland is back from a neck injury and senior cornerback Darian Hicks is finally 100 percent. Add in fifth-year senior Demetrious Cox and junior Montae Nicholson at safety and the starters are solid. The depth is there, too, as sophomore safeties Grayson Miller and Khari Willis both started at times in 2015, and Jalen Watts-Jackson is back to provide depth along with sophomore Matt Morrissey and redshirt freshman Kenney Lyke. Sophomore cornerback Tyson Smith got his feet wet last season while a group of redshirt freshman corners – Josh Butler, David Dowell and Kaleel Gaines – will also push to see significant time.

Spartan Superstar

While the defensive line has its holes to fill, there are no worries with junior Malik McDowell, a preseason All-American according to several publications. McDowell started all 14 games last season at tackle and is among the most disruptive players on the inside. He had 13 tackles for loss last season, including 4.5 sacks. But the Spartans don’t intend on just leaving him in the same spot this season. McDowell (6-6, 276) is as athletic as most linebackers and will be moved around the line to take advantage of matchups. In fact, there’s a chance he could see as much time at end as at tackle, something that could soften the loss of Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas.

MSU’s offense: Five key points

New faces

The defensive line saw its share of losses from last season with Calhoun and Thomas off to the NFL, along with tackle Joel Heath. Tackle Craig Evans and end Montez Sweat also left the program, leaving plenty of opportunity for playing time. Graduate transfer Kevin Williams is pushing to start at tackle along with redshirt freshman Raequan Williams. Sophomores Gerald Owens and Enoch Smith could also be ready to contribute along with true freshman Mike Panasiuk. On the outside, the Spartans are expecting a big year from junior Demetrius Cooper while true freshmen Josh King and Auston Robertson could also see early playing time.

Snap decisions

Michigan State expects senior kicker Michael Geiger to be more like he was as a freshman now that he’s healthy and sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger should be more consistent after finishing strong in 2015. The biggest question mark for the Spartans is at long snapper after four years with Taybor Pepper. It’s the sort of position that can get overlooked by fans but is vital to the team’s special teams success. The competition has been tight in preseason came, but sophomore walk-on offensive lineman Collin Caflisch has the edge heading into the season. Freshmen Bradley Robinson and Ryan Armour have also been pushing for the job since spring practice with Robinson entering as a preferred walk-on and the No. 20 ranked snapper in the nation in 2015.