July 27, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
CHICAGO - Star quality has everything to do with why Michigan State's defense is getting rave reviews this preseason, but the quality of its depth could determine whether it lives up to its billing.
End William Gholston, linebackers Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman and cornerbacks Johnny Adam and Darqueze Dennard have become household names, but even they can't cover every inch of turf between the sidelines.
It will be up to relative unknowns like linemen Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas and Damon Knox; linebackers Darien Harris and Taiwan Jones; and defensive backs RJ Williamson and Trae Waynes to fill in the gaps along with dependable mainstays such Isaiah Lewis, Marcus Rush and Steve Gardiner and veterans like Anthony Rashad White and Tyler Hoover whose roles will expand.
"We've got a lot of depth in the D-line and at linebacker," said Bullough, a second-team All-Big Ten middle linebacker. "It's the linebacker room that I know about most and we've got 12 or 14 guys in there, and they all can play.
"That allows you do to do some different things and maybe work in some different packages with different personnel out there. And, there's competition at ever position and competition brings out the best in everyone. That's a cliché statement, but it's true, especially with the young guys. The red-shirt freshmen have to realize there are guys in front of them, and if they want to play, they need to get ready."
At Friday's Big Ten Media Days interview session, head coach Mark Dantonio compared the unveiling of many of players who toiled on the scout team last season to opening presents on Christmas morning.
"We've got new toys, and we want to see how they look," Dantonio said. "I talk about having 18-22 back on defense in terms of the first and second groups, but we've got some very good players who were redshirted last year that people are going to start noticing."
They will be added to an imposing framework that remains sturdy despite the loss of consensus All-America defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and safety Trenton Robinson from the Big Ten's No. 1-rated defense. Every linebacker on last season's depth chart returns. Gholston and Adams are preseason All-Americans and Bullough is poised to take a big step closer to elite status as a junior.
Allen had the second-most sacks, with 11, in the league last season, and Lewis and Dennard finished among the top seven in pass interceptions.
Five Spartan defenders are on the preseason watch lists for national postseason position awards.
However, they will rest on their laurels at great risk because Dantonio can tick off a series of names of hungry players who are coming on strong.
"Darien Harris had a great spring, is very active and going to show up all over the field," Dantonio said. "Lawrence Thomas is fully healthy and ready to go at defensive end. That guy has tremendous upside. He's an athlete. We saw him play some in (2011) fall camp and he's got shock. He can bring it.
"Shilique Calhoun is a guy we've talked about all along since he got here last fall. He's about 250 pounds, a great pass-rusher who can run and close on you. Joel Heath is another defensive end and he looks exactly like William (Gholston). He's gonna play a lot. Taiwan Jones is the one guy we did not redshirt last year and may play some defensive end and may play linebacker. He's active.
"In the secondary, you've got Trae Waynes, who's one of the fastest players on our team and had a great spring. RJ Williamson is another guy who will battle for that safety spot and traveled to almost every game last year. We almost took the redshirt off him a couple times, but we sort of hung in there with it."
Then there are incoming freshmen defensive backs like safety Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmondson, Ezra Robinson and Mark Meyers.
"Those are our toys," repeated Dantonio, who isn't allowed to watch summer workouts under NCAA rules. "Demetrious Cox is going to be a great football player and you hear things about him already. Our players talk. When I say, `How's our guys?' they tell me, `They're players.'
"The word sort of circulates back to you, but we'll see how it all goes. The thing that's exciting to me is they all have great personalities and they're very similar to our guys. I keep talking about our chemistry, but our guys are very like-minded. They're working hard, they enjoy each other's company, they're good young people, and they've got people behind them steering them the right way."
Norman takes comfort in knowing that the defense has evolved to a point where an injury to a key player shouldn't be catastrophic. He's keeping an eye on White, the junior-college transfer who had a game-winning blocked field goal against Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
"We've got a lot of people who've already played coming back," Norman said. "I think Anthony Rashad White is going to be a really good defensive tackle. He's really not a young guy, but in terms of playing, he hasn't played as much as some of the others. I think he's going to make a huge impact.
"We've got a lot of people with the ability to do some things on the field, and I think it's going to come in handy. You never know who's going to go down on Saturday and to have somebody who can step in and play is important. And if you know you have somebody behind you who can step in for you, it just pushes you and makes you that much better of a football player."
"You can look at all three levels of our defense and see somebody who can play," Maxwell said. "Shilique Calhoun last year was a freshman and he used to give us fits when he played scout-team defense. We would be out there at practice and he'd be making plays. He's a terror.
"At linebacker, Darien Harris is a little smaller, but he's fast, athletic and can hit. And in the back end, RJ Williamson can play either corner or safety. He can cover; he's fast and has good ball skills. Not only do we have great young players on the field now, we've got another crop who redshirted and will get their opportunity to play this year and continue the tradition."