Friday, December 8, 2023

Spartan defense looking to build off from last season

July 19, 2019
<p>Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) collides with Northwestern&#x27;s senior lineman Tommy Doles (71) during the game against Northwestern on Oct. 6, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Wildcats led the Spartans, 14-6 at halftime. </p>

Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) collides with Northwestern's senior lineman Tommy Doles (71) during the game against Northwestern on Oct. 6, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Wildcats led the Spartans, 14-6 at halftime.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

With the struggling offense in the 2018 season, MSU relied on its No.1 ranked defense in the country to finish off the season with a 7-6 record. 

Senior linebacker Joe Bachie knows that the team can rebuild and still hold the same ranking while heading into the upcoming season.

“I think we could be No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 in the country no doubt in my mind,” Bachie said. “We have all the pieces and all the experience, all the leadership and when you put it together we’ll see what happens.” 

Even though the Spartan defense ranked in the top ten in five different categories, senior defensive end Kenny Willekes admits there is always more room for improvement. 

“That’s where it all starts, up front, with us in the run” Willekes said. “We will continue to build on that … creating pressure and turnovers will be some big focus for us this offseason. We had a good season last year, but we are looking in areas that we can improve and get better.” 

Willekes broke his leg in the Redbox Bowl against Oregon and later spent three months in a boot. He has been fully healthy since the start of summer and participated in summer workouts, but has refrained from hitting until the first official start of practice.

Besides the return of Willekes, the Spartan defense will have close to eight starters coming back for the 2019 season.  

“We’re stacked all across the board,” Willekes said. “If you want to throw extra people at me that’s fine with me. I accept the challenge. We have a ton of play makers on the field at all times.”

With returners coming back, there is also the effect of losing players as well. This season the team lost cornerback Justin Layne after deciding to leave and get drafted to the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of the bigger losses came with losing safety Khari Willis. 

Willis played with the Spartans for four years and the Indianapolis Colts selected him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Dantonio described him as an outstanding leader and a player that the whole team will miss. To fill in the missing role is sophomore safety Xavier Henderson. 

“I think he's taken on a lot of [Willis’] habits, and we're very excited about his progress, and he should be an outstanding player,” Dantonio said. “Great ball skills, great range, big, he's gained a little bit of weight.”

Senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams could have made the same decision as Layne, but decided to return for his senior season instead of going into the draft. 

“We had numerous guys have to make a decision whether they were going to come back or go out in the NFL Draft, and he was one of those guys,” Dantonio said. “He made that decision to get his degree and sort of complete his circle in that area.”

Heading into this season, the defense lost one of their top leaders, but Dantonio believes that leadership will still be strong and present. 

“I felt like they performed, number one, but otherwise they bring a sense of leadership to our football team, as well,” Dantonio said.

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