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2012 Michigan State Preview – Defense
Michigan State S Isaiah Lewis
Michigan State S Isaiah Lewis
Posted Jul 9, 2012 2012 Preview - Michigan State Spartan Defense

Michigan State Spartans

Preview 2012 - Defense

- 2012 Michigan State Preview | 2012 Michigan State Offense
- 2012 Michigan State Defense | 2012 Michigan State Depth Chart

What You Need To Know: After finishing sixth in the nation and first in the Big Ten in total defense, the Spartans should be even better. Even with the loss of DT Jerel Worthy and FS Trenton Robinson, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has a heater of a defense to work with. The linebacking corps should be dominant with three terrific starters returning led by big-hitter Max Bullough in the middle and pass rushing terror Denicos Allen on the outside. The loss of Worthy up front hurts, but there’s plenty of size in the interior and a dominant pair of ends on the outside in William Gholston and Marcus Rush to get excited about. Johnny Adams should be one of the nation’s top corners as part of a great-looking secondary, but unlike the front seven, the depth in the defensive backfield is a concern.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Max Bullough, 89
Sacks: Denicos Allen, 11
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis, 4

Star of the defense: Senior CB Johnny Adams
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior DT Anthony Rashad White
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Taiwan Jones
Best pro prospect: Junior DE William Gholston
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Adams, 2) Gholston, 3) LB Max Bullough
Strength of the defense: Experience, Front Seven
Weakness of the defense: Secondary Depth, Sure-Thing Tackle Anchor

Defensive Line

The defensive front did a great job of getting into the backfield on a regular basis, and this year the star of stars on a good line will be junior William Gholston, an intimidating 6-7, 275-pound pass rusher who came up with 70 tackles with five sacks and 16 tackles for loss earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. The cousin of the former Ohio State star and NFL bust, Vernon Gholston, he came to MSU as a top recruit as either an outside linebacker or an end, and he hasn’t disappointed. Along with his great wingspan and size is an excellent first step and nice closing ability. While he’s unfortunately known for a helmet-turning tackle against Michigan that suspended him for the Wisconsin game a week later, and despite disappearing too much at times, he came up with 15 tackles against Nebraska and two sacks with five tackles for loss against Georgia. It’s all there to come up with a huge season if he can keep his foot on the gas.

While Gholston gets all the press, 6-2, 250-pound sophomore Marcus Rush might be almost as strong coming off a great first year with 58 tackles, four sacks and 12 tackles for loss. A pure pass rusher with excellent timing and ability off the ball, he was a strong recruit who was considered to be a possible linebacker before proving he could handle the work as an end.

Inside the big question is who’ll end up replacing Jerel Worthy as the anchor. 6-2, 320-pound senior Anthony Rashad-White is a massive former JUCO transfer who built off a strong first season with 25 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a very, very big blocked kick in the win over Georgia. Improving, he has the strength to go along with the size to become the type of nose tackle the entire line can be built around.

Looking to take over one of the other starting jobs inside is 6-7, 295-pound senior Tyler Hoover, a beefed up end who filled out his frame to bring great athleticism to the interior. Knocked out all season with a rib problem, he made three sacks and 36 tackles two years ago and could become a terrific 3-4 end or an interior pass rusher in the 4-3. He’ll rotate with 6-4, 271-pound sophomore James Kittredge, a transfer from Vanderbilt who’s still learning the ins and outs of working as a defensive tackle, but has the fight and the ability to be a big producer.

A pair of redshirt freshmen appear ready to make a huge impact and show they’re ready to grow into stars. 6-4, 240-pound Shilique Calhoun, a dynamic pass rusher who’ll work behind Rush after dominating in practices throughout last season. A phenomenal athlete, he should be used from time to time as a situational pass rusher to give Rush a break, while 6-5, 277-pound Joel Heath is a standout end who could move inside to tackle if needed. While he’s not the pass rusher that Gholston is, he’s active and strong against the run. Getting into the backfield won’t be an issue for him.

Watch Out For … Rush. Offensive coordinators aren’t going to forget about Rush, but he’ll still see much less attention than Gholston will on the other side. Don’t be stunned if Gholston gets the all-star honors and all the publicity with Rush leading the team in sacks.
Strength: Ends. Gholston and Rush are as good as any pair of ends in the country, and Calhoun and Heath, with a little bit of time, won’t be that far off. There should be a great rotation among the ends with everyone staying fresh.
Weakness: Jerel Worthy. Yeah, he was inconsistent, and yeah, he didn’t always bring the A effort, but when he was on he was as dominant as any defensive tackle in America. He was a big-time talent to work the line around, and while White and 6-5, 320-pound junior Micajah Reynolds are big bodies who look the part, neither one is Worthy.
Outlook: Look out. The offensive line might be the team’s biggest strength, but the defensive front won’t be that far off and could be better if the tackles step up their play and take over for Worthy without a problem. Good luck picking your poison on which end to block, and good luck keeping Gholston and Rush down if the young backups are as strong as expected to give the stars meaningful rest. There will be times when the line completely and totally stones opposing running games, but it needs to do it on a consistent basis.
Unit Rating: 8.5


The linebacking corps needed someone to step up and replace the lost production of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, and it was 6-3, 252-pound junior Max Bullough who came through with a team-leading 89 tackles with 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. Built for the middle, the second-team All-Big Ten performer has brilliant instincts and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The star recruit of a few years ago is a perfect quarterback for the front seven and excellent at cleaning up plays the line doesn’t get to.

While Bullough is great for the inside, it’s 5-11, 232-pound junior Denicos Allen who makes big things happen on the outside. A hybrid safety and linebacker last year, he added about 25 pounds to be able to do even more to hold up against the run on the strongside. However, with his speed and quickness he’s at his best when he’s able to fly into the backfield making a team-leading 11 tackles with 18.5 tackles for loss while finishing second behind Bullough with 89 tackles earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. A tremendous speedster as part of an Ohio state champion level relay team, he looks like he’s shot out of a cannon when he has to make something big happen.

On any other linebacking corps, veteran Chris Norman would be one of the stars. The 6-1, 230-pound hybrid made 76 tackles with two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in a nice but unnoticed season, but now h should get more recognition after earning honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors. The senior is smart, fast and great in the open field with excellent instincts and the ability to do a little bit of everything now that he’s healthy after suffering through a shoulder problem.

The Spartans have an excellent pair of young players ready to do big things in the rotation. 6-3, 232-pound sophomore Taiwan Jones spent most of last year on special teams but also worked his way into the rotation a little bit making 18 tackles. A pure outside linebacker with a great burst, he’ll be a pass rusher working behind Norman. Also looking terrific this offseason is redshirt freshman Darien Harris, a safety-sized 6-0, 210-pounder who saw time as a scout team running back and brings his athleticism to the outside as a backup at both spots.

Watch Out For … Norman. Bullough is the leader and Allen is the playmaker, but Norman is every bit the talent that those two are and now he’s healthy. He might not have the big stats like the other two, but expect a big season.
Strength: Experience. Bullough, Norman and Allen combined for 248 tackles and were three of the team’s top four tacklers. There’s a great mix of veteran leadership, athleticism and size.
Weakness: The twos. This isn’t that big a deal with Harris and Jones looking like future stars, and with senior Steve Gardiner and juniors TyQuan Hammock and Kyler Elsworth all seeing plenty of time – with Elsworth making 37 tackles – but there’s a large drop from the starting three if injuries hit. Bullough, Norman and Allen are that good.
Outlook: Amazingly, the linebackers got stronger and better in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. Now the group is loaded with a terrific starting three and just enough depth to hold up and provide a little bit of help. The athleticism is there across the board in what should be one of the Big Ten’s better linebacking corps.
Unit Rating: 9

Defensive Backs

In one of the biggest shockers of the offseason, senior cornerback Johnny Adams is back to be the star of a terrific secondary. The two-time All-Big Ten selection is deadly with the ball in his hands, has a nose for making the big play, and is smart, quick and tough for his 5-11, 175-pound size. Back from a shoulder problem that cost him all of 2009, he made 50 stops with three picks in 2010 and then last year was even better making 51 tackles with three sacks, three picks and six broken up passes. Deadly, he holds the school record for the most interception return yards with the speed and athleticism to find a job in some NFL team’s secondary.

Back on the other side is 5-11, 190-pound junior Darqueze Dennard after making 42 tackles with three picks – with two of them coming in the win over Georgia - earning honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors. Fast and tough, he has no problems getting around the ball and is great at coming up with the open field stop. While Dennard isn’t going to get moved out of a job, 6-1, 175-pound redshirt freshman Trae Waynes will see plenty of action. One of the team’s faster players, he has Wisconsin state championship-level sprinting ability and was all over the field this offseason making things happen.

5-10, 195-pound junior Isaiah Lewis did a nice job at strong safety making 74 tackles and four picks. A star recruit a few years ago, he showed why last season doing a great job against the run and with the range and instincts to start in some NFL backfield whenever he’s ready. While he might not be that big, all the other tools are there.

Third-leading tackler Trenton Robinson is gone, and now it’s up to sophomore Kurtis Drummond to take over after making 17 tackles with a sack and two picks as a key reserve. Very quick and with 6-1, 197-pound size he has the ability to play anywhere in the secondary and could see time in a variety of spots if redshirt freshman R.J. Williamson ends up taking over the safety job. A cornerback by trade, he was converted to free safety last season and should be ready to be a top playmaker whenever he gets on the field. With a nose for the ball and with great speed, he could shine as a nickel or dime defender.

Watch Out For … the free safety job. The other three spots are locked down, but finding a replacement for Robinson and his 80 tackles and his four picks will be tough. Drummond appears ready, but he’ll get pushed hard by Williamson.
Strength: Experience and talent. Adams should be in an NFL camp this summer and Lewis will be making a ton of money in the near future. Dennard is a veteran corner who can handle himself well on one side, but there’s a problem with the …
Weakness: Depth. The safeties will be fine with Williamson able to play either spot, and while Waynes looks like a keeper at corner, the experienced depth is really, really thin. Overall, though, there will be problems if injuries hit the starting four.
Outlook: The stats from last year look great, but the secondary started to break down a bit over the second half of last year giving up 200 yards or more in six of the final eight games. However, if the pass rush is as strong as it was last season the experience in the secondary should shine through in what should be another great season. There are plenty of playmakers to make quarterbacks pay.
Unit Rating: 8

Special Teams

Senior Dan Conroy was terrific two years ago nailing 14-of-15 field goals, and he was solid last year connecting on 17-of-23 shots with three of the misses coming from beyond 50 yards and a few others stemming from bad snaps. He has a great leg and he’s clutch and consistent from medium range.

The punting game struggled overall, but sophomore Mike Sadler was solid averaging 41.1 yards per try putting 25 inside the 20 and forcing 15 fair catches. Scout’s No. 3 ranked punter a few years ago, he’s accurate, smart and owns a good enough leg to blast the team out of trouble from time to time.

The return game loses star punt returner Keshawn Martin, but running back Nick Hill is experienced enough to be ready to give it a shot. He only averaged 3.4 yards per punt return, but that was only on five attempts. On the flip side, he was sensational on kickoff returns averaging 26.3 yards per try with great straight line speed and one-cut ability in the open field.

Watch Out For … Hill. He might not be Martin as a punt returner, but he has the potential to be terrific with excellent quickness and ability in the open field. Receiver DeAnthony Arnett, the transfer from Tennessee, will get every shot at returning punts, too.
Strength: Kicking experience. Conroy is as reliable as they come from inside the 50, while Sadler is consistent and pinning the ball deep. The Spartans won’t get outplayed in the kicking game.
Weakness: Kick coverage. The Spartans were awful at covering punts allowing 16.2 yards per try with a score, and were almost as bad on kickoff returns allowing 23 yards per try with a score.
Outlook: As long as Hill is fine or Arnett turns solid if given the chance at punt returners, the special teams will be a positive. Conroy and Sadler are rocks and should be the difference in at least one close game, but the coverage teams have to be far better.
Unit Rating: 7
- 2012 Michigan State Preview | 2012 Michigan State Offense
- 2012 Michigan State Defense | 2012 Michigan State Depth Chart