Thursday, August 18, 2022

Fall Football Breakdown: MSU's defensive linemen

July 11, 2022
<p>Spartan sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski (47) tackles O&#x27;Connell (16) in MSU’s match against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.</p>

Spartan sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski (47) tackles O'Connell (16) in MSU’s match against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

Each week heading into the fall football season for MSU, The State News will be taking a look into each position group on Mel Tucker’s roster as the Spartans prepare for their third season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Sam Sklar dives into who could make up the 2022-23 defensive line.

Michigan State’s defensive line was by no means a weakness of last year’s team.

On the surface level, the line looks like it excelled both against the run and pressuring the quarterback. The Spartans led the Big Ten in sacks while also ranking 18th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game. If you ask MSU coaches though, it’s nothing worth celebrating.

“A lot of the statistical things can be misleading,” new defensive line coach/run game coordinator Marco Coleman said. “Not to say they didn't pass rush well, but we can be better.”

The Spartans faced the most pass attempts in the nation by about 50 more than the next highest school. It explains Michigan State’s high sack totals compared to sack percentage, as well as the low rushing yards allowed. MSU jumped out to so many early leads that teams were playing catchup through the air.

The output wasn’t satisfactory for head coach Mel Tucker, so he brought in Coleman and pass-rush specialist Brandon Jordan to boost the production. Jordan is the splashy hire of the two, but both bring different backgrounds that could pay dividends for Michigan State.

Jordan has just two years of experience as a defensive line coach at Austin Peay in 2014 and 2015 before leaving the program to coach at the high school level and as a personal trainer. He quickly ascended the ranks and began training some of the top pass rushers in the NFL, setting himself up to join MSU and fulfill his dream of getting back into coaching.

Coleman played 14 seasons in the NFL and was a Pro Bowler in 2000 before leaving the game entirely for a career in finance following the 2005 season. He returned to football as a coaching fellow with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017 and most recently spent the last three seasons as an outside linebackers/defensive ends coach at Georgia Tech.

“They've been really good together,” defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said in the spring. “They've gotten along good and the guys seem to like them both. There's probably guys out there in the indoor right now still talking through some things, so it's been good for us.”

By nature, the defensive line is a rotational position group. Teams that have depth are able to reap the benefits of putting the right skill sets on the field in certain situations. Michigan State has that at the defensive tackle, led by redshirt senior Jacob Slade.

Defensive end is a different question with the departures of Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk, two of the team's most productive edge rushers. MSU utilized the portal to add Florida transfer Khris Bogle who should slide in as an immediate starter.

Here’s a look at Michigan State’s defensive lineman:

DT Jacob Slade

Boy did Slade take some massive strides in 2021.

After a pedestrian 2020 season, Slade exploded into an all-conference player last fall. He recorded career bests in tackles (40), tackles for loss (5) and sacks (2.5) while playing in all 13 games with 12 starts. According to Pro Football Focus, Slade accumulated 40 quarterback pressures, the most of any Big Ten interior defensive lineman and tied for the 10th most in the nation. He also ranked tied for third in the country and first in the Big Ten among defensive tackles with 33 QB hurries. Slade is a fantastic run-stopper too.

Slade probably could have made it to the NFL this year if he chose to leave. Instead, he will run it back with Michigan State and has already been named a preseason second-team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation. Slade has a chance this fall to solidify himself as a top interior lineman in the nation.

DE Jeff Pietrowski

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Of the returning lineman, Pietrowski brings back the most sacks at five and a half.

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As a true sophomore in 2021, he served as a rotational defensive end behind Panasiuk and Beesley. When Pietrowski played, he was productive, especially when Beesley went down with an injury. His performance versus Nebraska stands out, forcing a fumble in the beginning of the fourth quarter and securing a clutch sack to help force overtime.

Pietrowski projects to start at defensive end opposite of Bogle. He’s even gotten Coleman’s stamp of approval.

“He is my favorite player to be honest with you,” Coleman said.

DE Khris Bogle

Graded by 247Sports as one of the top transfers acquired by Michigan State, Bogle arrives in East Lansing after a productive three seasons at Florida.

He was a top-75 prospect out of high school and recruited by Tucker when he was at Georgia. It allowed for an easy connection once Bogle entered the portal in December. Bogle appeared in 35 games for the Gators, utilizing his speedy, slender body to notch 69 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

“Khris has been working really hard,” Coleman said. “He’s developed and he’s gotten better every day, very high care factor.”

He’s the most experienced defensive end on the roster, giving him a head start toward one of the starting edge positions.

DT Simeon Barrow

Barrow was just a redshirt freshman last year but certainly did not play like one. A former defensive end in high school, he combines speed with strength that caused beneficial disruption in his first gig as a full-time player.

He played in 10 games in 2021, missing the final three regular-season matches with an injury. Barrow logged 34 tackles, four of them for a loss and three sacks with a monster game at Rutgers when he forced a fumble and made two sacks to earn the Spartan Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors.

With another expected leap of improvement, Barrow should take the second starting defensive tackle job aside from Slade. Coleman said the key for those two is to play with more consistency from down to down. Slade and Barrow are two quality linemen that Michigan State should feel very confident with heading into the fall.

DT Jalen Hunt

Hunt has played in 16 career games for the Spartans over the last two seasons. As a redshirt sophomore in 2021, he started at defensive tackle in the season opener at Northwestern but played just 11 snaps. It was his only start of the year, the second of his career, and he’s made just 10 career tackles. Hunt won’t be one to hinder MSU’s defense, but he needs to bring some more production and will remain a backup until then.

DE Brandon Wright

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Perhaps one of the bigger risers of the spring, Wright appears to be one to keep an eye on in the fall. He played his first two seasons at Michigan State as a running back, gaining 61 yards on 24 carries, then transitioned to defensive end during the 2021 season. Wright played seldomly last year, had his best outing versus Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl and was catching the eye of coaches during spring practices.

“He's really come a long way,” Hazelton said. “His athleticism and his speed, it’s always been there. He just had the speed. Sometimes he used to go really fast in the wrong direction, but he’s starting up.”

DT Maverick Hansen

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Hansen played in a career-high 13 games in 2021 as a redshirt sophomore, mostly as a rotational piece. He earned starts versus Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State and was fourth on the team with 3.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. Expect Hansen to remain in the defensive tackle rotation for 2022.

DE Michael Fletcher

Fletcher returns for his redshirt junior season after seeing his snap count get sliced in half last fall. He’s appeared in 15 career games with all three of his career sacks coming in 2020. Hazelton said he got some reps on the interior of the defensive line this spring and at this point appears to have fallen behind Wright and Brown on the depth chart.

DT Derrick Harmon

Harmon played in four games last year to preserve his redshirt season but looked good during the limited playing time. He wasn’t a highly recruited player out of high school but plays with a high upside. Harmon could be a sneaky good depth player for Michigan State.

DT Alex VanSumeren

If there is a true freshman in this group that makes an impact right away, it likely will be VanSumeren. The younger brother of redshirt senior linebacker Ben VanSumeren, Alex was the highest-rated prospect in MSU’s class of 2022 and was an early enrollee this spring.

Honorable mentions

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A few other names to note on the defensive line: redshirt sophomore Avery Dunn, redshirt senior Dashuan Mallory and freshman Chase Carter. Dunn made his first appearance last year versus Youngstown State. Mallory logged 265 defensive snaps last season and has played in 22 career games. Carter was an early enrollee and chose MSU over offers from Iowa, Iowa State and Nebraska.

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Evan Brunning walked on in 2019 and has not appeared in a game. Zion Young and James Schott are two other true freshmen, but probably won’t be needed much this fall.

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