By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Last season, the members of Michigan State's defense chewed their gum in perfect rhythm. Middle linebacker Max Bullough knew what Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones were thinking to his right or left because he was transmitting information to them telepathically.
All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard would say "thank you" before All-Big Ten strong safety Isaiah Lewis could say "nice play," a common occurrence during the Spartans' run to conference and Rose Bowl championships.
The step or two advantage an offense supposedly has by knowing the secret play and snap count was reduced to a shuffle by a unit that was so cohesive it operated as one moving part, and MSU led the league in defense for the third-straight year and was second in the nation by a mere 0.7 yards per game (the Spartans were No. 1 in the country with 4.04 yards allowed per play).
Bullough, Allen, Dennard and Lewis are gone, as are grizzled veteran defensive tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds, which means Michigan State is going into the season opener against Jacksonville State with "Getting to Know You" as its defensive theme song.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will unveil six new starters against the Gamecocks and eight of the 11 will be in new roles. Free safety Kurtis Drummond and defensive ends Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun are the only familiar faces in their usual places.
Jones, for example, has shifted over from the strong-side linebacker position to Bullough's well-worn place in the middle while Trae Waynes has moved to Dennard's old boundary corner spot from field corner, where true sophomore Darian Hicks will make his first career start.
Fortunately for MSU, many of the next men up, such as new weakside linebacker Darien Harris, who was a key contributor in the Rose Bowl win over Stanford, and strongside backer Ed Davis have logged numerous plays as backups.
Jones is confident the time spent getting to know all about each other during spring practice, summer workouts and preseason camp has shaved the learning curve down to a speed bump.
"I feel like we're the same," he said. "Whether it be Darien Harris, Mylan Hicks, Riley Bullough, Ed Davis or Jon Reschke, I feel like we have a great unit at linebacker along with the defensive line and of course the defensive backs.
"We can be versatile with what we do and I feel like that's going to help us in the long run."
Physically and athletically, Jones doesn't take a back seat to anyone who has ever played the middle linebacker position at MSU. However, he's being charged with replacing arguably the best defensive field general and tactician ever to man the spot for the Spartans.
"I'm still working on that, but Bullough had a good four years to do what I've had pretty much a half-a-year to do," Jones said. "But I feel pretty good about what I've done this past spring and summer and I feel very comfortable with where I am.
"We're taking it as a challenge, and when we come out on Friday, we're going meet that challenge and accomplish it by showing everybody we're not any worse than last year, we're just as good and maybe even better. I think the linebacking corps is faster, the defensive line is faster and the DBs are just as fast and have great attention to detail."
The Spartan defenders will have no time to ease into things against Jacksonville State, which can appear to operate its fast-paced attack while wearing rollerblades. The Gamecocks reached the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals last season, thanks to a prolific offense that broke 49 school records. They passed for 3,033 yards and rushed for 3,604 and 24 of their 65 touchdowns came on drives that lasted less than a minute.
Sophomore dual-purpose quarterback Eli Jenkins rushed for 953 yards, second on the team behind All-America tailback DaMarcus James with 1,477, and completed 60 percent of his passes.
Waynes doesn't expect Jacksonville State, which upset Ole Miss in 2010, to be awestruck by playing in Spartan Stadium, which is fine with him, especially with a trip to No. 3 Oregon looming.
"I think it helps us," Waynes said. "One thing we worked on this whole summer is tempo. Starting out with it will just put us ahead of everything. It will be a learning experience because it will be the first time all the newcomers will be playing together in a full game, but I think we're ready.
"We're all excited to see what we can do and trying to be better than last year's defense."
In recent weeks, head coach Mark Dantonio has frequently said that virtually all of MSU's inexperienced players are capable of playing exceptional football for a play, or two. The key to earning a starting job in the lineup, or a place in the playing group, is sustaining it for six or seven plays in a row even after getting rocked by a block from center Jack Allen, winded after a series of long runs or confused by various formations and men in motion.
And, JSU has the personnel to match up with the Spartans in certain areas.
"They have six or seven transfers that are coming in from various places such as Alabama, Tennessee, South Florida, Southern Miss, those types of places," Dantonio said. "You can take guys like Darqueze Dennard, who was not a highly recruited guy, he could have very easily been playing at Jacksonville State."
Dantonio has ramped up the importance of the opener by labeling it a "statement game," because it's doubtful the Spartans can simply go through the motions and feel good about the outcome. Consequently, the coaching staff will have a quick hook ready if players aren't performing up to established standards.
Because it's been completely revamped, the linebacking unit will undergo especially close scrutiny.
"It's going to be something that we look at, obviously, because that is a new lineup," Dantonio said. "I think all three guys are extremely talented, but then I go back to say what's going to allow them to be successful - staying mentally sharp, bending their knees and playing fast, and tackling, and playing in space, getting off of blocks, doing the things that they have to do on a drill-to-drill basis.
"If they stand up and start wandering, bad things happen. I'm pretty sure that our players understand what they have to do to be successful, and we've got good players behind them that will be able to take snaps."
The message has been received by Jones & Co.
"All 11 guys have got to be on the same page," he said. "That's defense. We have great scheme, but if one person is not in the right spot, or one person does something wrong, it could be fatal. What (Dantonio) is saying about wandering is that if everybody does their job, we'll be just as good as we've ever been on defense.
"We have to play Jacksonville State like we're about to play Alabama."