I began by taking a broad overview of the Michigan State program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Spartans will do this season.
Last week, I scanned at the 2012 Michigan State offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Michigan State defense.
2011 scoring defense: 18.4 PPG (third in the conference)
Total defense: 277.4 YPG (first)
Rushing defense: 2.80 YPC (first)
Passing efficiency allowed: 113.24 (second)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 5.4
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: third (2011)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: eighth (2007)
Returning starters: DE Marcus Rush, DE William Gholston, DT Anthony Rashad White, SLB Denicos Allen, MLB Max Bullough, WLB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, CB Darqueze Dennard, SS Isaiah Lewis
Open positions: DT, FS
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: aggressive
Heading into 2011, Mark Dantonio and his defensive coordinator (DC) Pat Narduzzi had never fielded an elite defense. Dantonio's best defense—statistically speaking—before last season was his 36th-ranked 2006 Cincinnati defense.
That changed last year when MSU boasted the 10th-best scoring defense in the country. Moreover, one could argue the defense was better than its stats, as the peripheral stats—total yards; and rushing and passing defense—attest.
Much of the reason for the turnaround had to do with the secondary.
The Spartans under Dantonio/Narduzzi run an ultra-aggressive scheme.
Last season, 53.4 percent of the team's sacks came via non-defensive linemen. The only other team in the Big Ten with as high a percentage of sacks from the back seven was Minnesota—55.3 percent—and the Gophers, unlike the Spartans, were forced into blitzing due to a front four that couldn't generate a pass rush.
A scheme that blitzes with as much liberality as MSU calls for cornerbacks that can be left alone on an island.
Last year, for arguably the first time in his tenure in East Lansing, Dantonio had those two cornerbacks. In fact, at Big Ten media days, Dantonio (via George Sipple, The Detroit Free Press) was effuse in praise of his corners, calling them "as good of corners as we’ve had at any place I’ve been." And remember, he's been at Ohio State.
This year, both of those corners, as well as six other starters—five returning all-conference honorees—are back, and for the first time in Dantonio's tenure the Spartans will go into the season as one of the best defenses in the nation.
Despite posting an all-conference year in 2011 and having a dominant bowl game—seven tackles, five tackles for loss (TFL), two sacks—defensive end William Gholston is more famous for punching Michigan lineman Taylor Lewan and trying to tear UM quarterback Denard Robinson's head off.
Gholston (per Bruce Feldman, CBS Sports) is moving on, and this season he plans to be known for his play on the field. Though Narduzzi (via The Detroit Free Press) is critical of Gholston's practice habits, in an unofficial poll, the Big Ten media voted him (per Joe Rexrode, The Lansing State Journal) the preseason defensive MVP.
The other end will be manned by sophomore Marcus Rush, who logged 58 tackles, 12 TFL and four sacks last year. Though Rush is nowhere near the physical specimen that Gholston is, 2011 was his first year on the field, and he can only get better.
MSU lost both its starters inside, but the likely replacements have starting experience.
Senior Anthony Rashad White had four starts last year, and was rotated into the game on a regular basis. He will be a slight drop-off from departed second-round draftee Jerel Worthy, but it won't be as substantial a loss as might be expected.
Meanwhile, senior Tyler Hoover, who gained nine starts at end in 2010, took a medical redshirt last year after an injury ended his season prematurely. He is currently listed as co-starter at defensive tackle along with Vanderbilt-transfer, sophomore James Kittredge.
Hoover has played defensive tackle before, but, as Chris Vannini of the MSU blog "The Only Colors" pointed out, "At 6-foot-7, 310 pounds, Hoover might be the tallest tackle in the country. However, that could affect his leverage."
The backups will play a key role on the MSU line, as Dantonio likes to rotate at least eight players.
Among the players in the mix are redshirt freshman Shilique Calhoun, who Dantonio (via Diamond Leung, MLive.com) compared to Julian Peterson.
Also, linebacker-turned-end (per George Sipple, The Detroit Free Press) Lawrence Thomas, junior Micajah Reynolds, sophomore Joel Heath and redshirt freshman Brandon Clemons will all push for playing time.
Despite the rating, look for MSU to have one of the top three defensive lines in the Big Ten next year.
Before last season, I described the Spartan linebacker group as possessing "a lot of potential...but right now, it is just potential."
In 2011, the players lived up to their potential.
Juniors Max Bullough and Denicos Allen thrived in Dantonio's and Narduzzi's ultra-aggressive defensive scheme. Bullough notched 89 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, while Allen added 83 tackles, 18.5 TFL and 11 sacks.
And that was in their first year as starters. This season, both will take on larger roles, and there is no reason to think they won't be successful.
Senior Chris Norman is a two-year starter and is quieter than his teammates, but he is a solid role player.
Seniors Steve Gardiner and TyQuan Hammock are veterans—the former with starting experience—that could probably start for multiple teams in the Big Ten. In East Lansing they will serve as valuable backups.
Finally, sophomore Taiwan Jones and redshirt freshman Darien Harris are up-and-comers that represent the future of the MSU linebacking corps.
In 2012, it will no longer be a matter of living up to potential. Instead, it will be a matter of how dominant they can be.
As mentioned in the defensive overview, there may be no Big Ten team that requires lockdown cornerbacks as much as the Spartans.
As further mentioned, the MSU defense's rise from mediocrity to dominance owes a large debt of gratitude to its cornerbacks, both of who return this season.
Senior Johnny Adams is a two-year starter who missed 2009 due to an injury. He came back in 2010 and 2011, and this year, could be the class of the conference cornerbacks.
Junior Darqueze Dennard will man the other cornerback position. He got picked on last year, primarily because he played opposite Adams. He is currently recovering from shoulder surgery (via Diamond Leung, MLive.com), but expects to be ready for the season opener.
The top backups are senior Mitchell White, sophomore Mylan Hicks and redshirt-freshman Trae Waynes.
Junior Isaiah Lewis is the returning starter at strong safety. In 2011—his first year as a starter—he tied for second in the conference with four picks. More will be expected of him now that former free safety and defensive leader Trent Robinson has exhausted his eligibility.
Robinson's graduation will leave the probable starter as junior Kurtis Drummond, who started in the bowl game in place of an injured Robinson.
According to Dantonio, via George Sipple of The Detroit Free Press, redshirt freshmen RJ Williamson and true freshmen Demetrious Cox and Mark Meyers will have a chance to challenge Drummond for the starting role. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely Drummond won't be in center field when MSU kicks off its season against Boise State.
There is no reason to suspect that the Michigan State defense won't be as dominant, if not more so, than it was last season.
The pass rush will be as unstoppable as any in the country. Depth, particularly at linebacker, is impressive; and if Drummond can step in for Robinson, the MSU secondary will be as good as any in the conference.
In 2012, barring an unforeseeable collapse or rash of injuries to key players, the Spartan defense will be one of the top two in the conference, and a lock for top 10 in the country.
Coming next Tuesday, an overview and breakdown of Michigan State's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Spartans will finish the 2012 season.