2011 Michigan State Preview – Defense
Michigan State CB Johnny White
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Michigan State Spartan Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
The meltdown against Alabama put an ugly cap on a terrific year. There wasn't a pass rush and there were a few problems against the better passing teams, but the defense came up with a nice season against the run and did enough to get by. There weren't too many high-octane offenses on the schedule, but the Spartans did a nice job against Wisconsin and Michigan and shut down Illinois and Penn State. Now the defense has to replace two phenomenal linebackers in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, but there are plenty of good, hard-hitting athletes ready to step in. The strength will be at defensive tackle where Jerel Worthy is ready for the NFL right now, and enough size and strength from the rest of the tackles to be tough against the run. Johnny White is about to become an All-America caliber corner who'll lead a good-looking secondary, but the defensive backs need help from more of a pass rush that finished 90th in the nation. The line has to do more to get into the backfield, and that means big, talented ends William Gholston and Tyler Hoover have to do more.
Star of the defense: Junior DT Jerel Worthy
Tackles: Trenton Robinson, 76
Sacks: Jerel Worthy, 4.5
Interceptions: Trenton Robinson, 4
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE Tyler Hoover
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Darqueze Dennard
Best pro prospect: Worthy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Worthy, 2) CB Johnny Adams, 3) DE William Gholston
Strength of the defense: Defensive Tackle, Corner
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, Tackles For Loss
State of the Unit: The defensive line did a strong job against good running games, the Alabama Crimson Tide excused, keeping Wisconsin to 165 yards, holding down Denard Robinson and Michigan to 165 yards, and doing a good job throughout. Allowing 275 yards and six touchdowns to the Tide screwed up the stats, but it was a strong regular season. On the flip side, though, there was little to no pass rush and there weren't enough plays into the backfield. That has to change, and this line could be good enough to do it.
The anchor and star of the defense is junior Jerel Worthy, who has about 13 games left in his college career before he's off to the NFL as a top 15 draft pick. The 6-3, 305-pounder has good size and is extremely active, leading the team with four sacks and eight tackles for loss, to go along with 40 tackles. He got a little bit bigger, but he didn't lose any of his athleticism, and while he's not a massive space eater who can do much on the nose, he can be a terrific one-gap defender and a dream of a 4-3 tackle at the next level.
Trying to stuff things up on the nose if big junior Anthony Rashad White, a massive former JUCO transfer who turned into a key reserve on the interior in his first season making 17 tackles with a tackle for loss. At 6-2 and 320 pounds he's built to anchor on the nose with a short, thick build that gets him good leverage, but he's also quick enough to get into the backfield from time to time. He has the size to be exactly what the line needs to allow Worthy to roam free, and he'll get help in a rotation from Kevin Pickelman … eventually. The 6-4, 278-pound senior was out this offseason with a neck injury, and he missed time earlier in his career with a knee injury, but he was a spot starter last year getting the call seven times and finishing with 31 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss.
The Spartans need more of a pass rush, and it has to start coming from Tyler Hoover, a 6-7, 274-pound junior who has excellent size and surprising quickness, but didn't show it off enough with three sacks with 36 tackles. He was good and had a strong season, and he was disruptive in his nine starts as a left end, but he needs to use his size and skills to do even more.
Pushing for time on the left side is the combination of redshirt freshman Marcus Rush and sophomore Denzel Drone. The 6-2, 260-pound Drone was banged up a bit, but he managed to become a nice spot starter making 13 tackles with a sack. The Florida native was supposed to be a strongside linebacker, but he's growing into a strong end, while the 6-2, 250-pound Rush also has linebacker size, but he's an end who was a good recruit last year and should grow into a dangerous situational pass rusher.
Sophomore William Gholston, cousin of former Ohio State star, Vernon, came to MSU as a top recruit and was expected to come in right away and produce as either an outside linebacker or an end. The 6-7, 265-pounder beefed up a bit and became a nice reserve, making 13 tackles with five quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss, but he didn't scratch the surface on his pass rushing ability. He has the same sort of pass rushing skills as his brother, making 27 sacks and 44 tackles for loss as a high school senior. He'll be backed up by junior Corey Freeman, a 6-2, 236-pounder who made six tackles with two tackles for loss in his limited role. He has the speed and the burst, and now he has to show it off more as a specialist.
Watch Out For … Gholston. The Spartans don't do anything too crazy to get disruptive and get into the backfield, and it showed last year. That means the ends have to make things happen on their own, and with Hoover on one side and Gholston on the other, the pass rush should improve. Gholston has the size and the sped to be a breakout star.
Strength: Size. The MSU defensive front has no problem with bulk. Worthy would be the big body for almost any other line, but White has the true girth to clog things up. Throw in a few tackle-sized ends, and the Spartans aren't going to be shoved around.
Weakness: Pass rush. The Spartans generated just 20 sacks as a team, with the linebackers chipping in on many of them. Gholston has the potential to be special, and there are plenty of decent options waiting in the wings, but now the production has to come.
Outlook: If White and Pickelman can combine to have a great year on the nose, the interior should be among the best in the Big Ten and the Spartans will be nasty to run on. Worthy is a special player who can get into the backfield, and there's enough size all across the board to be great against the run. If the pass rush can be a wee bit better, the line will be a strength.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: Greg Jones finished up his career with 465 tackles and 57 tackles for loss, and Eric Gordon ended with 331 tackles and 36 tackles for loss. The two were the teams top two tacklers last year combining for 198 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss, and they won't easily be replaced. Now there's lots and lots of work being done to find the right players and the right combination, but with a great line up front to take care of most of the heavy lifting, the linebackers should be relatively clean to put up plenty of stats.
One starter is back to try to ease the transition, and junior Chris Norman is a promising strongside defender who should be one of the team's leading tacklers. The 6-1, 225-pounder made 59 tackles with three broken up passes, and now he should be used more as a pass rusher and a playmaker against the run. Smart, fast, and great in the opener field, he has the talent to finally get the spotlight to himself and be a bigger factor. He'll be backed up by sophomore Jeremy Gainer, a 6-1, 227-pound speedster who was ranked among the nation's top outside linebacker recruits in 2009. While he's better suited for the weakside, he'll get his chance to get more physical and show what he can do as a tough run stopper.
There will be an ongoing fight for the job in the middle between 6-3, 240-pound sophomore Max Bullough, 6-0, 227-pound sophomore TyQuan Hammock, and 6-1, 225-pound junior Steve Gardiner. Bullough is a big, strong defender who's built for the middle and looks like the prototype. A star recruit last year, he has big-time hitting ability and the smarts to be a quarterback of a linebacking corps and a defensive front. Making 23 tackles with a pick and 1.5 tackles for loss as a reserve, he's ready to do far more in a bigger role, while Hammock is a quick, athletic player who can be used in a variety of ways. He made 16 tackles in his first season, while Gardiner came up with 21 stops with a tackle for loss, working mostly as a top special teamer. He's not all that big and it built like a safety, but he can hit.
Sophomore Denicos Allen is sort of a hybrid of a linebacker and a safety in the Star position, and he should be terrific. The 5-10, 218-pounder is a tough tackler with the quickness to get all over the field, and now he'll bring his tremendous speed – he was a part of an Ohio state-champion level high school relay team – to the starting spot after making 18 tackles. 6-1, 209-pound sophomore Kyler Elsworth is a walk-on who spent last year as a special teamer making 12 stops, but he'll be thrown into the defensive mix this year.
Watch Out For … the middle situation. There isn't any real bad answer with three good players to form a strong rotation. Bullough is big, strong, and built for the spot, while Hammock and Gardner are good athletes who can move.
Strength: Athleticism. This might not be a corps full of blazers, but there are more than enough quick, talented athletes to swarm around the ball and make up for mistakes and inexperience by running to the play. Expect lots of gang tackles early on with everyone swarming.
Weakness: Proven depth. The middle should be strong with three good players involved, and Gainer isn't a bad option, but Jones and Gordon were so great and so dependable that it was hard for others to get into the mix. The starters are trying to find their way, much less the backups.
Outlook: You don't get better by losing playmakers like Jones and Gordon, but the linebackers will be more than fine. It'll take a while to find the right backups and the right rotation, but there's enough athleticism and enough talent to make up for Jones' and Gordon's lost stats. Replacing the leadership, though, will be an issue.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: The secondary loses tone-setting, physical corner Chris L. Rucker, but as good and as tough as he was at times, and as much as he wanted to erase everyone's No. 1 receiver, he wasn't always consistent. The rest of the defensive backfield should be fine, but nothing special, after finishing 60th in the nation, allowing 220 yards per game, and 43rd in pass efficiency defense. The DBs didn't get any help from a pass rush, and they didn't face too many high-octane passing teams, but they were decent and they should be fine as the season goes on.
The star of the secondary will be Johnny Adams, a 5-11, 170-pound junior who overcame the shoulder problems that cost him all of 2009 to start every game and make 50 tackles with three picks and seven broken up passes. Smart, quick, and tough for his skinny size, he's a tough tackler with next level speed and big play ability on the field side. Consider him a lock for all-star honors, while 5-11, 174-pound junior Mitchell Whiteis a former walk-on who got a start against Iowa and finished the season with ten tackles with a broken up pass. He has the experience to work as a key backup or in nickel and dime packages.
Starting on the Boundary side is 5-11, 185-pound sophomore Darqueze Dennard, a great-looking prospect who got a start against Illinois when Rucker was suspended and more than held his own. He only ended up playing half the season after suffering a knee injury, finishing with 11 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss, and he'll be more than fine with more responsibility. 6-2, 185-pound redshirt freshman Tony Lippett is one of the team's rising stars as both a receiver and a defensive back. He's built like a top-shelf wideout, and he has the speed to do a little of everything on both sides of the ball.
The fight for the strong safety job will go on throughout the offseason. 5-10, 199-pound sophomore Isaiah Lewis was one of the team's top recruits last year and was expected to be a factor right away. He got a start and ended up seeing time in every game, making 15 tackles with a broken up pass, and now he'll get a long look as a full time starter to go along with potential as a punt returner. Also in the hunt is 6-1, 205-pound sophomore Jairus Jones, a strong prospect from Florida with great tackling skills and the right size to be a factor. He has enough athleticism to play any safety spot, and he's way too good a prospect to keep off the field after making 15 tackles in his first year.
5-10, 195-pound senior Trenton Robinson has been one of the team's steadier starters over the last few years making 67 tackles in 2009 and coming up with 76 stops with three picks and eight broken up passes at free safety. A great hitter with excellent range, he has found a home and role after originally being considered a top corner prospect. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Mylan Hicks, a 5-11, 187-pound corner who should be more than fine as a free safety. A good runner and a baller of a defensive back, he'll produce no matter where he plays.
Watch Out For … Adams. He started to get a little respect last year, earning Second Team All-Big Ten recognition, and now he's ready to become one of the Big Ten's top lockdown corners. Put him on an island and let him erase the Field side.
Strength: Young talent. Robinson, a senior, is a steady free safety, but the rest of the secondary is full of strong, talented young players with Dennard, Jones, Lewis all extremely promising sophomores. Lippett, a redshirt freshman, is a potential star if he stays at corner, and Adams has another year of eligibility if he doesn't go pro early.
Weakness: The pass rush. The Spartan defensive front doesn't do enough to get into the backfield or pressure the quarterback, and while that's expected to change a bit this year, the secondary needs to be prepared to cover an extra second or two.
Outlook: The secondary started to improve last year after crashing and burning for the previous two years. There's excellent potential and a lot to get excited about with lots of speed, plenty of options, and good versatility. Robinson is a good, sound veteran safety to work around, and Adams and Dennard should be terrific on the outside.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: Junior Dan Conroy had to battle for the starting placekicker job after being used a bit on kickoffs, and he came through with a tremendous year nailing 14-of-15 field goal attempts. The concern was that he didn't have much in the way of range, but he nailed a 50-yarder against Florida Atlantic and was 4-of-4 from beyond 40 yards. The one miss was a 38-yarder against Northwestern, and he only made one field goal over the last six games, but he's ultra-reliable. Even so, he'll still have to hold off sophomore Kevin Muma, a huge-legged high school all star who handled kickoffs last year and came up with 13 touchbacks.
The punting game was special last season with Aaron Bates averaging 45 yards per kick while putting 17 inside the 20 and forcing 13 fair catches. He was a weapon who bailed the team out of a slew of big jams, and now it'll be up to redshirt freshman Mike Sadler to try to fill the big shoes. Scout.com's No. 3 ranked punter last year, he's ultra-accurate, smart, and has a good enough leg to blast away for over 40 yards per kick. He can be used on field goals if needed.
Receiver Keshawn Martin is extremely quick and extremely dangerous, but he slipped last year as a kickoff returner after averaging 29.8 yards per try in 2009. He only averaged a mere 17.8 yards per attempt last year, but he'll be back at the helm, while he'll also be the main man again on punt returns after averaging a whopping 14.2 yards per return with a score.
Watch Out For … Sadler. The pressure is on after such a phenomenal year by Bates, and while it's asking for too much to expect a 45-yard average, Sadler should be accurate and should show that he's ready to be a major factor for the next four years.
Strength: Martin. Forget about the mediocre year on kickoff returns; he's an elite talent who needs to be avoided. There are few better punt returners in college football and he'll be on everyone's preseason All-America list.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. It's a bit nitpicky, but the Spartans allowed 21 yards per return and gave up a few big runs. The punting game will be the biggest question mark, but keeping good kickoff returners under wraps will be the focus. Again, though, this is looking for problems; the situation isn't that bad.
Outlook: With Conroy coming through with a phenomenal year, the special teams were terrific. Sadler will be a bit of a drop-off from Bates, but he'll be fine, and Martin will be better after the Spartans finished dead last in the Big Ten, and 103rd in the nation, in kickoff returns. The special teams might not be the best in the Big Ten, but they won't be far off.
Unit Rating: 8
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