Preview 2008 - Defense
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What you need to know: In the past, under former head coach
John L. Smith, the defense tried to be aggressive and go all
out, and it didn't work. In Mark Dantonio's first season, the
defense wasn't going to sell out and was going to play a little
more conservatively, and it worked, but not in the exact way
that everyone expected. The pass rush turned into one of the
best in the country, and the overall production was solid, even
if the defense gave up too many points. Even with some big
losses, like ends Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin, the defense
should be on the verge of becoming special. Unlike last year,
everyone knows what they're doing with all the young speed and
athleticism about to wreak havoc. Cincinnati transfer Trevor
Anderson might be an even better end than Saint-Dic, Otis Wiley
appears to be back to being the all-star NFL prospect he was
supposed to be going into last year, and Greg Jones leads a
linebacking corps that can fly. There will be some rough
patches, but overall, this will be a better and better D as the
season goes on.
Tackles: Greg Jones, 78
Sacks: Greg Jones. 4/5
Interceptions: Otis Wiley, 4
Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Greg Jones
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE
Unsung star on the rise: Junior FS Roderick Jenrette
Best pro prospect: Senior SS Otis Wiley
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jones, 2) DE Trevor
Anderson, 3) Wiley
Strength of the defense: Speed, pass rush, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Size in the front seven,
proven backup safety
Projected Starters: The line loses its star
pass rushers in Ervin Baldwin and Jonal Saint-Dic, who combined for 18.5
sacks, but it gets a reinforcement in Cincinnati transfer Trevor
Anderson, a 6-2, 250-pound star who originally started out at
Cincinnati, but transferred to MSU after Mark Dantonio got the job. he
made 44 tackles, six sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2006 for the
Bearcats, and while it's asking a lot to be Saint-Dic, Anderson has the
upside to be even better.
Working on the other side will be senior Brandon Long, a 6-4,
250-pound senior who was supposed to be the starter last year before
Saint-Dic turned into a star. Even so, he had a decent year as a backup
making 18 tackles with two sacks and four tackles for loss. The former
linebacker has plenty of speed and athleticism to be a regular
pass rusher, but he has to prove he can be consistent.
Starting on the inside again will be Justin Kershaw, a beefed up
6-5, 273-pound senior who made 34 tackles with 1.5 sacks and five
tackles for loss. While he wasn't a big time producer all season long,
and he really was more of a big end than a true tackle, he got better by
the end of the year and proved he could hold up despite being
undersized. It's his athleticism that sets him apart, and now that he's
bigger, he should do even more.
Filling in for Ogemdi Nwagbuo on the nose will be 6-3, 288-pound
sophomore Oren Wilson, a good true freshman who made ten tackles
and broke up two passes. With decent size and tremendous quickness, he
needs to be a regular in the backfield. On the nose, he'll have to prove
he can hold up for a full season, but he'll have help in the rotation.
Projected Top Reserves: Working with Wilson on the
inside will be 6-5, 318-pound sophomore Antonio Jeremiah, a top
recruit who made six tackles and a sack as a true freshman. With his
bulk, he'll be a must against the power running teams, but while his
size is a plus, he has to keep it in check. He's supposed to be around
300 pounds to be at his best.
Ready to make an impact right away is one of the team's top recruits,
Tyler Hoover, a 6-7, 268-pound true freshman who has no redshirt
possibilities; he's too good to keep on the bench. With his combination
of size and quickness, he'll be a regular part of the rotation on the
end behind Long. Also considered a top tight end prospect, he has found
a home on the defensive side.
Looking to shine in his senior season is Dwayne Holmes, a 6-0,
286-pounder who saw time as a tight end and a fullback and on the
defensive side. He has the size and the tools to be a regular
contributor, but he hasn't found his niche. With his bulk, he'll be
needed somewhere up front.
Watch Out For ... Anderson. While Saint-Dic might
seem irreplaceable, he came up with most of his big plays early on and
disappeared at times late in the year. Shhhhhh ... Anderson is better.
Strength: Pass rushing ability. Don't weep too
much for MSU after losing Baldwin and Saint-Dic. Anderson will be just
fine, Long is a great prospect ready to break out, and the tackles can
get into the backfield.
Weakness: Overall size inside. Jeremiah should change all that,
and he might bring in too much size, but overall, this is a smallish, by
Big Ten standards, athletic line. It might not seem like that big a deal
looking at the run defense stats, but the teams that could run the ball,
Outlook: The line got better in a big hurry,
especially with the pass rush, and if Anderson plays as expected, there
won't be any drop-off without Saint-Dic and Baldwin. Overall, the line
is more talented, even if it's not that experienced, and in time, this
group will be really, really good. It might just take half the year to
Projected Starters: A bit of an unknown outside of the Big Ten,
sophomore Greg Jones is about to become a big-time star after
leading the team with 78 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss
on the strongside. While he's not huge at 6-1 and 222 pounds, he's a
sideline-to-sideline playmaker who'll star in the middle in place of
Kaleb Thornhill. With his new duties, he might not be a terror in the
backfield, but he'll make even more big plays and will come up with more
With Jones moving inside, 6-0, 224-pound sophomore Eric Gordon
will take over on the strongside after making 62 tackles, a sack, and
7.5 tackles for loss on the weakside. Able to play any of the three
spots, he has the speed to be all over the field bringing even more
speed in place of Jones, who doesn't exactly move like he's running in
With Gordon switching sides, 5-11, 222-pound junior Brandon Denson
will get the first look at the weakside. He'll have to fight for the
job, but he has good upside with tremendous athleticism. The former
walk-on only made ten tackles last season, and he's not huge, but he can
Projected Top Reserves: If Denson is No. 1 on the
weakside depth chart, then 6-3, 224-pound senior Ryan Allison is
No. 1A. The former wide receiver is every bit the athlete that Denson
is, and after a great spring he's on the verge of seeing starting time,
or at least being off the bench in a big hurry. He only made eight
tackles last year in a limited role, but he forced two fumbles.
Playing behind Gordon on the strongside is the very fast, but very small
Jon Misch, a 6-2, 205-pound sophomore who made 22 tackles. He's
built like a safety, and he runs like one, maybe faster, and he has the
athleticism to play on the weakside if he can't hold up on a regular
basis on the strongside.
Bringing much needed size to the corps is 6-2, 238-pound junior Adam
Decker, who'll play in the middle behind Jones. While he's big and
tough, he's not all that fast and he doesn't exactly fit the overall
defensive scheme. However, he'll step in and see plenty of time if Jones
moves back to the outside.
Watch Out For ... Jones. He got plenty of Freshman
All-America honors, but no one outside of the Big Ten has any clue who
he is. That'll change in a hurry as his numbers should go through the
roof now that he's in the middle.
Strength: Speed. By design, the coaching staff
wanted linebackers who can move. Everything else would then fall into
place. It has all worked out as Jones, Gordon and Denson can fly to the
ball, and Allison and Misch bring even more speed among the backups.
Weakness: Size. It wasn't an issue last year, but it helped to
have a big 240-pound defender in Thornhill. Now the Spartans are going
with all 220ish-pound linebackers who have to prove they can all hold up
over a full season.
Outlook: Fast, young, and good, the linebacking
corps only scratched the surface on how good it can become. Jones and
Gordon were thrown into the fire and the came out clean, and now they
should be Big Ten all-stars. The weakside might be a little bit of an
issue early on, but the Denson/Allison tandem should be fine.
Projected Starters: The quarterback of the
defense, and arguably the team's most talented player, will once again be 6-2, 210-pound
senior Otis Wiley, the team's leading tackler last year in 2006
stops, a sack, and 6.5 tackles for loss. His production dropped off last
year as his role changed, and as he was trying to figure out what he was
doing, making 49 tackles but with five broken up passes and a
team-leading four interceptions. As good as he was, he struggled with
his consistency. While he's a big free safety with NFL athleticism and
range, he'll start out at strong safety where he started to come around
after losing his starting job halfway through last year. If he's on,
he's an all-star defender and a tone-setter who'll make the secondary
Working in place of Nehemiah Warrick at the other safety spot will be
Roderick Jenrette, a 6-1, 195-pound junior who was a key backup last
year making 15 tackles with a big interception to seal the 17-13 win
over Pitt. While he still needs time and experience before he's a
consistent producer, he has the talent to be a star by the end of the
Back at corner will be Ross Weaver, a 6-1, 202-pound junior who
started out well before hurting his foot. With his size and his great
range, he's physical defender with great upside coming off a 19-tackles,
two tackle for loss season. Now he has to start doing more when the ball
is in the air, and he has to prove he can stay healthy between last
year's problems and after missing all of 2006 with a broken ankle.
6-0, 210-pound senior Kendall Davis-Clark went from being a solid
reserve to a decent starters on the boundary side finishing second on
the team with 72 tackles with four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Even
though he was picked on early, he came through big on occasion with
eight broken up passes.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing hard for Weaver's
starting corner spot on the field side will be sophomore Chris Rucker
and junior Jeremy Ware. The 6-2, 190-pound Rucker got four
starts as a true freshman but missed most of the second half of the year
with two detached retinas. A physical corner, he made 24 tackles with an
Ware, a 5-10, 184-pounder who transferred from South Carolina a few
years ago and struggled to get his career going after suffering a
shoulder injury, made just one tackle in his one appearance.
Two other good corner options will be junior Ashton Henderson and
true freshman Johnny Adams, a slight 5-11, 165-pounder with
next-level speed and big play ability missing from some of the other
corners. The 5-11 182-pound Henderson made 18 tackles and broke up two
passes, and now he'll work behind Davis-Clark on the boundary side.
Watch Out For ... Wiley to be back to being Wiley. It
took him all year to find his role under the new coaching staff, but on
talent alone, he's a special defender who has to be on the field. He
gets it now that he's at strong safety.
Strength: Corner options. It's not like
Davis-Clark and Weaver were bad, but they'll have to produce right away
to hold off Rucker, Ware and Henderson. Adams, with his speed, will be a
special player in some way sooner than later.
Weakness: Backup safeties. Sophomores Marcus Hyde and
Jesse Johnson have potential, but they're going to be special
teamers early on. Junior Danny Fortner will likely get shoved out
a backup free safety job by Brandon Trawick or Charles Burrell,
a pair of true freshmen who'll be good enough to start right away if
needed. In any event, the backups are going to be a bit green.
Outlook: It's not like the group was bad last
year, but it was unsettled and didn't do enough in key moments
considering the pass rush was among the best in the country. Now that
Wiley has settled into a spot, and with the expected emergence of
Jenrette, along with all the corner options, this should go from being a
serviceable defensive backfield to a big plus.
Projected Starters: Junior Brett Swenson
was a top recruit who had a nice first season making
15-of-19 field goals, and then regressed a bit last year hitting
15-of-22 shots and struggling with his range and consistency. He
has the talent to be better, and considering the Spartans played
in two overtime games and five other games decided by four
points or fewer, he needs to be a factor.
The punting game was going to suffer a drop-off after losing
Brandon Fields, and it did. True sophomore Aaron Bates
only averaged 39.7 yards per kick, but he dropped an impressive
23 kicks inside the 20. He has a big leg, and he has the
accuracy. Now with a little bit of work and a little more time,
he should become better.
Devin Thomas was a special kickoff returner averaging 29.1 yards
per try, and now it'll likely be up to A.J. Jimmerson to
take over after averaging 18.2 yards per return. Otis Wiley
and Andre Anderson will also get their chances. The
punt return game was abysmal averaging 4.06 yards per return,
second worst in the nation. WR Mark Dell has the speed
and potential to add more pop.
Watch Out For ... Bates to be better. While he had
some really good moments, he wasn't consistent. Welcome to the
world of a true freshman. He has the leg to do more and be more
of a weapon, and he will be in time.
Strength: Swenson. He had a great first year, but
he missed six kicks inside the 40 over the last two years,
including gaffes from 20 and 28 yards out last year. Even so,
he's good enough to potentially be an all-star if he can settle
down and be automatic from close range.
Weakness: Punt returns. After averaging just 7.9 yards per
return in 2006, things got even worse last year. The coverage
teams weren't exactly a prize and could stand to be much
Outlook: The kickoff returns were better thanks to
Thomas, but everything else was worse. The Spartans need Swenson
to bounce back and kick up to his talent, and they need to be
sharper in every other phase. With Thomas gone, and with Swenson
coming off an inconsistent year, this will be an area of focus
throughout the fall.