The defense for Michigan State football is going through a major rehaul after moving to the 4-2-5 defensive scheme just a year ago with the departure of its leaders Antjuan Simmons, Shakur Brown and more.
Unlike a year ago though, the Spartans have spring football, allowing the coaching staff and players to get on the field to evaluate and to grow on the field.
Two scrimmages in, the communication with the entire team has grown according to Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, something that is vital for defenses. Especially so for a young group that Michigan State will have.
“You can see the confidence was much louder, a lot more guys talking," Tucker said. "It was two-way communication all over the field and it just really shows you that guys have more confidence in what they're doing and they understand this game.”
Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton believed the communication has improved through these first few weeks of spring ball, too.
But his defense’s ability to take the ball away through the first two scrimmages is something he has liked to see considering the defense struggled to do that at times last year.
“We got the ball more, that was a good thing,” Hazelton said. “We got the ball a few times and that's always good to see and I know that that’s probably the opposite, it's a zero-sum game, the offense is probably mad about that. We did a better job with our communication, just being able to talk and talk through things. Our line was a little bit better with our urgency, getting guys fast, getting alignment so we could talk and communicate. I felt our pass rush, we got into those situations, was pretty good.”
The linebacker unit returns Noah Harvey and Chase Kline who each played snaps. Outside of that, the rest of the linebackers are incredibly inexperienced in terms of reps on the field.
“The linebacker crew is a thin crew, we got a lot of young guys getting work and it's an opportunity for them to show what they can do like Cal Haladay, (Cole) DeMarzo and guys like that,” Tucker said. “I really like what Noah Harvey is doing because I've asked him to step up and lead more and he's making a conscious effort to do that with his personality.”
Hazelton has seen a lot in his coaching days, but this particular situation is one that was unique even for his extensive coaching career.
“Every spring, I think there's always a unique situation,” Hazelton said. “I can't say there's been a time when there's been two guys, I can't remember a time but we've been in situations like that. Sometimes you'll have a shortage, it seems like in spring you generally have a shortage somewhere.”
However, the inexperience is a blessing in disguise for the Spartans as it allows for extra development and reps for guys that normally would not get it.
“The good news is when those things happen is the young guys get a ton of reps and they get a chance to learn and grow and you build some depth doing those things,” Hazelton said. “Sometimes it's positive for you because as we're moving to new guys that we get in that position group, those guys are going to need reps too and some of these reps are going to have to stick.”
The same thing can be said for the defensive backs group, which will return Kalon Gervin, Angelo Grose, Xavier Henderson and Micheal Dowell. But depth is an extreme question with the rest of the unit getting minimal reps.
However, young players like Darius Snow and Kendell Brooks were two guys already showing out according to Hazelton with the opportunity to get snaps this season with the lack of depth.
“That's kind of exciting to see because of the reps and the opportunities ... those kinds of guys are growing for us and doing a good job,” Hazelton said.
The defensive line is the one unit that returns a lot of production with Jacub Panasiuk, Jack Camper, Drew Beesley and Duke transfer Drew Jordan all being players that are seniors with loads of experience and playing time.
Unlike the other two defensive units, the defensive line also has a lot of depth along with the experience with sophomores Michael Fletcher, Jalen Hunt and Maverick Hansen, juniors Jacob Slade and Dashaun Mallory, all of which garnered snaps on the defensive line last year.
Despite all the experience last year, the Spartans struggled to develop much of any pass rush alongside their strong run-stopping. However, defensive line coach Ron Burton believes that the pass rush has taken a step as they look to develop their second move on opposing offensive lines.
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"They're developing that second move now that's gonna allow us to gain more sacks and the ability to carry it over by having a spring ball and then having a summer prior to going into the fall,” Burton said early in the week. “No doubt about that, we expect that to improve and it starts with the great fundamentals in our pass rush ability.”
This spring, the Spartans along with developing players will look to establish their leader and there’s already a select few taking up that mantle.
"Noah Harvey has done a great job,” Hazelton said. “He's in a position where he might not be the guy that you see like a Ray Lewis type that has the ability to go scream and discipline the defense like some of those guys did, but he's also doing a good job of being able to grab a guy and say, ‘Hey, we don't do that or do those things.’ X (Henderson) is another guy who's done a great job.”
With the annual Spring Game coming on April 24, it’ll soon be clear how big of a step the Spartan defense has taken since last season.
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