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Joel Heath produced three tackles in the first spring scrimmage, including two sacks (11 yards).
 
Joel Heath produced three tackles in the first spring scrimmage, including two sacks (11 yards).
 
 

April 18, 2012

By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's 2-92 combination could have opponents seeing double this fall.

William Gholston may wear a kicker's number, but the 6-foot-7, 275-pounds defensive end doesn't look like any other No. 2 in the nation.

Joel Heath sports a more conventional No. 92, but at 6-6, 277, "he's really a carbon copy" of Gholston, according to head coach Mark Dantonio.

"That's a nice number over there, 92," Gholston said. "He's really an explosive guy. He's learning well, he's picking up the plays, he's playing pretty good. The sky's the limit for him, for both of us and the whole defensive line."

Together, Gholston and Heath could give the Spartans their most maneuverable, most versatile, most unpredictable, most imposing rush tandem since George Webster (6-4, 225) revolutionized the roverback position by playing everywhere from defensive end to linebacker to safety, and Bubba Smith (6-8, 280), who terrorized edge blockers for MSU in the mid-1960s.

Technically, Heath, who redshirted as a freshman, backs up Gholston, whose 16 tackles behind the line as a sophomore was second on the team.

But there may be situations when Gholston and Heath are on the field at the same time in the Spartans' 3-4 "delta" defense. Imagine what will be going through the mind of the left offensive tackle when he's got Heath in front of him with a hand in the dirt and Gholston lined up off his shoulder as a linebacker, the position he played at Detroit Southeastern High School.

"I hope so," Gholston said when asked if playing together with Heath is a possibility. "I'm comfortable talking to Joel and if we were on the same side and he needed any help..., well, I doubt if he'd need any help now. It's getting to be less and less times that I have to talk to him. But if we were on the same side, that'd be pretty fun.

 

 

"I know he has my back."

Is, as Dantonio seemed to indicate, Heath the next William Gholston?

"He's the next Joel Heath," Gholston said with a laugh.

Gholston's goals this season are to help MSU's cause by having an All-America-type season and "breaking some records."

Heath had two sacks, for minus-11 yards, in the first spring scrimmage, but he's being careful not to get too far ahead of himself despite Dantonio's projections.

"I've just got to stay humble," Heath said. "I wouldn't compare myself to anybody else but that is a compliment, definitely."

Heath was generally pleased with his performance in the first scrimmage.

"For the most part, I was just getting off the ball and using my hands, especially in goal-line situations," he said. "That was pretty much key and why I made the plays I did."

Teaming up with Gholston in the delta defense would make for "a big combination, but everybody's big," Heath said.

Nevertheless, vertically challenged quarterbacks could have difficulty seeing over MSU's defensive front if tackles Tyler Hoover (6-7, 295) and Micajah Reynolds (6-5, 320) are in the lineup along with Gholston and Heath, who lists his "power in general" and the ability to carry out the coaches' instructions as his biggest strengths.

The areas he needs to improve on most are his technique and line stunts.

"I'm working on it," Heath said.

- - -

Early last season, offensive line coach Mark Staten and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar were reinventing the front five on a near-daily basis because of injuries.

Former nose tackle Blake Treadwell was playing center in place of the injured Travis Jackson until he also got injured. Junior college-transfer Fou Fonoti went from right tackle to left tackle and back to right tackle. Dan France, a former defensive tackle, eventually made his first start at the high-profile left-tackle position.

Comparatively speaking, Staten and Roushar are working with an embarrassment of riches this spring. The only starter they have to replace is former All-Big Ten left guard Joel Foreman, and the line has the luxury of experimenting with different combinations.

"Mark and I talk about it and I think there are eight or nine guys who are going to play significantly early," Roushar said. "That's kind of the plan right now. We'll see how things go through training camp, but those guys are all capable."

Meantime, breakout seasons could be right around the corner for some, such as massive junior back-up tackle Henry Conway (6-6, 325).

"I thought he had a very good (first) scrimmage," Roushar said. "He's been a little bit up-and-down with his performance and execution. At moments you say, `That's outstanding,' and at other times you're saying, `That's not good enough.' He's got to develop consistency."

Red-shirt freshman Jack Allen has been impressive at left guard behind Treadwell and at center behind Jackson.

"If they're together, Travis would be the center and Jack would be the guard," Roushar said. "Tready's having a really good spring. I thought he had three very good practices last week and I thought he scrimmaged very well.

"He had a couple things we can clean up, but he was physical, he was aggressive, he was in good position and fundamentally he was in good shape. I thought he was in balance and I saw really good things from him. He seems like he's a lot more confident in assignment and he's able to go play faster."

- - -

The Spartan running back rotation continues to sort itself out. Although last season's leading rusher, junior Le'Veon Bell, paced the rushing attack in the first scrimmage with 49 yards on 12 carries, senior Larry Caper has been making himself more and more indispensable.

"I think Larry's run the ball harder, he's been more decisive, at times he's gotten his pads going forward and he's been more sound in protection," Roushar said. "He's catching the football, so I see good things. We're counting on him. He needs to have a great finish to the spring and a phenomenal summer as he prepares for the fall.

"We're expecting big things from Larry."

Sophomore Nick Hill also showed well in the scrimmage, Roushar said.

- - -

When outside linebacker Darien Harris arrived at MSU last season as a true freshman, he didn't know what he didn't know. What he thought he knew was that he definitely didn't want to redshirt, and that he should have been playing right away.

In retrospect, he concedes that would have been a mistake now that he understands where he was as a player last season relative to how he would have been expected to perform.

His father Alan, a four-year letterwinner at Virginia Tech from 1982-85, warned against fighting the situation.

"Before the season, he told me to expect the redshirt and it's actually a better thing," Harris said. "I didn't necessarily want to hear that, but after going through it, I really understood what he meant.

"Once I fully understood what it means to be a Michigan State football player and a Big Ten football player, and a Division-I football player, I realized I probably wasn't ready last year."

Harris' readiness has been accelerated this spring because of more practice time with the No. 1 defense due to injuries that have temporarily sidelined returning starter Chris Norman and backup Lawrence Thomas.

"The point of the redshirt year is to get bigger, stronger, and faster, and once I got the speed of the game down, I knew could come out here this year and make a difference," Harris said. "Now that it's happened, I'm really thankful for it.

"I've been waiting to come out here and show everybody what I can do. I expect to come out and make a difference and be a big part of the defense. Wherever I can get in, and whatever they decide my role is, I'm definitely willing to accept that."

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