What you need to know ...
With one of the
nation's best offenses to work with, all the defense has to do
is not be awful. It's a D that would like to attack and be
ultra-aggressive, but it didn't generate any sort of a pass rush
last season and didn't come up with nearly enough takeaways for
head coach John L. Smith's liking. The line should be a bit more
athletic, but it'll be slightly undersized on the ends. All
three starters return to a linebacking corps that has to be more
disruptive. Safety Greg Cooper moves to corner, but that means
Otis Wiley and JUCO transfer Nehemiah Warrick have to shine as
the new starting safeties.
Tackles: David Heron, 65
Sacks: Sir Darean Adams, David Harron, 2
Interceptions: Sir Darean Adams, 3
Star of the defense: Senior DT Clifton Ryan
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore FS Otis Wiley
Best pro prospect: Ryan
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Ryan, 2) LB David
Herron, 3) LB Sir Darean Adams
Strength of the defense: Linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Proven pass rush
Spartans generated next to no pass rush last year from the front four
and went through too many lapses against the run. The idea is to put the
four most athletic player on the field as much as possible, so Clifton
Ryan will move from end to tackle allowing for Justin Kershaw, Brandon
Long, and JUCO transfer Ervin Baldwin to try to get some sort of steady
pressure from the outside. The ends are a little light for a Big Ten
line, but they can move.
The key to the unit: Be disruptive. The Spartans
can't make a big jump this year if it's 106th in the nation in sacks and
117th in tackles for loss.
Defensive Line Rating: 6.5
- DE Brandon Long, Soph. - 3 tackles
Originally a linebacker coming out of high school, Long is an undersized
237 pounds in a tall 6-4 frame. While he might not be the most physical
end around, he has the potential to become a pass rushing terror with
excellent speed and athleticism.
- NT David Stanton, Sr. - 13 tackles, 2 TFL
Stanton grew into a key role on the line getting a few starts early on
and serving as a key reserve over the second half of the year. Even
though he's 6-3 and 291 pounds, he's not a natural tackle having played
end in the JUCO ranks, and he's still getting used to the work on the
nose. He should bring more of a pass rushing threat to the inside.
- DT Clifton Ryan, Sr. - 34 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 TFL, 3
The one sure thing on the line, Ryan is the only returning starter and
is primed for a huge season if he can get a little help from the other
three starters. He was a huge end throughout his career and now brings
his 304-pound size and good athleticism to the interior. While he's not
a fast end, he's a quick tackle and should dominate at times.
- DE Justin Kershaw, Soph. - 4 tackles, 1 sack
The 6-4, 252-pound sophomore is tough as nails and has the type of 4.6
speed to develop into a dangerous pass rusher. He's one of the best
athletes on the line with enough quickness to be a big linebacker if
needed. Slightly undersized, he could end up having to rotate if Clifton
Ryan sees time on the outside.
- DE Ervin Baldwin, Jr.
Baldwin could instantly solve the team's pass rushing woes. The 6-2,
252-pound JUCO transfer has good speed and is a natural at getting to
the quarterback with 14.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss last year for
Reedley College in California.
- DE Nick Smith, Jr. - 7 tackles, 1 TFL
At 272 pounds, Smith brings more bulk to the end along with some decent
pass rushing skills. He has been a decent reserve for the last two
seasons and now needs to be more of a part of the rotation.
- DT Ogemdi Nwagbui, Jr.
Adding more beef to the inside, the 6-4, 304-pound JUCO transfer from
Southwestern College in California made 55 tackles last year and ten
sacks. He's still very raw, but he's quick enough to be a big end and
strong enough to be a solid backup behind David Stanton on the nose.
There's experience with all three starters
returning, but there's nothing special about this group. Kaleb Thornhill
is a solid man in the middle when healthy, David Herron is a big veteran
on the weakside, and Sir Darean Adams is a fast, productive playmaker on
the outside. All three are solid and need to take a step up in their
overall production. The backups are fast, but inexperienced.
The key to the unit: Blow things up. Three of the
team's top four tacklers are in the linebacking corps, and now they have
to use their experience become a far more dangerous force.
Linebacker Rating: 7
David Herron, Sr. - 65 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 TFL, 3 recovered
One of the team's best defenders over the last two seasons with 160
tackles, the 6-1, 252-pound former fullback has the potential to gain
All-Big Ten recognition with the size to hit like a middle linebacker
and the quickness to be a strong pass defender on the weakside.
- Kaleb Thornhill, Jr. - 63 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL
A good tackler with excellent range, the 235-pound junior needs to find
a way to stay healthy to be the leader of the front seven. He has had
problems with a shoulder injury and has knee issues, but if he can be on
the field at close to 100% for a full season, he'll be one of the team's
- Sir Darean Adams, Jr. - 60 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFL, 3
The former running back is fast enough to be a big defensive back and
tough enough to be one of the team's top tackling linebackers. He played
a little strong safety this spring, but he's a linebacker. With his
experience and knowledge of the D, he should be better in all phases.
- Adam Decker, RFr.
A very smart, very quick option the weakside, the 6-2, 240-pound Decker
should be an excellent tackler once he gets a chance to show what he can
do. He'll play behind David Herron on the weakside, but could move over
to the Bandit spot to get a little more size on the field.
- Steve Juarez, Sr. - 13 tackles, 2 TFL
He's not going to hit like a ton of bricks, but the former JUCO transfer
has nice range and good size in the middle. After he gets a little more
work on his technique and can shed blocks a bit better, he should be a
good option behind Kaleb Thornhill.
- Tom Dance, Soph.
Part safety, part linebacker, the 6-1, 212-pound sophomore will see time
this year as a speed option at the Bandit position. His 4.4 speed could
move him back to the secondary if needed, but he'll be used as a pass
rusher and coverman behind SirDarean Adams.
This could very quietly grow into one of the team's
strengths as the season goes on. With cornerback an issue, Greg Cooper
will move over from safety to provide experience and size on the other
side of the smallish Demond Williams. The safeties are a big of an X
factor, but there's huge upside with talented Otis Wiley on the verge of
being a top producer at free safety and JUCO transfer Nehemiah Warrick
bring some big-time playmaking skills to strong safety.
The key to the unit: Pick off passes. The secondary
only came up with six interceptions with departed free safety Eric Smith
making three of them.
Secondary Rating: 6.5
- CB Greg Cooper, Sr. - 48 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL
The coaching staff experimented this spring moving Cooper from safety to
cornerback to bring more experience and provide a possible number one
cover man. He's decent in coverage with 4.4 speed and is physical enough
to be a force against the bigger Big Ten receivers. Technique is going
to be an issue early on.
- SS Nehemiah Warrick, Jr.
"Nemo" comes in from the JUCO ranks and should instantly be a star. With
the range of a free safety and big-time confidence, he was a leader
right off the bat in spring ball. He's far from polished and he'll make
a few huge mistakes over the course of the season going for the knockout
punch, but his aggressiveness will also lead to a few game-changing
- FS Otis Wiley, Soph. - 18 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception
Fast, smart, and very talented, the sky's the limit for the 6-2,
208-pound sophomore. Wiley should be a star his 4.4 speed and next-level
athleticism get into the starting mix after spending last year as a good
reserve and special teamer. It'll be a shock if he doesn't turn out to
be one of the team's top tacklers.
- CB Demond Williams, Sr. - 29 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken
The only returning starting corner, Williams has to be a lockdown
defender right off the bat until Greg Cooper gets his feet wet on the
other side. The former JUCO transfer stepped up his play this spring and
looks like he'll be more consistent both on the field and in the
classroom after having issues last year. He's only 5-9 and 175 pounds,
but he can move.
- CB Ross Weaver, Soph. - 8 tackles, 1 broken up pass
The 6-1, 201-pound sophomore has tremendous upside and
should be a key player in nickel and dime packages. He'll start out
playing behind Greg Cooper but if he can show more consistency, better
technique, and good all-around playmaking ability, he could see some
- CB Cole Corey, Jr. - 6 tackles, 1 sack
At 5-10 and 203 pounds, Corey is a much bigger option than Demond
Williams at one of the corner spots. He's not as quick and isn't the
same lockdown cover corner, but he's good enough to see a little time.
There might not
be a bigger pair of kickers in America with 6-6, 214-pound placekicker
Todd Boleski and 6-6, 232-pound punter Brandon Fields combining to bring
two of the biggest legs around. Fields has All-America talent, but he
has to rebound from an average season. Boleski's range is just inside of
the parking lot, but he'll have to fend off freshman hotshot Brett
Swenson this fall to solve one of the nation's worst placekicking
situations. Demond Williams is a special kickoff returner, while Terry
Love is a quick, experienced punt returner.
The key to the unit: Bolseki and Swenson have to be
consistent. Then again, after Spartan kickers went 5 of 16 last year on
field goal attempts, anything will be better.
Special Teams Rating: 7
- PK Todd Boleski, Soph.
If true freshman Brett Swenson isn't ready, Boleski will get a shot to
solve the woeful placekicking problems. He has a huge leg with an easy
range of 55 yards, but he'll have to show he can be consistent when the
pressure is really on.
- P Brandon Fields, Sr. - 40 punts, 1,664 yds, 41.6 yards per
kick, 11 inside the 20
At some point, Fields is going to put it all together. He was one of the
nation's best punters as a sophomore, but he often outkicked his
coverage. Last year he lost some of the blast on his kicks in an
inconsistent season. Even so, he has NFL potential and could easily
bounce back and be a threat for the Ray Guy Award.