Michigan State’s defense ranked seventh in the nation last year, only allowing 297.6 yards per game. The run defense ranked second in the nation with 95.3 yards per game.
Despite their impressive numbers from last season, the Spartans still think they have untapped potential on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think we got toward that mentality (last season), that dog mentality that really started it, that No Fly Zone,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said after practice Tuesday. “I feel like we’re close, but we’re not there yet.”
Although sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott is currently out with an unknown injury, the defense still returns nine of its 11 starters.
With this, let’s take a look a look at the No. 11 Spartans’ defense going into the game against Utah State at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Spartan Stadium.
Starters: Redshirt junior Kenny Willekes and sophomore Jacub Panasiuk
Bench: Redshirt freshman Jack Camper, redshirt sophomore Drew Beesley and redshirt juniors Justice Alexander and Matt Seybert
Injured: Redshirt senior Dillon Alexander (foot, timetable unknown)
One of the two starting spots on this defense was the defensive end spot opposing Willekes after Demetrius Cooper graduated in 2017.
On Tuesday’s depth chart, that spot was officially filled by Panasiuk.
“Jacub has impressed me a lot,” Willekes said after practice Tuesday. “He trimmed down his body over the offseason, and he continues to grow as a defensive end just knowledge wise and his athletic ability and he knows the plays well. So he’s one of those guys that’s gonna come in... and he’s gonna work hard for you every play.”
Willekes cemented himself as a budding defensive end in the Big Ten last season, collecting 73 tackles and team-highs in tackles for loss with 14.5, and sacks with seven.
Alexander fought for the lone starting spot in the spring, but ultimately lost.
Camper and Seybert are both transitioning from tight end to defensive end this season, and Willekes said he first saw flashes of Camper’s potential during the first preseason scrimmage.
“He’s still learning the playbook a little bit, but you can see flashes of him just out there playing,” Willekes said. “Him out there pass rushing, him having a big TFL or something. Just his explosiveness to jump off the ball.”
Starters: Redshirt junior Raequan Williams and junior Mike Panasiuk
Bench: Redshirt senior Gerald Owens, redshirt sophomore Naquan Jones, redshirt freshman DeAri Todd and freshman Jacob Slade
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One of the main reasons MSU was so effective against the run was because of Panasiuk and Williams.
The two defensive tackles not only stopped the run, but Bachie said they’re able to relay information to him quickly, so he can coordinate the defense in a timely manner.
“They can see where a guard stands, whether it’s gonna be a run or pass a lot of the time,” Bachie said. “They’ll usually tell me or try to tell me on the sideline. But you know things like that, that everybody sees.”
From a leadership standpoint, defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said at MSU’s Media Day that Williams is a leader by example.
“You want him to be on time and help someone, he’s gonna do it,” Burton said. “He’s a giver, he’s not a taker. And that maturation is shown by his example. He has done it by being an example of all the things that Coach D wants from his players: by his actions. And that gravitates more people to him."
“Now his leadership verbally has come into effect, which has really helped him," he said.
Starters: Junior Joe Bachie, senior Andrew Dowell, redshirt junior Tyriq Thompson or redshirt sophomore Brandon Randle
Bench: Redshirt senior Byron Bullough, sixth-year senior Jon Reschke, senior Grayson Miller and sophomore Antjuan Simmons
With Chris Frey’s departure this fall, the strong-side or SAM linebacker position was open for the taking.
Some names have been rumored since the spring, but Tuesday’s depth chart revealed it currently is between Randle and Thompson.
“They've both had points in the summer where you say, 'Wow, that is special,’” coach Mark Dantonio said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “So I'm excited to watch them because they're both young players, and this is their first opportunity in that area.”
Bachie is one of MSU’s three captains this season and led the team in tackles in 2017 with 100 at middle linebacker. Dowell will line up at weak-side or Star linebacker position for the third-straight season, and was second on the team in tackles with 74.
However, Dantonio said the team will dress 10 linebackers and “nine of them pretty much can play in and out,” including Bullough, Reschke and redshirt freshman Noah Harvey.
But, Dantonio said Reschke will start off on special teams.
“He's done what he's needed to do,” Dantonio said. “Our football team feels as they do about him. I've sort of continued to watch that situation. It sort of is what it is. The other two guys deserve an opportunity to play, the guys we talked about earlier, but I'm sure he'll see the field in some capacity.”
As Bachie is the quarterback of this defense, he follows a long line of Spartan middle linebackers from Greg Jones to Max and Riley Bullough.
Dantonio said Bachie has “the mindset, the skill level and the intensity to be as good as any of those guys.”
“He's built a foundation,” Dantonio said. “What he does on that foundation this year, and then the next year, will define him.”
And from watching film, Bachie knows he needs to be in the right position a few more times, even though he was the majority of the time.
“I feel like I put myself in the right position a lot, but you know last year I missed a couple plays,” Bachie said. “And personally, if I make those plays, I’ll be happy after certain games. But as long as we win I’m fine with that, you know me. But film study … just knowing the offense as much I can in and out.”
Starters: Senior safety Khari Willis, redshirt junior safety David Dowell, junior cornerback Justin Layne and redshirt junior Josh Butler
Bench: Redshirt senior safety Matt Morrissey, sophomore cornerback Tre Person, sophomore safety Dominique Long, redshirt freshman cornerback Shakur Brown and freshmen safety Xavier Henderson and cornerback Kalon Gervin
Injured: Sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott (Injury unknown, out about two months on Aug. 6)
Even with the loss of Scott for most likely a few more weeks, the Spartans’ secondary returns all of its starters.
Butler now has the task of replacing Scott, who was third-team All-Big Ten by the media, an honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches, on ESPN’s freshman All-American team and on BTN’s All-Freshman team.
And he’s ready for it, which helps when you’ve been in the program for four years, he said.
“It feels good, especially knowing what you’re doing out there,” said Butler, who started four games in 2017. “You don’t be as nervous or you don’t make as many mistakes. So it definitely feels good ... you definitely have a lot more fun.”
Dantonio said Butler reminds him a lot of former MSU cornerback Renaldo Hill, who played with four different teams in the NFL from 2001-10.
“Josh has been waiting for these opportunities,” Dantonio said. “Did a little bit last year as a redshirt sophomore ... Now he's a redshirt junior, into his fourth year. He's experienced. He knows what to do and how to do it.”
Dowell was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and All-Big Ten honorable mention by the coaches after collecting five interceptions, nine pass deflections and 52 tackles.
Just like Willis, Layne earned All-Big Ten honorable mentions by the coaches and media in 2017. The 6-foot-3, 185 pound corner recorded 40 tackles, nine pass deflections and one interception in 2017 — his first full season at corner after switching from wide receiver midway through 2016.
Dantonio said he’s also been impressed with Person, Brown and Garvin in preseason camp.
“Those three guys, and then Davion Williams and Chris Jackson are two guys with a lot of talent that are true freshmen as well,” Dantonio said.
Placekicker: Redshirt sophomore Matt Coghlin
Kickoffs: Redshirt freshmen Cole Hahn or Tyler Hunt or Coghlin
Punter: Redshirt senior Jake Hartbarger
Holder: Redshirt junior quarterback Brian Lewerke
Kickoff returner: Sophomore running back Connor Heyward
Punt returner: Sophomore wide receiver Cody White
Long Snapper: Redshirt junior long snapper’s Ryan Armour or Collin Caflisch
Kickoff duties are still up in the air as the depth chart lists Hahn or Hunt as the starter.
Dantonio said the inexperience with Hahn and Hunt has made it difficult to choose which one gets the nod.
“They have moments where they're kicking out of the end zone consistently, and then they've had their moments where they're a little less than that,” Dantonio said. “They need to be more consistent.”
Dantonio said Coghlin could also see some time as the kickoff specialist, but might not have the same leg power as Hunt or Hahn.
“Matt gives us the guy with experience,” Dantonio said. “Probably not as great of a leg maybe, but he's got experience, he can get it up. We're going to see what's going to happen. That's one to watch.”
As for returning punts, Dantonio said White gets the nod after doing “an outstanding job this summer,” but also that other players might rotate in.
“We've had four different guys return punts last year,” Dantonio said. “I think all of our guys are very capable of returning punts.”
Dantonio said kickoffs will fall on the hands of Heyward, with redshirt junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. helping.
And for long snapping, Dantonio said “Armour is the guy” but might use Caflisch as well.
All to combine for one special-teams unit.
“We'll see where we're at as we move forward, but there's no question that it's a big part of the game,” Dantonio said. “We work extremely hard on that aspect.”
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