April 25, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Of the Michigan State defense's many accomplishments in 2013, the least recognized is how it brought the best out of the Spartans' evolving offense.
If the line could block the pass rush led by Shilique Calhoun, if the receiving corps could get open against a secondary featuring All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard and catch passes from new starting quarterback Connor Cook, and if fledgling tailback Jeremy Langford could pick up yardage against Max Bullough & Co., then they knew they could do it against any defense they'd face in a game.
The offense has been returning the favor throughout spring practice, which concludes with Saturday's Green and White Game in Spartan Stadium, as the defense strives to replace key personnel, including Dennard, Bullough, safety Isaiah Lewis and outside linebacker Denicos Allen.
Facing an offense that became more productive as the season went on, and which returns nearly intact, is telling the defense a lot about itself.
"Everybody knows our offense is really high-powered now and it's great playing against guys like that," said Darien Harris, who's battling for a starting role at linebacker. "Connor Cook is an amazing quarterback and Jeremy Langford is an amazing running back, so when you're making plays against those guys on a daily basis, you know you're doing something right.
"It gives yourself confidence."
While the offense has had the upper hand in the intra-squad scrimmages, Harris said the roles aren't totally reversed from a year ago.
"It's still the same for them going against us, and that just means that overall we're getting better as a team," Harris said. "It definitely reinforces that we are reloading, and it reinforces that those guys (on offense) are getting the recognition they truly deserve."
If the defense answers the questions it will take into preseason camp in August as effectively as the offense did with wide-open races at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions, MSU's odds of defending its Big Ten Championship will improve dramatically.
The offense went from being outscored by the defense in the first two non-league games to finishing a respectable fifth in points scored (29.8 per game), third in passing efficiency and sixth in total yards (399.9) in conference play - an indicator of its dramatic turnaround.
That was more than good enough to complement the nation's No. 2-ranked defense en route to beating Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Harris expects the defense to round back into form even quicker.
"We're not rebuilding, we're reloading," he said. "We've got guys we can plug in there and play just as well if not better than the guys from last year. We have full confidence in that and we fully believe that.
"We have a sensational offense with a lot of speed and talent and a lot of guys who can make plays. So you put an offense like that and defense like have together it could be really deadly."
The linebacking corps is getting a major facelift.
At 6-foot, 228 pounds, Harris is 15-20 pounds heavier than he was last season. "I knew that to play in the Big Ten I had to get a lot bigger while also maintaining my speed," he said. "I did a lot of work in the weight room, and we have a great staff in there and a great nutrition program that allowed me to put on weight while keeping speed."
Taiwan Jones, who started every game at outside linebacker last season, has moved inside where he's vying to replace Bullough at middle linebacker.
There are few players in the nation who could match Bullough's ability to read offenses and anticipation, but at 6-3, 252, Jones is bigger, faster and more athletic.
"I'm pretty satisfied with the work we're doing at linebacker," Jones said. "Everybody's playing hard and in the fall we get Ed Davis back (from injury) and he's a great player to step in because he showed what he could do last year (on the strong side). Then you got Darien Harris, Jon Reschke and Chris Frey all stepping up.
"We did lose a lot, but I feel like the group we have now is faster and if we get the knowledge part down, we'll be just as great. If people have doubts about our defense, I guess everybody can see on Saturday in the Green and White Game that we're not taking a step back."
Playing one of the marquee positions on the team appeals to Jones.
"I like being able to go out there and lead, being able to call the show and being able to have the guys look up to me when we need a stop and we need to get lined up," he said. "It forces me to step up. With Max here the last two years, I was kind of quiet. Now I have to do what I have to do for my team.
"I feel like I'm pretty fast from sideline-to-sideline and able to be physical in the middle."
The secondary has to replace two first-team All-Big Ten performers in Dennard and Lewis, who are headed to the NFL, but returns one in free safety Kurtis Drummond, who's been impressed with the unit's growth since the beginning of spring.
"A lot of guys are finally reps," Drummond said. "My only concern is everybody just staying competitive, everybody pushing each other and nobody getting complacent with their position."
Drummond and Dennard were tied with a team-high four interceptions each and he returned one for the secondary's only touchdown.
He's trying to fill the leadership void "not only by example but by being more vocal, talking to guys and pushing guys," he said. "I set myself to higher standard so guys will follow me. It is a lot different back there because you know how great of a player Darqueze was and the type impact Isaiah had by putting in fear, but we've still got some athletes."
RJ Williamson has gained extensive experience as a backup safety and the coaching staff has been singing the praises of Demetrious Cox since he arrived as a true freshman in 2012. Meantime, returning starting cornerback Trae Waynes appears more than capable of wearing the mantle passed on by Dennard and Darian Hicks has shown flashes of big-time playmaking ability this spring, Drummond said.
Furthermore, the secondary has repeatedly demonstrated its powers of regeneration under defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett.
"We've got some guys who are stepping in just like any other year," Drummond said. "Next guy up, so they'll be ready. They were able to learn from those guys just like I was and they have confidence. Coach Barnett does a great job of coaching us. When Darqueze came in here, he needed to be coached up, Isaiah needed to be coached up, I needed to be coached up.
"They do a great job of developing players and continue to get better at it as years go on. We still call ourselves the No Fly Zone, but Coach Barnett says all the time that you can't call yourself that if you let people fly on you."