Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know:
attacking approach didn't work under the old regime, and now the
new coaching staff will want to play it a bit closer to the
vest to start, and then will start to make big plays as everyone
figures out their roles. There won't be too many bells and whistles in the basic
4-3, but some chances will need to be taken, and head coach Mark
Dantonio is great at adjusting and forcing teams out of their
gameplans, after not doing much
to generate any pressure in the backfield last year. A pass
rusher has to emerge, but the overall potential is there to be
better with Otis Wiley and Nehemiah Warrick good safeties to
build around, while the linebackers should be one of the team's
biggest strengths. The line is the key after a few awful years
of doing a lot of nothing.
Tackles: Otis Wiley, 94
Sacks: Ervin Baldwin, 4
Interceptions: SirDarean Adams, 2
Star of the defense: Junior FS Otis Wiley
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DE
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Andrew Hawken
Best pro prospect: Wiley
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wiley, 2) LB SirDarean
Adams, 3) LB Kaleb Thornhill
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Proven pass rush, tackle depth
Projected Starters: The line has to start
generating more of a pass rush, and it'll have to start on the ends.
6-2, 270-pound junior Ervin Baldwin was one of the few who came
up with a little bit of pressure with four sacks and 6.5 tackles for
loss along with 35 tackles. While he's not the size of a small tackle,
he's tough, has 4.6 speed, and has the athleticism of a linebacker. If
he puts it all together, he could be an All-Big Ten performer.
On the other side will be 6-4, 245-pound junior Brandon Long, a
former linebacker who didn't do nearly enough to make plays with just
eight tackles. Speed isn't an issue, and he's strong for his size. Now
he has to grow into the disruptive force in the backfield the defense
has been missing.
The tackles are solid, led by 6-4, 260-pound junior Justin Kershaw.
While undersized for the inside by Big Ten standards, he's tough. One of
the best athletes on the line, he needs to do more on the inside, if he
stays there, and has to get into the backfield on a regular basis after
making just two tackles for loss with 25 tackles. In a perfect world, he
gets to move back to end, after starting eight games on the outside last
The beef on the inside comes from 6-4, 290-pound senior Ogemdi
Nwagbuo, a former JUCO transfer who spent last season learning the
ropes. He made 23 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role,
but he has the potential to be a space-eating anchor. If he's not, the
run defense will have problems.
Projected Top Reserves: 6-1, 250-pound senior
Jonal Saint-Dic came in with a tremendous JUCO résumé as a potential
terror in the backfield, and he wasn't all that bad with 23 tackles and
two sacks. While he won't push Long out of a starting job, he'll be a
key specialist in the rotation and could see starting time on the other
side if injuries hit.
It'll be up to true freshmen to help upgrade the depth. Antonio Jeremiah
is one of the stars of the recruiting class and instantly provides more
beef at 6-5 and 295 pounds. He could've gone anywhere, and he should
quickly grow into a star tackle with his next-level strength and
While Jeremiah will be big on the inside,
will push for time on the outside. The 260-pound end has great
athleticism and quickness, and he should be a star against the run right
Watch Out For ... the incoming freshmen. The veterans
on the line aren't bad as is, but Jeremiah and Johnson might be the most
talented players in the front four from day one. Add in 290-pound
Oren Wilson and 308-pound Ryan Wheat, and the recruiting
class might play a huge role right away.
Strength: Potential. The freshmen will improve the
line in time, but veterans like Baldwin and Nwagbuo are good and should
grow into most consistent defenders. The coaching staff is focusing on
the front four and should turn things around.
Weakness: Tackle depth. The true freshmen might be promising,
but it's not a plus when you have to rely on them to shine from the
start. Kershaw will be good no matter where he plays, but he's not huge.
It might take a half a year before the rotation inside is set.
Outlook: After years of bad play, the line has to
be better for MSU to have any hope of improving. There was no pressure
on the passer last season, and there's no sure-thing pass rusher to rely
on going into this year. If Kershaw isn't getting into the backfield,
there won't be much of an interior push. This won't be among the better
Big Ten lines, but it'll be a bit better.
Projected Starters: The potential star of the linebacking corps,
which will be the strength of the defense, will be 230-pound senior
SirDarean Adams, a former running back and beefed up defensive back
playing on the weakside. The "Bandit" in the old defense, he didn't show
up his tremendous speed enough to make too many big plays, but he was
fourth on the team with 46 tackles and a sack with 6.5 tackles for loss.
He's great against the pass, and should be turned loose to do more this
year to do more in the backfield.
Back in the middle is 6-1, 240-pound senior Kaleb Thornhill, who
finished third on the team with 68 tackles after making 63 as a
sophomore. He's a strong tackler with excellent range, but his key is
staying healthy after having knee and shoulder problems over the course
of his career. While he won't get into the backfield and he won't make
too many big plays, he'll be one of the team's steadiest players.
Likely to take over the starting spot on the strongside will be 6-2,
235-pound sophomore Andrew Hawken, who filled in this spring for
Thornhill in the middle and could move back if injuries are an issue.
Strong and fast, with enough speed to play any of the three positions,
he should grow into a regular hitter after making ten stops as a
Projected Top Reserves: One of the biggest
producers in spring ball was 6-0, 225-pound redshirt freshman Eric
Gordon, who might be slightly undersized for the inside, but could
end up seeing time at all three spots. He'll start out behind Adams on
the weakside, his more natural position, and will be a spot starter
throughout the year.
With all the injury issues Thornhill has had, 6-3, 230-pound sophomore
Josh Rouse has to be ready to step in. He's more of a middle man
than Hawken, but he could see time on the outside if needed.
On the way is 6-1, 220-pound Greg Jones
to play on the outside. A potential terror in the
backfield, the true freshman could see time right away if he can pick up
the system. First, he needs to bulk up a bit to play on the strongside,
which will end up being his spot.
Watch Out For ... Adams to blow up. He has the
experience after learning the ins and outs of playing linebacker, and he
has the speed to add the equivalent of a fifth defensive back to the
mix. He has All-Big Ten potential if everything clicks.
Strength: Experience. With seven returning
lettermen and two good starters back, there's depth, skill, and options
to play around with. As proved this spring, there are several players
able to play in the middle, while Gordon is a great backup behind Adams.
Weakness: Thornhill's health. Yeah, Hawken and Rouse can play in
the middle, and so can Gordon, for a stretch, but the defense needs
Thornhill to be 100% to be at its best. He might not miss time, but he's
had to play banged up throughout the course of his career.
Outlook: The linebackers will be what the coaching
staff builds the defense around. There won't be many chances taken in
the front four or in the secondary, but the linebacking corps might be
allowed to try to do more things to make bigger plays. Adams has to be
allowed to use his speed to be a difference maker, while the rest of the
linebackers are strong enough to win with.
Projected Starters: The quarterback of the
defense, and arguably the team's best player, will be 6-2, 210-pound
junior Otis Wiley, the team's leading tackler last year with 94
stops, a sack, and 6.5 tackles for loss. Not just a big tackler at free
safety, he's also extremely fast with the type of athleticism that
should make him a first day draft pick. Solid in pass coverage, he
didn't make any interceptions, but he broke up ten passes.
Also returning is 6-1, 200-pound senior Nehemiah Warrick at
strong safety after making 45 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss after
coming in from the JUCO ranks. While he spent last year getting his feet
wet and still learning how to play the position, he's a huge hitter who
should be even better against the run. Now he has to do more against the
Both starting corners need to be replaced, but the potential is there
for an upgrade. 6-1, 202-pound sophomore Rose Weaver has
tremendous upside with size, quickness, and a physical style that should
fit the new system, but he needs experience after missing all of last
year with a broken ankle.
5-11, 199-pound junior Kendall Davis-Clark was a solid reserve
making 39 tackles, but he didn't pick off a pass and didn't break up any
passes. Physical, like a safety when he hits, he grew into the team's
number one cover-corner this spring and should blossom into a good one
with a little more time.
Projected Top Reserves: While Warrick is the
starting strong safety, 5-10, 185-pound senior Travis Key can
step in and start after splitting time at the position last year making
42 tackles with an interception. While he doesn't pack the punch of
Warrick, he's good enough to be all over the field making plays and
stepping in to be a force against the run.
5-11, 183-pound sophomore Ashton Henderson saw a little bit of
time making two tackles, and now he'll push for time behind Davis-Clark,
but is quick enough and physical enough to see time at both corner
On the way is sophomore Jeremy Ware, a 5-10, 181-pound future
starter who comes in from South Carolina to provide depth at both corner
spots. He's cat-quick with the size to come up with the big tackle, but
he'll have to battle for playing time.
Watch Out For ... better play from the corners. MSU
has had big, tough corners who were asked to read and react more than
attack. Now they'll man up more to jam and push around receivers, and it
should make a huge difference.
Strength: The safeties. Wiley is an All-Big Ten
performer, while Warrick is a good veteran who won't make many mistakes.
These two will flourish under the new coaching staff, and will get heaps
of responsibility in all phases.
Weakness: Pass rush. Michigan State doesn't have one, and the
coaching staff isn't going to sell the farm to get one. That means the
corners will often have to sink or swim on their own, and while the
safeties will help, they're not going to be allowed to take many
Outlook: No unit on the team has a better shot of
making a night-and-day improvement. With good safeties, promising
corners, and interesting reserves, the secondary should be better in
time. However, unless there's a little more help from the front seven to
pressure the quarterback, the overall results will be roughly the same.
Projected Starters: The kicking game needed
Brett Swenson to live up to his prep résumé as a true
freshman, and he came through with an all-star caliber season
making 15 of 19 field goals. While he didn't show tremendous
range, he hit all four of his kicks from 40 to 49 yards and
missed his one attempt from beyond 50. Replacing monster-legged
punter Brandon Fields will be tough, and it'll likely be up to
true freshman Aaron Bates to do it. He averaged 43.2
yards per punt as a high school senior, but it's asking a lot
for him to air it out consistently like Fields did.
Watch Out For ... the battle for the punting job to
go on through the fall. Bates is the front-runner, but big
redshirt freshman Ed Wagner and bigger senior Kevin
Hall will get their chances to win the job.
Strength: Swenson. He had a great first year, but
he missed three kicks inside the 40. With his talent, he should
be asked to do more from long range and he should be in the hunt
for All-Big Ten honors.
Weakness: Return game. The speed and potential are there, but
the production hasn't been averaging just 7.9 yards per punt
return and 18.5 yards per kickoff return. Terry Love and Devin
Thomas will get the first shots at improving the situation.
Outlook: The Spartans aren't good enough overall
to not be strong on special teams. Swenson is solid, but
everything else needs to be better with the punting situation
the big issue. Shoring up the coverage units would be nice, and
getting more pop on the returns is a must. Expect an overall