Spartan Defense Expects To Remain Among Nation's Elite
Michigan State returns 19 letterwinners and five starters from the Big Ten's top-ranked defense in 2013.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The departure of the kind of talent Michigan State lost from its 2013 defense must be met, as if decreed by the football gods, with a requisite lowering of expectations.
It is the speculative grist used by the media mill to churn out predictions that may or may not come true, and the source of doubt that fuels angst fans take into every new season.
What's often missing is the logic that tells us that before there was a Darqueze Dennard starring at cornerback, there was Chris L. Rucker. And before Max Bullough reinvented the middle linebacker position in his image, All-American Greg Jones played it pretty darn well his way. And safety Isaiah Lewis wasn't Isaiah Lewis until he followed the lead of Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde.
It should be noted, therefore, that anxiety was conspicuous by its absence Monday during MSU Media Day at Spartan Stadium.
"No Dennard (et al.), no problem" could have been the theme of event that officially turned the page on last season's Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championships.
"It's really about what we're doing in practice and how we're evaluating ourselves and not worrying about what the media is saying about us," said fifth-year senior defensive end Marcus Rush, who is on track to break the school record for games started.
That would be a time-honored position to take. To wit, a year ago, the Spartans correctly laughed off speculation they'd finish in the middle of Legends Division pack and weren't worthy of being ranked in the Top 25.
They are still in a dismissive mood despite showing up at No. 8 in the Preseason Amway Coaches Poll. After all, MSU has been picked to finish behind sixth-ranked Ohio State in newly reconfigured and renamed, post-expansion Big Ten East Division.
Rush will admit that the defense has a tough act to follow. Michigan State led the nation in defense much of last season and only slipped to No. 2 after the bowls. But, MSU has been so diligent at restocking talent, where's the justification for anyone to say that the 2014 defense can't come out with a strong encore performance?
"I think guys will step up and we have the chance of being as good or better," Rush said. "It depends on our chemistry and how well we do this (preseason) camp.
"Ever since my class came in in 2010 and going into 2011, when we started becoming the best defense in the Big Ten, a lot of those guys have been gaining experience on the field and they can teach the young guys. As you get older, those younger guys know just as much as we do and the talent level is there."
And if it's safe to assume that eighth-year head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff have been upgrading the talent with each passing recruiting class, fears of an impending drop-off appear to be baseless.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn't about to concede the Spartans fourth-straight Big Ten defending crown because Bullough isn't back.
"It's all speculation," Narduzzi said. "We better be good everywhere, that's our expectation."
Will it be different?
In some ways, of course, citing the middle linebacker spot in particular as a prime example.
Bullough's strength was his knowledge of the defense and uncanny ability to read an offense and get his teammates lined up in the most advantageous position just before the snap. But, even though his savvy and experience gave him an extra step, he wouldn't win a 40-yard dash against Taiwan Jones, who at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, is 10 pounds heavier.
Three practices in, Jones has established himself as the frontrunner in the middle, which is where he'll stay if he can fend off challenges from current weakside (STAR) backer and de facto unit leader Darien Harris, Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke.
"There is going to be a day in camp when I'm saying, `Taiwan, you're staying there, we've got one,' or `Hey, you're going back to STAR position' because we won 13 games with him out there," Narduzzi said. "It's a matter of; can he be solid in there for us? I wouldn't even think of moving him right now, but after the first scrimmage, he might be lining up at D-end. Who knows?
"I feel like we'll find one. I just think in the long run, Taiwan Jones is going to be a middle linebacker in the NFL and it helps him to be in there, for his sake more than our sake. I think he'd be a beast of a middle linebacker because he's so physical. He gives us something we maybe didn't have a year ago with Bullough because he's so physically athletic, but he doesn't have the football common sense of Max Bullough right now."
Jones is working on it; however, and he's determined to extend a prominent line of succession.
"We work just as hard as they did and everybody who comes through our defense is talented," Jones said. "When Greg Jones left, everybody looked to Max, and he stepped in and did a great job. I feel like the way Coach Narduzzi and Coach D recruit, they bring in guys who can step in when somebody huge leaves."
Ed Davis is penciled in to replace Denicos Allen at the strongside linebacker spot. And, with Rush and fellow ends Shilique Calhoun, Demetrius Cooper and Lawrence Thomas, along with an influx of freshman size and talent to go with returning tackles Joel Heath, Damon Knox (out with an injury) and James Kittredge, Dantonio has called the defensive-line situation the best it's been since his arrival.
Meantime, in the secondary -- where Trae Waynes and free safety Kurtis Drummond will compete to defend MSU's claim on the Thorpe Award, which Dennard won last season - Darian Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson are charged with relegating Dennard to the history books and experienced backup RJ Williamson is vying with oft-mentioned Demetrious Cox, Jalyn Powell and Mark Meyers to replace Lewis.
When Narduzzi watches film, one thing stands out.
"Speed and playing well are two different things, so it could be our fastest defense overall," he said. "When you watch them run to the ball, it's like, `Whoa.' You're sitting in the coaches' office kind of going, `Look at these guys run.' They may be as fast as last year's, or faster, but are they as smart, as physical, as seasoned?"
"We lost some really good players, now," Barnett said. "That's three years' worth of starting ability and experience that will be hard to replace. But in saying that, the guys who played behind and with them know what it takes. They saw how they worked and I know that what they believe in their hearts and minds is to be just as good, if not better.
"They know that the last three years, we (finished) six, four, two in the country in defense and they don't want to fall back out of that. They want to step in and keep it rolling, and we're excited about it. There are some guys on the rise people will know about when it's all said and done."
If anybody would understand what opposing offenses will be up against, it's fourth-year junior center Jack Allen, who practices against the Spartan defense every day and has career wins over the likes of Stanford, Ohio State, TCU and Boise State, among others, from which to draw a comparison.
"With such athletic guys on that side of the ball, you have to get your motor going or you're going to have a pretty bad day," Allen said. "Those guys - Ed Davis, Taiwan Jones, Darian Harris - are all doing a great job. They're fast and strong, and they've been backing up some of the best players in the country.
"They've learned from the best, so there's not much of a gap."