Big Ten Breakdown: Michigan State Spartans, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)

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Big Ten Breakdown: Michigan State Spartans, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 23: Head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans returned to the sidelines for a game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on October 23, 2010 in Evanston, Illinois. Michigan State defeated Northwestern 35-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In the first part of this series, I looked at Michigan State's offense, as well as the overall team outlook. In this part, I'll look at the defense, as well as the measurable parts of the special teams.

 

Defensive Overview

2010 scoring defense: 22.3 PPG (fourth in the conference), total defense: 353.8 YPG (sixth), rushing defense: 3.85 YPC (fourth), passing efficiency allowed: 121.33 (third).

Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 6.8.

Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: four (2010).

Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 10 (2006).

Returning starters: DE Denzel Drone, DE Tyler Hoover, DT Jerel Worthy, DT Kevin Pickelman, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, S Trenton Robinson.

Open positions: LB, CB, S.

 

Defensive Breakdown

Mark Dantonio was a defensive back during his playing days. He has always been a defensive coach. Most notably, he was the defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel from 2001-03.

Despite this background, Dantonio has never fielded an elite defense, either at Michigan State or Cincinnati. In fact, relatively speaking, all of the defenses he's fielded would best be described as mediocre, with the best of them being in the upper level of mediocre.

As the above stats attest, his Big Ten scoring defense ranking has never been above fourth. His defenses at Cincinnati were ranked fifth and seventh in the Big East and third in Conference USA (69th nationally). His best nationally ranked scoring defense was 36th Cincinnati in 2006.

His coordinator is Pat Narduzzi, who was a linebacker and has also always been a defensive coach. He was Dantonio's defensive coordinator in Cincinnati and he followed him to MSU.

In short, if past statistics are any indication, Dantonio and Narduzzi are not likely to coach up a defense to elite status. On the other hand, their defenses aren't likely to be complete washouts. If the past can be used as an indicator, then Dantonio/Narduzzi defenses are and will be mediocre.

The difference will be whether they are 80th ranked or 40th ranked.

The Spartans run a base 4-3, and they constantly rotate players in and out, especially in the front four. They are extremely aggressive—arguably the most aggressive in the conference—and will blitz on any down, from any distance, at any time. They do so using both man and zone looks.

In my opinion, this often gets them in trouble, and is part of what led to their awful pass defense in 2009. However, I admit that I am, by nature, conservative, and that applies to football as well as most other things.

 

Defensive Line

The key benefit to a heavy line rotation is that MSU is never short on experienced players in the front four. In fact, despite graduating one starter, the Spartans have five returning players with multiple games starting experience.

In effect, while the starters are probably the best players, the word "starter" doesn't have as much significance for Michigan State as it has for Iowa or Wisconsin, for example.

That said, the pre-camp depth chart listed sophomore William Gholston as the strongside end and junior Tyler Hoover as the rush end with juniors Anthony Rashad White and Jerel Worthy inside.

Other players that will see time at end are sophomore Denzel Drone, junior Corey Freeman and redshirt freshmen Marcus Rush and Tyler Calero. Other defensive tackles are seniors Kevin Pickelman and Johnathan Strayhorn. Strayhorn can and has played both inside and out.

Worthy is the anchor of the line. He is a two-year starter that will probably win all-conference this season, and could realistically be first-round draft material by the end of his junior year. Now that Greg Jones is gone, Worthy will be the focus of opposing offensive coordinator's game plans.

White came to MSU as a sophomore after a year at junior college. Though Pickelman and Strayhorn have played more, it seems White has moved past them on the depth chart. Both Pickelman and Strayhorn have a ton of experience, and will get a good deal of playing time.

Playing next to Worthy, none of the other defensive tackles have to be dominant. They just have to play sound assignment football and keep the linebackers clean, which is something they all have proven they can do.

William Gholston was Rival's third-best strongside end of the 2010 class. He played sparingly in his freshman year, mostly in obvious passing downs. The talent is there. Now it is time to see if he can bring that talent to the field.

Hoover was last year's starting rush end. He is a hardworking player that, in my opinion, is more suited for the strongside. He is not a natural pass rusher, but he is smart and disciplined and will beat any lazy or weak tackle with pure effort. 

Finally, Denzel Drone grabbed four starts last season. He came to MSU as a linebacker, but has moved up the depth chart through hard work. He is probably the team's most natural rush end, and will see a good amount of playing time, whether he is named a starter or not.

Overall, this is a very good group. If it is not the best defensive line group in the Big Ten, it is the deepest. They need to step up a bit on the pass rush, but they are superb against the run, which will help MSU's inexperienced linebackers tremendously.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 2

 

Linebackers

Speaking of inexperience, MSU lost the mother lode at linebacker.

Two-time All-American Greg Jones is gone. His partner-in-crime, Eric Gordon, is gone. Gordon was a three-year starter. Jones was a four-year starter.

Michigan State was not completely unprepared for their departure, but if you think MSU won't have a void to fill at linebacker, then you have not paid attention the last four years.

Chris Norman was the third linebacker last season, and he will be expected to fill larger shoes. All indications are that he is up to the task. He may never be as good as Jones, but he will be able to step in for Gordon.

Meanwhile, sophomore Denicos Allen will look to step in at the strong-side linebacker position. He began last season in competition with Norman for the third linebacker spot with Norman obviously winning out. Though he's short for the position (5'10"), he's extremely fast and will excel in coverage.

Finally, Greg Jones' now vacant position of middle linebacker will be occupied by either sophomore Max Bullough or fellow sophomore TyQuan Hammock.

Bullough was thought to be the heir apparent at MLB. According to Rivals, he was the fifth-highest ranked middle linebacker in the country in 2010. He burned his redshirt last season and played a good deal, coming in 14th on the team in tackles.

Then he was arrested and missed most of spring practice, which opened the door for Hammock, who has been back and forth between linebacker and fullback in his short career. Though Bullough is the likely starter, Hammock will push him hard. If Bullough is to win the job, he will have to earn it.

Junior Steve Gardiner will probably fill out the depth chart as both the backup weakside and strongside backer.

This is a group with a lot of upside that will be helped immensely by a strong defensive line. Greg Jones might be impossible to replace and there might be some rough patches early in the season, particularly in pass defense. Nonetheless, this is a group that is likely to improve and pose an imposing front by the end of the season.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 7

 

Secondary

MSU's passing defense in 2009 was a holy disaster, coming second to last in the conference. Last year, they turned things around in a big way, posting the third-best passing D in the Big Ten.

A substantial portion of the reason for that was the return to health of Johnny Adams, who missed 2009 with an injury. Last year, still only a sophomore, he earned all-conference honors. He is the type of lockdown corner that an aggressive defense like MSU requires. In 2011, expect quarterbacks to avoid his side of the field.

Trenton Robinson is the lone senior in this group, and he will be the leader of the defense. Robinson is a bit small for the position, but he combines football smarts with an ability to make big plays. Last season, he snagged four interceptions.

The other two positions will be up for grabs.

Right now, Darqueze Dennard is most likely to assume the other cornerback position. He started two games last season as a true freshman, but missed the end of the year with a knee injury. He is extremely talented but as a true sophomore, he is bound to make mistakes.

With Johnny Adams lining up on the other side of the field, he can expect to get picked on mercilessly. How well he survives an early onslaught against Notre Dame will say a good deal about what can be expected of him in the long haul.

Other players that will push for playing time at cornerback include junior former walk-on Mitchell White and redshirt freshman Tony Lippett, who, as previously mentioned, will probably be a two-way player next season.

The strong safety position is wide open. Spring practices started with sophomore Jarius Jones as the starter, but a torn Achilles tendon put him on the shelf. He was originally thought to be out for the entire season, but his recovery is ahead of schedule.

Either way, he won't be on the field September 3, and that leaves the likely starter as fellow-sophomore Isaiah Lewis. Lewis was a heavily recruited defensive back from the 2010 class that played mostly on special teams last year.

ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 01: Greg McElroy #12 of the Alabama Crimson Tide blocks Trenton Robinson #39 of the Michigan State Spartans on a touchdown run during the Capitol One Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl on January 1, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Most of the rest of the depth chart will be populated by untested sophomores and redshirt freshmen.

Overall, this is a very young group of whom a great deal is required in MSU's defensive scheme. They have a boatload of talent, but there is minimal depth, and if Adams or Robinson goes down, things could get very shaky.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 8

 

Specialists

In 2009, kicker Brett Swenson graduated MSU. Swenson holds pretty much every kicking record in the Michigan State record book (a record book that includes Morten Andersen).

At-the-time-sophomore Dan Conroy came right in and made a Big Ten-best 14-of-15 field goals.

This year, MSU will have to replace their all-conference punter Aaron Bates. Despite that loss, I still have the Spartans as having the best specialists in the conference.

The first reason is Conroy. Conroy is not only accurate, but he has distance. His long on the year was 50 yards. In short, getting into a field goal kicking game with the Spartans is not a good idea.

Meanwhile, the kick and punt returner is senior receiver Keshawn Martin. In 2010, he averaged a league best 14.25 YPR on punts. He didn't do as well on kickoff returns coming in last in the conference, but he was second in the conference in 2009.

If Martin goes down, sophomore Bennie Fowler will be able to step into his place. Fowler would be the top return man on the majority of Big Ten teams.

At punter, the likely starter will be redshirt freshman Mike Sadler, of who Dantonio has spoken favorably.

In closing, MSU will have the best specialists in the conference for the third season in a row.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 1 

 

Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan Wolverines.

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