Dec. 27, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - The prevailing hope for Michigan State's linebacking unit after two-time All-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon exhausted their eligibility was that it be serviceable - a nice word for not horrible - in 2011.
However, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Chris Norman blew right through the awkward merely adequate phase when Bullough established a team season-high for tackles with 15 against Youngstown State in the opener (and tied by defensive end William Gholston against Nebraska).
By the time Allen matched Big Ten single-game superlatives with four tackles behind the line and three quarterback sacks in the conference title game against Wisconsin, the linebacker corps was a well-established Spartan strength.
"We read a lot about how linebacker was going to be one of our weaker positions this year and we kind of took offense to it," said Allen, whose 10 sacks rank second in the conference. "But instead of pouting or complaining about it, we just took matters into our own hands and bettered ourselves and each other every day to prove we're a talented group of linebackers."
Bullough, a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches, leads MSU with 86 tackles; Allen (78), who was named second-team all-conference by the media, is second; and Norman (71) is tied for fourth despite missing two games because of injury.
The threesome has combined for 27 percent of the Spartans' 871 tackles.
While no one has forgotten how high Jones and Gordon set the bar, MSU's trio has moved collectively beyond the long shadow they cast while establishing its own identity.
Allen, who was a first-team selection on the CollegeFootballNews.com All-Sophomore Team, has 17 tackles for loss from his strong-side spot going into Monday's Outback Bowl against Georgia, or seven more than Jones had last season. His 10 sacks are second in the league and 0.5 more than Gordon had his entire career.
Bullough, who succeeded Jones at the middle linebacker position, has excelled as the quarterback of the defense and although only a sophomore is conjuring up comparisons to former Big Ten greats James Laurinaitis of Ohio State and Paul Posluzsny of Penn State.
"No disrespect to Greg, but it feels great to know that we've accomplished what we set out to do and made a name for ourselves on this defense and in the country," said Allen. "It feels great that we did it with each other. I just feel like we're a very unselfish group that does everything we can for each other and for this defense."
The reason Allen, Bullough and Norman were able to make up for the loss of Jones and Gordon so successfully rolled quickly off the tongue of linebackers coach Mike Tressel.
"We knew they were going to be talented. It's been a matter of experience and how they've come together on the field and just the fact they communicate so well has helped them a bunch."
Tressel didn't necessarily mind seeing the unit be underrated by the purveyors of various preseason outlooks, although he had a much better idea of what MSU had coming back than they did.
"I knew what I expected out of them talent-wise," Tressel said. "But you'd hate for someone to say this is the best unit out there when no one's actually seen them play - that would be crazy.
"We had those kinds of expectations for these guys and they've performed as we expected them too. Our guys have done a good job, but we feel we recruited the right guys to do that."
The communication starts with Bullough but is relayed rapid-fire throughout the unit, which ranks first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally in total defense.
"There are so many things that need to be talked about on the field," Tressel said. "With the group of guys we have now, you can assign: `Hey Max, these are your jobs; Chris Norman, this is your job; Denicos Allen, this is your job,' and they all get it done."
Said Norman, "You can even take this and apply it to the whole defense because every level communicates - the defensive line, the linebackers and the safeties. We're all on one accord and I think that makes us that much of a better defense."
Norman remembers well how he and his backer mates were perceived four months ago.
"We were a question mark," he said with a hearty laugh. "Yes, we took exception to it. Actually, it started in winter conditioning. We knew then that we were going to be a question mark coming into the season and I think it helped us work that much harder to prove we were able to get the job done.
"I think it was a big motivator. We've got some strong, athletic guys who can run, and hit and are intelligent, too, and that's what makes us a good linebacking corps."
The current group of linebackers is just adding to the foundation set by Jones and Gordon.
"You've got to be honest, those guys left a big footprint at Michigan State and naturally, as an athlete, you want to be able to adequately do what the people in front of you did," Norman said. "I don't think it was a negative thing, at all. We just felt the pressure, and as an athlete you have to respond.
"I think the future is looking very good. After guys like me, Max and Denicos pass on we've got some highly talented linebackers I'm going to be excited to watch."
Taiwan Jones, a 6-foot-3, 234-pound true freshman, is already turning heads with his physical play and fellow first-year backers Ed Davis, Darien Harris and Lawrence Thomas are also in the conversation.
"It was fun to watch them during our bowl prep before we left (for Florida)," Tressel said. "We did some drills with the young guys and (they) are all good football players."
It appears Michigan State has the personnel to implement a long-discussed 3-4 alignment on a more regular basis in the future.
"We're always going to try to get the best guys on the field," Tressel said. "The guys have to have faith. If you work your best and you get yourself in position to play, we'll get you out there. You hope every year, as you get better and better, you can rotate more.
"The talent's there, so that can really happen. It's going to be a situation, where we can say in spring ball, `We don't care if you have a job, there is competition out there.'"