2009 Michigan State Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 19, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Michigan State Spartan Defense

Michigan State Spartans

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Michigan State Preview | 2009 MSU Offense
- 2009 MSU Defense | 2009 MSU Depth Chart
- 2008 MSU Preview | 2007 MSU Preview | 2006 MSU Preview

What you need to know: Mark Dantonio’s defenses don’t try to be flashy and they certainly aren’t gimmicky. The D wasn’t a rock last year by any means, but it was decent enough to win with and now it should grow into something special. With eight starters returning, plenty of depth, and a few all-stars to work around, this should be a far better defense than Dantonio has had since arriving in East Lansing. The back seven is loaded with veterans led by all-star LB Greg Jones and his running mate, Eric Gordon. The secondary loses Otis Wiley, but it’s very big, very experienced, and has the potential to be among the best in the Big Ten. The question mark is a defensive front that returns two starters and has a star pass rusher in Trevor Anderson, but it didn’t do enough to get to the quarterback.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Greg Jones, 127
Sacks: Trevor Anderson, 8
Interceptions: Johnny Adams, Dan Fortener, Chris Rucker, 2

Star of the defense: Junior LB Greg Jones

Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Colin Neely
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Eric Gordon
Best pro prospect: Jones
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jones, 2) DE Trevor Anderson, 3) Gordon
Strength of the defense: Speed, linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Size in the front seven, proven pass rusher besides Trevor Anderson

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Senior Trevor Anderson was supposed to come over from Cincinnati, where he started his career under head coach Mark Dantonio, and instantly become a superstar for the Spartan defense. While he had a strong year with 30 tackles, eight sacks, and 10.5 tackles for loss, he disappeared over the last month of the season after coming up with three sacks against Michigan. The 6-2, 259-pounder has a tremendous burst off the ball and will come up with big plays in bursts, but the defense needs him to be a steady force.

Working on the other side of Anderson, in place of Brandon Long, will be Colin Neely, a promising 6-1, 245-pound junior who saw a little bit of starting time and finished with 14 tackles and two tackles for loss. While he’s built like a linebacker, he holds up well against the run. Now he has to get to the quarterback on a regular basis with all the attention paid to Anderson.

The big loss on the defensive front is on the inside with Justin Kershaw gone. In his place will be Kevin Pickelman, an undersized 6-3, 255-pound sophomore who made five tackles in his limited time. While he’s hardly going to be an anchor against the run, he’s an active, athletic presence on the inside who should be a regular in opposing backfields. At least that’s the hope for the Spartan front four.

6-3, 288-pound junior Oren Wilson came off a decent true freshman season to make 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. A starter in every game, he didn’t do too much to fill up the stat sheet, but he was a decent anchor on the nose. With decent size and tremendous quickness, he has to be more of a factor in the backfield.

Projected Top Reserves: Looking to make an impact is Tyler Hoover, one of the top recruits of last year who was originally supposed to play right away. He ended up taking a redshirt season and will now serve as the understudy behind Trevor Anderson. At 6-7 and 268 pounds, he’s a huge force on the outside with the athleticism of a tight end and the strength of a tackle. It’ll be a shock if he’s not a major star in the next few years.

Working on the inside with Kevin Pickelman is Jerel Worthy, a 6-3, 297-pound redshirt freshman who brings more size to the tackle position. Expected to become a good interior pass rusher, he’s quick off the ball and has the finishing ability, at least in practices, to crank out some decent sack numbers. More importantly, his size is a must for the interior.

Looking to find a home is David Rolf, and undersized 6-3, 228-pound sophomore who made nine tackles as a reserve linebacker last season. He’ll move to the end to try to provide even more of a burst from time to time than Colin Neely.

Watch Out For ... a steady rotation on the defensive interior. The run defense was fine last year but it was hardly anything special. To do more, expect the backups like Michael Jordan, who made six tackles last season, and Ishmyl Johnson to see more action.
Strength: Anderson. While he didn’t quite blow up and become an all-star right away, he’s good enough to demand attention on every play. With a pass rushing talent like he is on one side, everyone else should have room to roam.
Overall size inside. It’s not a light line overall, but having a 255-pound tackle in Pickelman isn’t a plus. He might be good, but the bigger offensive lines will be able to beat on the interior unless some of the reserves can make an impact in a rotation.
Outlook: This is a good, serviceable line that could be great if Trevor Anderson becomes a major factor. He’s good, but he has to be great for the line to be a strength. The front four is good against the run, but it needs a better tackle rotation to be better against the power teams. More is needed from the backups to provide a push for the starting jobs. There will be plays made in the backfield from all four spots, but not enough of them.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters
It’s time for Greg Jones to become a college football household name. One of the nation’s best linebackers, the 6-1, 222-pound junior led the team with 127 tackles last year with two sacks and 14 tackles for loss seeing time on the strongside and in the middle. He wasn’t expected to become a terror in the backfield, but that’s what he was as he used his great speed and range to make tackles all over the place. Now he’s in for a huge junior season after being one of the stars on the defense for the last two seasons. While he doesn’t do much against the pass, that won’t be his job in the middle after moving over from the outside. He’ll make every play he can chase down.

Junior Eric Gordon will step into Jones’s spot on the strongside after finishing second on the team with 85 tackles with three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss on the weakside. The 6-0, 223-pounder can play any of the three linebacker positions and has some of the best wheels in the corps. With the speed and quickness to do far more to get into the backfield, and the toughness to hold up against the run against the power teams, he should put up huge numbers.

Senior Brandon Denson was supposed to step in and start last year, but he ended up being a key reserve making 31 tackles in 12 games of work. While not all that big a 5-11 and 228 pounds, the former walk-on is a great athlete who’s been a good producer when given a chance. To keep the job this year, he’ll have to be a disruptive force in some way and he’ll have to being more for the pass defense than Eric Gordon did last year.   

Projected Top Reserves: Where will Adam Decker play? The 6-2, 242-pound senior is a middle linebacker who made 56 tackles and got eight starts, but Greg Jones will likely spend more time on the inside this year. While he’s not the greatest athlete in the corps and he doesn’t fit the overall scheme, he’s a tough tackler who doesn’t miss a stop and can get into the backfield making six tackles for loss last season. If nothing else, he can start without a problem if Jones moves to the outside for any length of time.

Playing behind Gordon on the strongside is the very fast but very small Jon Misch, a 6-2, 205-pound junior who followed up a 22 tackle season with a disappointing year. He missed the first half of the season and then came back to see a little action, but he didn’t make a tackle. 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.

Watch Out For ... Decker to find playing time somewhere. While he’s not really an outside linebacker, and the coaching staff will want to keep Jones in the middle as long as possible, Decker is a good enough tackler and a tough enough veteran to get and stay on the field.
Strength: Speed. By design, the coaching staff wanted linebackers who can move. Decker doesn’t really fit the mold, but the starting threesome of Jones, Gordon and Denson will be all over the place.
Size. It’s sort of by choice that the linebackers are smallish and faster rather than big and bulky, but the starting threesome averages around 225 pounds per man. That’s par for the course in today’s day and age of linebacking corps designed to stop the spread.
Outlook: This could be the strength of the team, if it’s not the receiving corps. Greg Jones is a special defender who should be on the short list for most All-America teams, while Gordon will get All-Big Ten recognition. Throw in Adam Decker in the mix, especially if he’s a reserve, and this is a great-tackling, veteran group that’ll be full of difference makers. There will be several plays in the backfield and lots and lots of tackles, but the MSU linebackers don’t do much against the pass.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Strong safety Otis Wiley was arguably the best defensive back in the Big Ten last year making 78 tackles, four interceptions and serving as the tone-setting leader for the secondary. His loss leaves a gaping hole for Marcus Hyde to fill. The 6-0, 205-pound junior started one game and saw time throughout the season making 31 tackles with an interception, but he didn’t do too much against the pass. Extremely athletic, he’s more like a free safety, but he can hit and hold up against the run.

Returning to his free safety spot is Danny Fortener, a nice 6-1, 203-pound senior who has been a solid all-around defender for the last few years making 69 tackles and two interceptions with seven broken up passes. A key special teamer throughout his career, he was one of the pleasant surprises of last year and now the former high school wishbone quarterback could emerge as a star on the stat sheet.

Back at corner will be Ross Weaver, a 6-1, 204-pound senior who overcame foot problems earlier in his career to be a steady starter on the field side last season. With his size and his great range, he's a physical defender who made 28 tackles and a sack while picking off a pass and coming up with seven broken up passes. Staying healthy is always his issue. He missed two games last year and was out all of 2006 with a broken ankle.

Junior Chris L. Rucker was the team’s best cover-corner last season making 45 tackles with two interceptions, four broken up passes and a sack. He was starting to come on in his true freshman season before getting knocked out with two detached retinas, but he was a solid producer throughout last year with nine starts. At 6-2 and 197 pounds he has good size and is great at mauling receivers off the line.

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Kendall Davis-Clark will end up somewhere at safety. Hurt for most of last year, and out this off-season, the 5-11, 210-pounder has had a hard time staying on the field. But when he’s on the field he’s a producer making 27 tackles with an interception and three broken up passes after making 72 stops and four sacks in 2007. An elite athlete, he was an Ohio state high school champion in the 100 and 200 meters.

True sophomore Johnny Adams will be a key starter at corner in the very near future. While he’s wispy thin at 5-11 and 165 pounds, he’s a tough tackler making 21 stops to go along with two interceptions and four tackles for loss. He has next-level speed and the big-play ability to be on the field more.

5-11, 183-pound senior Ashton Henderson can play anywhere in the secondary. He made five tackles in a reserve role, and didn’t do anything against the pass, but he can see time as a backup corner or could serve as a decent free safety option.  

Watch Out For ... shuffling at safety. If Davis-Clark is ready, he’ll play somewhere. Fortener isn’t going to get off the field, so there might be a steady rotation among the safeties if Hyde turns into a factor.
Strength: Breaking up passes. The secondary gave up yards in chunks from time to time, but it was solid on a regular basis. Quarterbacks only completed 53% of their passes while MSU came up with 14 picks and 50 broken up passes.
Yards allowed. It’s not like MSU played a who’s who of passers outside of Georgia’s Matthew Stafford and Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen, yet it finished seven in the Big Ten allowing 213 yards per game. The returning group will be better, but it’ll still likely allow around 200 yards per outing.
Outlook: The secondary doesn’t have an Otis Wiley-like star, but it should be rock-solid with four good players with starting experience and a safety in Marcus Hyde who should become more of a factor. There’s good speed at all four spots, but the key to this group is its size. It’s a big, tall secondary that isn’t going to get pushed around by anyone. With so much experience and decent talent across the board, this needs to be a bigger strength after a decent, but not great year.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Senior Brett Swenson was a top recruit who bounced back from a relatively shaky sophomore season to his 22-of-28 field goals including a 50 yarder. The second-team All-Big Ten selection came through clutch with a 4-for-4 day in the win over Wisconsin and had a three game stretch going 10-of-10. Three of his missed came against Michigan and he two of his six misses on the year came from beyond 50 yards.

The punting game has been average over the last few seasons with junior Aaron Bates following up a mediocre first season by averaging 42 yards per kick with 22 put inside the 20. He has a big leg and he learned to hang it up high a little better last year.

MSU went from having one of the best kick return games in the country, thanks to Devin Thomas, to having one of the worst averaging just 19.7 yards per try. RB A.J. Jimmerson will likely get the first look, but there are several speedy options to try out.

Otis Wiley was a strong punt returner averaging 10.4 yards per try. Now it’ll likely be up to Keshawn Martin, who got three tries but wasn’t able to do anything. He’s such a tremendous athlete that he’ll be certain to bust off a big play or two.

Watch Out For ... Bates to be even better. Thrown into the fire as a true freshman, he was fine, but he wasn’t consistent. Last year he was blasting the ball even better and doing even more with his accuracy. This year it should all come together in what should be another all-star season.
Strength: The kickers. Bates and Swenson each earned second-team All-Big Ten recognition and should be a major plus once again. They have the experience and the legs to form one of the Big Ten’s best duos.  
The return game. It didn’t show nearly enough pop last year. A star return man has to emerge who can become a weapon. There weren’t any really big returns last year, and now it’ll be an open casting call to see who can become the main man.
Outlook: The kicking game should be the best in the Big Ten with PK Brett Swenson all but certain from everyone inside the 40 and punter Aaron Bates growing into a solid all-around kicker. The return game has to be far better with someone needing to emerge who can break off a big one here and there. The coverage teams have been fine, but nothing special.
Rating: 7


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2009 Michigan State Preview - Offense
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