Aug. 6, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Some opponents will look at Michigan State's linebacker depth with envy while calling it an embarrassment of riches. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi sees it as a sumptuous development the Spartans can put to good use while they have it.
"It's a luxury this year," Narduzzi said at MSU's annual Media Day. "Next year at this time you guys will be saying, `Who's your linebackers?' We're going to lose four very qualified linebackers after this season that have played a lot of football for us.
"So it's a luxury, believe me. I mean, we move a guy like Riley Bullough (to offense as a redshirt freshman tailback), and I'm not saying we need Riley back. I'm going, `You know what, they need Riley right now and we don't even need him.' As much as I'd like to coach him up for a year and get him closer to playing defense - if that's what happens - we've got pretty good linebackers and go more than two-deep at that spot."
The unit is anchored by Riley's older brother Max, a senior All-America candidate in the middle. Denicos Allen, a three-year senior starter, flanks Bullough at one outside post. The tag-team of Taiwan Jones, a junior who started four games in 2012, and fifth-year senior Jairus Jones, who has moved up from a first-string safety position, are expected to rotate at the other outside position.
Trusted backup playmakers include fifth-year senior Kyler Elsworth behind Bullough, sophomore Ed Davis in support of Allen and sophomore Darien Harris, who'll be doing his utmost to keep up with the Joneses.
The biggest benefit of having so much experience at linebackers coach Mike Tressel's disposal is that MSU should be able to stay fresh at that position from the beginning of the game to the end and endure the grind of a long season.
"In previous years, we've had three starting linebackers with their backups, but the three starters were in the game a majority of the time," said Elsworth, who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. "With the guys we have this year and the playing experience even the backups have, we're going to be able to rotate in and give any one of those guys a rest.
"That will make our defense that much more dangerous because our guys won't be out there 60 plays in a row and tired. They're able to come off the field every once in awhile and go back in refreshed. We've got guys who can come off the bench and not just fill a place, but contribute and make plays."
Elsworth's role as a reliever is to keep as much wear and tear off Bullough as possible for as long as possible.
"You're going live just about every day in practice and going hard in games and by the fifth game of the season, there's bumps and bruises and guys getting banged up," Elsworth said. "They aren't serious injuries, but it slows you down a little bit and gives you one more thing to deal with on the field.
"So if Max or Denicos, or whoever's starting, feels comfortable with their backup going in, it makes it that much easier for Coach Tressel to say, `Get in there so he can take a breather and get back to his best ability that he can be.'"
Taiwan and Jairus aren't related, but it's as though they have a sibling rivalry. Each one would just as soon play every down, but they're going to have to learn to share.
"It ticks me off when I have to come out at practice, so of course it's going to tick me off in the game," Taiwan said. "But that just gives you an added edge. It makes you want to work harder and let the coaches know, you shouldn't take me out because I'm on a roll right now, I'm on fire.
"You only get so many reps in a day, and with every rep you get you get better."
A variety of skill-sets is another benefit of having so much depth.
"I feel like we have unique linebacking corps because everybody brings something different to the table, continuously," Taiwan said. "Whether it's me, Jairus, Max, Denicos, Ed, Kyler, or whoever it is, we bring different things that are going to help the defense in different situations."
The Spartans have maximum flexibility at the Jones linebacker position, although Jairus said it would be wrong to typecast him as the passing-situation linebacker and Taiwan as the run-stopper.
"We're going to have more speed on the field (with me in there), but Taiwan's a fast guy, too, so there's not going to be less speed if he's out there," Jairus said. "It's going to be the same scheme, but maybe with a few more wrinkles. It's going to be a great defense, regardless. He played extremely well against Indiana, and they throw it all the time."
Physically, the Joneses are like twins with different mothers. Jairus stands 6-feet-1 and weighs 214 pounds while Taiwan goes 6-3, 250.
"We both can play against the run and we both can play against the pass, so there won't be much of a drop off with either of us playing on run downs or pass downs," Jairus said. "But, it just gives us a different wrinkle. Now they're going to say we have to worry about Taiwan, who's going to be more of a bruiser, or we have to worry about Jairus, who's more of a safety-type.
"And with all the competition, there's going to be no relaxing on this defense."
Allen is looking forward to returning to the form his displayed while leading the team with 18.5 tackles behind the line, including a team-high 11 sacks, as a sophomore while extolling the virtues of being able to share the load.
"We have a lot of speed and power that makes for a different mixture of things," Allen said. "We can do a lot of things with our defense and that's an advantage to us. I just want to come out not holding anything back, and at the end of my senior season being able to say I gave everything I could and my team came out on top.
"I wasn't disappointed with how I played last season, but I know I could have played a lot better. It was a gut-check season for me. I learned I can't be selfish. I can't just go out and do my thing. I learned I have to be a better team-player. And I learned you've got play through pain. You're going to be hurt, but you've got to get through it for your team."
Although there is an "I" in linebacker, it's going to be about "we," not "me," when MSU's backers take the field seven strong, Allen said.