Aug. 1, 2012
Michigan State's defense, which ranked among the NCAA FBS Top 10 in four categories last season, including No. 6 in total defense, reloads with eight starters from a year ago.
As MSU gears up for preseason camp, which begins on Saturday, Aug. 4, Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi take a position-by-position look at the 2012 Spartan defense.
Although the Spartans lost both of their starting interior defensive linemen from last season in consensus All-American Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman, the program has been stockpiling talent with strong recruiting the past few seasons and still appears to have the makings of a dominant defensive line in 2012.
Gholston improved immensely from his freshman season and had a breakthrough campaign as a sophomore, leading all Spartan defensive linemen with 70 tackles while ranking tied for seventh in the Big Ten with 16 tackles for loss and tied for 11th in the conference with five sacks. In the Outback Bowl victory over Georgia, Gholston was at his finest, tying a Spartan bowl record with five tackles for loss (16 yards); he had seven tackles overall against the Bulldogs, including two sacks, and he also broke up a pass and recovered a fumble. Gholston enters his junior season listed as a preseason candidate for the Bednarik, Hendricks, Lombardi and Walter Camp Awards.
Rush wasted no time in making an immediate impact for the Spartan defense, starting all 14 games his red-shirt freshman season and ranking first among Big Ten freshmen in sacks (4.0 for 23 yards) and tackles for loss (12.0 for 45 yards). He also produced 58 tackles overall and five breakups, and was named a Freshman All-American and the Big Ten Freshman Defensive MVP by ESPN.com.
Behind Gholston and Rush are two exciting prospects that the Spartan coaching staff is encouraged to see get on the field and believe will make an impact in 2012: red-shirt freshmen Shilique Calhoun (6-4, 240) and Joel Heath (6-6, 266). Calhoun showed incredible promise during practice last season, being named Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week a team-high three times, while Heath showed flashes of his potential in the spring with six tackles, including two sacks, in the three scrimmages.
Returning letterwinners Corey Freeman (6-2, 256, Sr.) and Jeremy Gainer (6-2, 232, Jr.) will also provide depth for the Spartans. In addition, Lawrence Thomas (6-3, 295, R-Fr.), who sat out nearly all of last season and spring practice with a shoulder injury, will return to the field during preseason camp and make the switch from linebacker to defensive end.
"Without a doubt, when you look at Rush and Gholston, and Calhoun and Heath, and even Gainer had a good spring, we've got some quality ends," Narduzzi said. "There's no question that with those guys, we can and will be better than we were a year ago."
The inside will have a different look than the past few seasons, but the Spartans have the luxury of plugging in two seniors in the middle. Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 230, Sr.) started four games last season and made his biggest impact in the Outback Bowl, showing his potential with a career-high seven tackles against the Bulldogs, including three for losses (7 yards). He sealed the victory for MSU by blocking a potential game-tying field goal in the third overtime to preserve the win.
After seeing action as a defensive end his entire career, Tyler Hoover (6-7, 310, Sr.-5) transitioned to nose tackle during spring practice, providing the Spartans with impressive size and speed at the position.
"Well, he's big," Dantonio said regarding Hoover's move. "He's had to keep his weight down (to be at defensive end). He has to try to get down to 270, 265. If he lets himself just be what he is, he's probably 295-, 300-pound guy. So I think Tyler has great ability. There is no question he has experience...He's got tremendous upside."
Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge (6-4, 272, So.), who had to sit out last season, will be in the mix to start as well at nose tackle after an impressive spring practice. Brandon Clemons (6-3, 275, R-Fr.), Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 278, R-Fr.) and Doug Curtis (6-2, 240, Sr.) add support behind Hoover and Kittredge.
All three starters return for the Spartans to what should be one of the most talented linebacker corps in the nation.
The group is led by junior Max Bullough (6-3, 252), who is entering his second year as the starting middle linebacker. Bullough had the difficult challenge of replacing four-year starter and two-time All-American Greg Jones last season, but the Spartans didn't miss a beat from the Mike position, as Bullough led the team in tackles with 89 and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. Perhaps what impressed the coaching staff the most, however, was his ability to lead the Big Ten's top-ranked defense.
"Max can take the step to the next level," Narduzzi said. "Intelligence-wise, I don't know if he can get any better. The next step is for him to just become a physical force."
Two-year starter Chris Norman (6-1, 233, Sr.) returns at Star (weak side) linebacker following his best season as a Spartan. As a junior in 2011, Norman earned honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades after recording career bests in tackles (76) and tackles for loss (6.5 for 24 yards).
With Norman out of spring practice with a shoulder injury, Harris was the most productive Star linebacker, compiling 15 tackles in three spring scrimmages, including five for the White in the spring game.
"Darien Harris has really made major strides to the point where you go, `Wow, that guy can go in and be better than we had at backup last year,'" Narduzzi said. "I feel comfortable with where he is mentally on knowing what to do and once we get into the game plan, I think he'll be just as good."
Jones was the only true freshman who played for the Spartans on either offense or defense in 2011, and he earned his first letter by producing 18 tackles.
"Taiwan was more like Chris Norman as a freshman - he was on special teams, played a little bit," said Dantonio. "We tried to find a place for him, but there was a lot to learn. I think Taiwan will be an outstanding player for us here, and I think he'll compete for playing time."
At Sam (strong side) linebacker, junior Denicos Allen (5-11, 225) proved to be a playmaker in his first year as a starter, ranking second in the Big Ten with 11 sacks (69 yards) and fourth in tackles for loss (18.5 for 86 yards). In fact, his 18.5 tackles for loss tied for the second-most ever in a Spartan single-season. Allen is one of four Spartans, along with Gholston, Bullough and Johnny Adams, to be named to the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award, which is presented to the nation's top defensive player.
Providing support behind Allen is junior Kyler Elsworth (6-1, 220), who collected 37 tackles last season and led the team with 15 stops on special teams. Ed Davis (6-3, 220, R-Fr.) and Danny Folino (5-9, 206, Jr.) also add depth at linebacker for the Spartans.
Michigan State welcomes back three of its four starters from a year ago to a secondary that ranked among the NCAA FBS Top 25 in pass defense (11th with 176.9 yards per game), interceptions (tied for 12th with 18) and pass efficiency defense (18th with a 113.3 rating).
Adams, whose name appears on preseason watch lists for three national awards (Bednarik, Nagurski, Thorpe), garnered first-team All-Big Ten honors by the coaches last season after leading the team with nine passes defended, including three interceptions. The fifth-year senior has 28 starts to his credit and ranks among MSU's all-time leaders in interceptions (8) and interception return yards (219). Dennard started 11 games and recorded 42 tackles and six passes defended (three interceptions, three pass break-ups) as a sophomore in 2011. His biggest game arrived in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia, as he tied a Spartan bowl record with two interceptions, including a 38-yard return for a touchdown.
"Obviously, you feel good with your corners in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard," Narduzzi said. "I feel pretty good that those guys can lock people down, but they still have to make a play on the ball. If there's one place you feel real good, it's at that corner spot."
Fifth-year senior Mitchell White (5-11, 185) and red-shirt freshman Trae Waynes (6-1, 175) are set to be the back-up cornerbacks. Arjen Colquhoun (6-1, 192, R-Fr.) and Mylan Hicks (5-11, 192, So.) will also add depth at the position.
In addition to Adams, junior strong safety Isaiah Lewis (5-10, 205) is also mentioned on the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive back. The hard-hitting Lewis was one of just 13 players in 2011 to return two interceptions for touchdowns, and he ranked tied for second in the Big Ten with four interceptions overall. A second-team All-Big Ten selection, Lewis ranked fourth on the Spartans with 74 tackles in his first year as the full-time starter. Lewis will also serve as the secondary's vocal leader following the departure of former captain and three-year starter Trenton Robinson to the NFL.
Two-year letterwinner Jairus Jones (6-1, 207, Jr.) gives the Spartans an experienced back-up behind Lewis at strong safety.
The battle for the starting spot at free safety left open by Robinson is down to Kurtis Drummond (6-1, 200, So.) and RJ Williamson (6-0, 205, R-Fr.). Drummond earned his first letter last season serving as Robinson's back-up, recording 17 tackles and two interceptions in 12 games of action.
"Kurtis Drummond and RJ Williamson have got to remain consistent," Dantonio said. "We've got guys who can tackle, are explosive players and have great ball skills. What they don't have is Trenton's experience, but we're going to get that as we continue working."
The 2012 outlook will continue tomorrow with a glance at special teams.