There’s no question that expectations are sky high for the MSU defense in 2012, and for good reason — nine players return from a unit that was one of the best in the nation a year ago.
Those two vacancies, though? Don’t worry about those. The two new guys stepping into the starting lineup of a defense that will again aim to be among the nation’s elite are far from weak links.
MSU’s preseason depth chart has sophomore Kurtis Drummond manning Trenton Robinson’s old post at free safety and senior Tyler Hoover, a 6-foot-7 former defensive end, as the co-starter in the nose tackle slot with sophomore James Kittredge. Early signs and buzz point to Hoover holding down that spot.
The pair of new starters won’t be awestruck, though, running onto the field Aug. 31 against Boise State under the lights in what is sure to be an electric environment in Spartan Stadium. Hoover has nine career starts under his belt and saw action in every game of his freshman and sophomore seasons as a defensive end. As a backup in 2011, Drummond made plays when he was called upon by snatching two interceptions, forcing a fumble and notched 17 tackles including a sack in limited action.
“It’s not pressure, I would say it’s more exciting,” Drummond said regarding being elevated to a starter. “It just makes you set your goals higher. I mean, we have a lot of guys that help you get better because they push you every day. It will be fun.”
After missing the majority of last season after sustaining an injury in the opening game, Hoover beefed up to 310 pounds and made the switch inside to tackle this offseason. In addition to heavy lifting, he doubled his carbohydrate and protein intake to pack on the additional bulk.
“It’s definitely kept me motivated watching everyone last year,” he said. “It gets you more excited because you saw a group of guys do great things last year, so you just want to be a part of it. When you have your mindset of, ‘I’m going to be a part of this, and I’m going to make a dent next year when I can,’ it definitely helps you out.”
Although Hoover is no stranger to the big stage, learning an entirely new position has come with some growing pains, he said. He went from playing on the outside of the defensive line where his looming stature is advantageous while rushing the passer, to inside where getting underneath offensive linemen is paramount to success.
“It’s tough just because it’s something simple you have to focus on every play, just coming off low,” Hoover said. “It seems simple, it seems pretty easy, but really you’ve gotta keep your mind on it to come out low and play low the whole time.”
Stepping in for a four-year letterwinner and two-time All-Big Ten selection in Robinson might appear like a tall task, but Drummond said he’s picked up a few things from Robinson’s game in two years as his understudy. Maybe it was flashes of Robinson that the coaching staff saw in Drummond when he emerged victorious in a position battle with redshirt freshman R.J. Williamson during spring practice.
“Just flying around, just trying to fly to the ball — (Robinson) was a guy that went 100 percent all the time,” Drummond said. “So, I mean, he definitely tried to instill that in me, to just fly around … and to practice hard at practice.”
The guys know that if they don’t perform in their new roles, guys like Kittredge and Williamson among others will be nipping at their heels itching to get on the field.
But as of now, Drummond and Hoover offer the experience for the Spartan defense to not only continue playing at an elite level, but perhaps even surpass last season’s production.
“That’s our goal, we think we’re gonna be as good or better than last year,” junior linebacker Max Bullough said. “We know that we have to do things a little bit differently in order to achieve that, and we’ve been doing that so far.”