Thanks to a multitude of injuries and the recent suspension of eight players, Michigan State’s defense has been in flux all season. The linebacker position is one of the units that has been hit the hardest by the attrition.
During the very first game of the season, junior linebacker Darius Snow suffered a season-ending injury, depleting the position group from the jump. Making the leap from defensive back to linebacker, Snow was expected to play an important role in the linebacker group.
After being involved in the postgame incident in the player’s tunnel at Michigan, senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon – who also played on the defensive line as an edge rusher – was suspended from the team indefinitely. Up until that point, Windmon had been perhaps the single best defensive player on the team. Despite missing the last two games, the transfer from UNLV still leads the team in both TFLs (10.5) and sacks (5.5).
Those were two pretty key losses to the linebacker room and the defense as a whole.
However, through all that adversity, the linebacking core has been of the strongest position groups on the defense all season.
“Our linebackers are very active,” Head Football Coach Mel Tucker said. “Playing fast, being physical. Really trusting their teammates, knowing where they fit. Just playing with a really high motor.”
Highlighting that excellent play from the linebackers is redshirt sophomore Cal Haladay. Building off of a stellar redshirt freshman season, he’s had a productive year that has only gotten better as the days have gotten shorter.
“He’s always right in the middle of the action,” Tucker said. “As long as he can read his keys and diagnose, run and get off blocks, he’s going to make a lot of plays. That’s what you’re seeing.”
Haladay has been playing solid ball all season, but in recent weeks, he’s been downright elite. He earned back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after stellar performances against Illinois and Rutgers. In those two games alone, Haladay earned 28 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and half a sack. His 19 tackle afternoon against Rutgers last Saturday was the most from a Spartan in a single game since 2004.
Haladay is not a player that comes off the field a lot, thanks to his defensive production and special teams play. On the season, he leads the team in tackles (99), also notching 8.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. To put it simply, he’s consistently been one of the most active and important members of the Spartans’ defense.
“Football is a game for tough people, physically and mentally,” Tucker said. “He is that.”
While Haladay has (rightfully) received a majority of the accolades, his fellow linebackers have also been playing at a high level.
In recent weeks, fifth-year linebacker Aaron Brule has played lights out, especially in pass-rushing packages. As the defense as a whole has become more aggressive in the past month, the Mississippi State transfer has been a vital piece of the havoc caused by the front seven. Between Illinois and Rutgers, Brule notched 11 tackles, a couple of sacks and three TFLs.
“I love being disruptive,” Brule said. “Coaches know that that’s a thing I’m pretty good at.”
With more than four years of college ball under his belt, Brule’s veteran presence has helped immensely in the backfield. His snap count has only gone up as the season has progressed. No. 7 is a player to keep an eye on in the final two games of the season.
Redshirt senior linebacker Ben VanSumeren has also played an underrated role on the defense, especially earlier in the season. After Snow went down early in the season, he was plugged in to help stabilize the banged-up defense. The Michigan transfer’s 71 tackles are the third most on the roster. Earlier this week, VanSumeren accepted an invite to the East-West Shrine Bowl. Foregoing his final year of eligibility, Saturday’s game against Indiana will be his last in Spartan Stadium.
Over the past month, Michigan State’s defense has been steadily trending in the right direction. The improved play of the Spartan linebackers — namely Haladay and Brule — has played a large part of the defense's upward trajectory.
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