With Michigan State's 2015 spring depth chart up, thought it would be useful to do an early preview of our 8th most important rival. Living in state I see a lot more info about MSU than OSU so it's easier for me to follow. Also doing the research and writeups such as this helps me get a better understanding of the players and strengths/weaknesses so hopefully it is of use to you as well.
Outside of the MSU player legal issues, I will try to write this without much snark although difficult to do. Also let me say that despite being annoying in taking offense to something as small as the wind blowing in from Ann Arbor towards EL, one has to respect the job Mark Dantonio has done in not only building a football program essentially from the ground up post Bobby Williams/John L Smith in an Alvarez way, but changing the mentality and culture from within. Those of us over the age of 30 grew up in an era of LOL Sparty No football, and unfortunately that is now gone. At some point it will return but from this set of eyes not until Dantonio retires and MSU jumps on the always scary coaching carousel.
Overall Look 2015
Like all teams (well maybe aside from OSU and TCU) MSU has some holes to fill in 2015 but in general returns the normal loaded with upperclassmen team, which now has a winning culture, and top notch coaching. The loss of Narduzzi as DC is an obvious question mark but both coaches replacing him in the DC role have been with Dantonio for a decade plus. There will be no surprises here.
On offense, MSU was bolstered by the return of RS SR Connor Cook who stayed in school rather than applying for the NFL draft where most had him mocked 1st-2nd round in a draft lacking pro style QBs. The team returns a veteran and talented OL. High profile losses were at the skill positions, namely WR and RB - specifically Langford and Lippett. However the teams strengths (QB/OL) tend to mitigate those losses - a great OL can bolster decent running backs, and an NFL quality QB can bolster decent WRs. At support skill positions the starting TE looks to be excellent and a fifth year senior returns at fullback. There are some legal troubles facing the offense as presumed starting RB Delton Williams has a gun charge and starter MacGarrett Kings has a second alcohol offense in under a year. The former situation seems more serious as it was a gun charge on a campus that does not allow them so I assume the penalty goes right to the top of campus and not solely in Dantonio's (more lenient) hands. This might be a situation that goes right to the top of the MSU food chain as a campus incident rather than a football player incident; we'll see. I fully expect Kings back - he has not been suspended despite a 2nd alcohol offense in a short period and while he may be suspended in the future for a bit, outside of running a lot of stadium stairs I don't expect much more. "He is a playmaker" after all.
On defense, MSU returns quite possibly the best front 7 in the conference. It is loaded with veterans and like on offense the surprise return of 5th year SR Shilique Calhoun bolstered the ranks. Unlike Cook who shot up draft boards, Calhoun was top 15ish overall preseason 2014 in mock drafts but fell as the season went by. Rather than risk being a 2nd rounder he decided to come back. While DE Marcus Rush is a loss there are a lot of talented players on MSU's D line, and a very experienced group of LBs who mostly dominate against Big 10 offenses (not named OSU). The back 4 are a question mark, similar to 2014 - but with even more questions. In 2013, MSU had the rare pleasure of two NFL 1st round cornerbacks patrolling the back end - along with a future NFL safety in Kurtis Drummond. This led to one of the best defenses in the Midwest in the past 20 years. Last year saw the departure of Dennard, and this year brings the departure of Waynes and Drummond. While there is some talent back there - and Dantonio is an ace DB developer, it's the one area of the team outside of RB with a lot of open questions.
Special teams takes a hit too with the loss of Sadler at punter. Geiger their FG kicker struggled his SO year after a great FR year - he is currently in rehab after offseason surgery so the kicking game has some questions to answer. The return game has probably been the one area MSU has really lagged the past few years in relation to other teams finishing in the top 10. Kings is integral there.
Overall MSU probably takes a step back on the offensive skill positions (WR/RB) - offset by a senior 3 year starting future NFL QB.... and the secondary will be exploited by top end QBs. But being in the Big 10 they face very few top end QBs (or even middle end) and Oregon will either be starting a newbie or rolling out a FCS transfer (a talented one but still). Outside of OSU and PSU not many teams in the Big 10 have a passing threat to unlock MSU's press. Remember this was the conf where Gary Nova was the 3rd best QB last year. If you believe games are won in the trenches, you will have to stretch to bet against another season of big success for MSU - they could have the best combination of lines in the conf up with OSU.
Despite road games at OSU, Nebraska, and UM and a home game v Oregon this is actually quite a favorable schedule, although nowhere near as easy as 2014. (No that wasn't snark). Outside of a road game to Oregon last year there was not much in types of serious challenges on the road for MSU in 2014, outside of a bit of a tricky game in Happy Valley. For a veteran, well coached team it was a very good setup.... OSU, Neb, and UM were at home.
In an interesting quirk of scheduling, Sparty will only leave the state of Michigan once (to NJ) until November. That's got to be something unique in all of college football. They only leave the state 3 times the entire year.
In the non conf, MSU opens with a much improved Western Michigan but again this is Western Michigan. While it could be a tricky game, MSU is bringing in potentially 3 first round draft choices and a BCS level team and WMU is.... well WMU. Good luck P.J. Fleck. While Oregon is tough they do lose a Heisman winner at the helm and are starting from scratch at the most important position. With what looks on paper to be an excellent front 7 for MSU, Oregon's OL will be a key in that game. After that tilt the schedule lightens up considerably. Service academy teams' offenses are usually difficult to prepare for but again, MSU brings a veteran, disciplined, and talented front 7 on D into 2015 - along with a potentially potent offense so this does not look as tricky as it would for "ho hum Power 5 conference team hosting service academy." CMU is CMU - this would be a different story in 2005. But it's 2015.
While MSU has to go on the road in 2015 to Nebraska and Ann Arbor both programs are in a state of transition. We know the story at Michigan - right now the 2 programs have role reversed. For decades upstart and mediocre MSU would wait for the years they hosted the game (since they often really sucked when they visited Ann Arbor) and try to spring a trap on a much more talented squad from UM. Most of the times their mental errors did them in, along with lack of players to compete but 2-3 times a decade it worked. Right now UM is sort of in those shoes - frankly UM has not been competitive with MSU the past 2 years and looking at the rosters the prior 2 campaigns MSU had the more talented team. And still probably does. But "rivalry" and "home game" sprinkled in with some Harbaugh and at minimum MSU should have a much more physical opponent who wont make countless mental errors. I'd expect that MSU will have to at least sweat in 2015 as opposed to the last 2 years.
Meanwhile over in Nebraska, the "Cat man" - for all his ills - did seem to have an offense that gave MSU's defense trouble; at least when a competent QB was running it. But he is gone, replaced by the genial Mr. Riley and also gone are NFL draft picks Gregory and Abdullah. Nebraska was not great last year - they almost lost to a FCS team until Abdullah saved them in the closing seconds, and then proceeded to get undressed nationally in Madison. And it is difficult to think they will be any better in 2015, so it's not as tough as it looks on paper.
Outside of those games, MSU plays the same division opponents UM does + a crossover with Purdue. Outside of PSU I dont see any of these teams even giving MSU much of a game unless MSU has a weird 4-5 turnover game (which is not what MSU does...more on that later). And PSU only if its OL stops its 2013 UM OL impression. You need a competent QB to beat MSU's defense - one who can routinely make intermediate passes to widen out their D and disallow their safeties from cheating on the run all day. If Hackenberg recovers from his PTSD he could do that - but he needs help from the OL. He did seem to play very well in PSU's bowl so we'll see - PSU has a great D coordinator but I believe took some hits to the NFL on D (Hull?) but recruits enough talent that if Hack gets time and their D steps up they can at least present a challenge.
As for the rest of the conference slate, Maryland was destroyed by MSU (and OSU and Wisconsin i.e. any real team) last year and lost its QB and best WR - I expect them to revert to mean. Rutgers lost SuperNova - and even with him lost by 40+ to MSU last year. Indiana will do their normal act - exploit MSU's gambling defense twice in a game for 14 quick pts - then proceed to give up 50+ in the other 57 minutes of the game. Heck Purdue might be the next toughest challenge out of these pretenders - their QB (Appleby) actually was able to complete a lot of intermediate passes vs MSU last year and Purdue put up more pts in that game than UM has in the past 3 years combined. But its still Purdue.
Long story short, if MSU gets by Oregon and UM there stands an unfortunate chance that the late Nov tilt between OSU and MSU (Nov 21) is between two teams with 0 to 1 loss each. MSU could/should be favored in every game this year outside of vs OSU by Vegas.
MSU's offense went through a metamorphis in 2014. While still run based at its core, Cook led the passing game to a more dynamic explosive threat. Scoring offense went from 29.4 ppg (64th in the nation) in 2013 to 43.0 ppg (7th in the nation). That's a hell of an improvement in 1 year. Their pass offense was best in the conference, and rush offense was fifth.
MSU led the nation in Time of Possesion (TOP) at 35:21. For comparison run based offenses Wisconsin and Minnesota were at 33:38 and 31:21 respectively. Some pooh pooh TOP in the modern game because they watch offenses such as Baylor and Oregon score in 90 seconds. That's fun and dandy but keeps your defense on the field a lot. And keeps it hard to maintain a lead even when you score in the 40s - ask Baylor (vs MSU) and TCU (v Baylor). Is it the most important stat in football? No. But combined with a low turnover team it makes it nearly impossible for average to poor teams to beat you - they don't have the ball much and they can't take advantage of short fields. And one thing you notice about MSU of late is they don't drop games to teams they should beat - their only losses the past few years have been OSU, Oregon, and Notre Dame (helped by some strange PI calls and Cook had yet to blossom). [Yes in 2012 they lost games to teams they should not have but that's an outlier season with a poor QB and awful OL]
Speaking of turnover margin - MSU was 4th in the nation at +19. And the clear winner in the conference by a huge margin - next best was +10 for Minnesota and +7 by OSU. All teams you look on paper and say "they don't beat themselves" (except that loss to VTech early for OSU ....when they had turnovers). Sometimes teams have more talent than you but if you protect the ball and create turnover you generally do well. So unlike TOP I find turnover margin to be extremely important. MSU only fumbled 6 times all year despite having the ball 35 minutes a game and running a ton. Cook only threw 9 INTs all year despite not having a great completion % - so he usually either misses everything or makes a completion. But this is a program focus - one that every coach preaches but very few accomplish. This is Tressel ball and Dantonio is doing it.
Let's look at it position by position to see if MSU can keep "doing it".
RS SR Connor Cook returns - a massive boost for MSU. Breaking in a new QB is rarely easy and having a 3 year starter is a rare luxury. Cook has prototypical NFL size, decent mobility, moxie, a very short memory, and is a gamer. He doesnt always look pretty but he gets the job done. His accuracy rate lacks but as noted above - when he misses, he seems to miss everything. I probably have never seen a QB have so many of his passes dropped by DBs in 2 years - so I guess luck helps a bit too. Cook's one issue is his feet - he actually (to me) throws better on the run when his footwork seems to be more consistent. In the pocket he does a lot of Matt Stafford stuff and throws off the back foot leading to passes off the mark. While he lacks pin point accuracy he has a gun for an arm and makes plays on key 3rd downs a lot of the time. He also has the benefit of great pass protect which we'll talk about later. Behind Cook is the much heralded RS SO Damion Terry (who insiders compare to a Russell Wilson style) and RS JR Tyler O'Connor who are competing for #2 But both rarely see the field except in blowouts as another of Cook's attributes - durability shows through. I don't think Cook has misssed more than a few snaps in 2 years since winning the job full time early in 2013.
RB / FB
The underappreciated Jeremy Langford departs as does his primary backup Nick Hill. The 3rd back, 6'1 232 JR Delton Williams (who always impressed me when he ran) looked like the heir apparent to at least start at the beginning of 2015 but his gun charges might be an issue. Or might not. Behind him are a lot of similar sized backs as Dantonio has recruited a lot of Le'veon Bell types - 6'+ 220 lb+... even as underclassmen. RS FR Madre London and SO Gerald Holmes are listed as the co-starters on the depth chart which is of course now an open competition. Both bring similar size - beat writers seem to indicate Madre London especially has a lot of potential. In the fall, MSU's prize offensive recruit comes in the form of #6 rated composite RB Larry Scott out of Ohio. This was a guy Urban was recruiting til the last minute but Scott stayed loyal to MSU. While Dantonio doesnt play a lot of true freshman, usually 2-3 make the grade and Scott surely will be one of them to play in 2015. Expect a 3 headed competition, most likely between Scott, London, and Williams if/when he returns.
Whichever RB wins the job, 5th year SR 6'0 250 lb Trevor Pendleton will be paving the way ahead of him. While he is more of a blocker he occassionally is an outlet for Cook (as UM fans will remember) and can bust out a big play. Behind Pendleton is a guy I have never heard of - JR David Fennell. What is notable about him is he is 300 lbs. So it would appear they converted a lineman like we did with Brady Pallante.
WR / TE
MSU takes a significant loss with Tony Lippett and his 65 receptions and 1200 yards. Lippett was a decent player earlier in his career but much like Gallon took a huge leap late in his career. The other loss was Keith Mumphrey was who more workmanlike with 26 catches. However, 3 of MSU's top 5 WRs return with SR Aaron Burbridge, SR MacGarrett Kings, and JR RJ Shelton. It is interesting to note that none of these 3 are redshirts - a rarity in any position group on the MSU roster. Unlike Delton Williams, Kings seems like a sure thing to be playing this fall - mostly due to an excellent lawyer who (unlike Glasgow) was able to get Kings probabation period reduced. Hence when Kings decided it was a good idea to resist arrest and kick a police vehicle he was off of probabation (for his "super drunk" charge) for 2 months. If his lawyer had not successful halved his probabtion period we'd be talking about a much serious loss for MSU football - instead after a lot of running stadium steps and perhaps a short suspension during some period of the offseason expect Kings to be running around the field for MSU. After all "he is a playmaker".
Kings is far and away the best yards after catch man for MSU. Burbridge is a solid player if not quite living up to his HS billing as the top player in Michigan. Shelton is a slot guy who runs a lot of MSU's jet sweeps - which they run a ton of. That's a pretty good trio. After that the depth chart runs 6'4 JR Monty Madaris, 6'2 SR AJ Troup, and 5'11 RS SR Deanthony Arnett. While the first two have not done much in MSU uniform, you may remember Arnett for being a guy from Michigan who committed to TN then decided to come back home to be closer to his ill father. In his 2 years since he has barely seen the football field, in fact redshirting one year. Of these 3 the most buzz seems to be about Madaris. But we're talking the 4th or 5th WR at that point. So while the playmaking skills of Lippett will be gone, having a RS SR 3 yr starter at QB helps to offset this.
So does having an excellent TE which the Spartans do seem to have in JR Josiah Price. At 6'4, 250 he is very much a Jake Butt clone and has excellent hands. I am not sure about his blocking prowess but he wrested away the starting job last year and pulled down 26 catches (Butt had 21 - albeit without the same level of QB play). Price averaged 14+ yards per catch compared to Butt's 10 so is a big play man and I'd expect his role to grow even more as a JR as Cook's safety valve. Behind Price is 6'3 260 JR Jamal Lyles who is more of a blocking TE.
Good teams generally have good line play. Lost in the narrative of MSU's defense the past few years is the 1 area I think MSU has really changed dramatically the past 2 years - offensive line play. In the first half decade of Dantonio's tenure OL play was generally mediocre, with Dantonio constantly bringing in JUCOs to offset lack of internal development. The 2012 season was quite bad with injuries ravaging the line and Bell doing yeoman's work behind a patchwork line. But 2013 and 2014 saw a sharp upgrade. This allowed the QB battle to develop in early 2013 (which Cook eventually took), and a solid run game to happen in both years. As for Cook - many games you don't see a grass stain on his jersey. He was only sacked 11 times all of 2014; fourth fewest in the entire FBS. And until the last 3 games of the season I believe that number was somewhere around 6. Gardner and Hack are very jealous when they see that sort of protection. The run blocking - while not quite as excellent as the pass protection - was also solid with some 3000+ yards. All this while shuffling 8 guys in and out of the line, partly due to injury and partly to prepare for 2015. Again, I think this is the untold story of MSU football.
Looking to 2015, MSU's line looks to be 1 of the 2 best in the conference along with OSU. Both guards (Travis Jackson and Connor Kruse) were lost but with MSU's platoon system at most OL positions, very experienced players (or 1 young buck) are taking their place. In many ways 2015 MSU OL looks a lot like a mid 90s UM OL - a bunch of experienced guys - a few in contention for national awards, offset by 1 young dude who is too good to keep on the bench. Every guy other than the center (who is near 300 lbs) is 310ish+.
LT RS JR Jack Conklin was a "no star" from the class of 2012 (Kalis, Magnuson, Braden, Bars) who has been a revelation. He has been a 2 year starter (RS FR, RS SO) and given up I believe 2 sacks his entire career. He stymied NFL 1st rounders Joey Bosa and Randy Gregory in 2014 - and faces Shilique Calhoun in practice every day. Mel Kiper said he could have left MSU after 3 years and been an early draft pick in this year's draft - but he returned. C RS SR Jack Allen is an All American with 35 starts under his belt. 'Nuff said - we saw in 2010/2011 what having a stud center was like. These 2 guys bookmark Jack's younger brother who had a Mason Cole like season, playing as a true freshman (with a few starts I believe) SO Brian Allen.
The right side of the line had more of a platoon system working last year but brings back a lot of experience. JR Kodi Keiler started and ended the season as the starting RT but there was some platooning going on between him, Donavon Clark, and Kruse. RG is RS SR Donavon Clark who started all 13 games last year, shuffling between RG and RT. The backups are a mix of older and younger players including JUCO JR T Miguel Machado, JR Benny McGowan, and RS SR Brandon Clemons. Not sure how much of a dropoff there is between these guys and the starters as these were not players in 2014's rotation. The front line starting group however should be top notch.
MSU's defense has been it's calling card in the past 5 years. Ironically the early Dantonio teams were known more for offense than defense as the paltry defensive talent could not be hidden. But MSU has a system, recruits to it, and is excellent at teaching and developing on the defensive side of the ball. The past 2 years UM has had 2 weeks to prepare for MSU and MSU 1 week to prepare and MSU looked as if they knew every play UM has ever run. Not cool. Obviously with Narduzzi gone there are some questions but a very experienced defensive staff mostly returns intact aside from him.
MSU has a press quarter scheme that I'd deem "break don't bend". MSU either stymies you nearly completely or you get a big play against them. There are rarely long drives against MSU. Looking through the Big 10 stats last year the one thing that surprises you is how few Spartans are anywhere in the top 50 of tackles in the conference - I believe it was only one (Kurtis Drummond at 72). Compare that to a Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, or Bolden with well over 100. Why is that? Time of possession for offense, creating tons of turnovers and dominance of rush defense. This combo does not lead to a lot of players racking up tackles. Their MLB (Jones) was their 2nd leading tackler with 60 tackles all year - Jake Ryan had double. MSU is either going to get you right off the field (again very few long drives against all year) or give up a huge play - usually in the passing game, with their style. Speaking of turnovers MSU led the conf in defensive creation with 34 ...18 INT, 16 fumbles recovered. (By comparison UM had 10! ugh)
While most say the corners have a ton of responsibility in the scheme, I'd argue the safeties are the most stressed. They are tasked with much more run support and generally 1 plays very close to the line of scrimmage. This does put pressure on the corners of course as they are much more on an island but it's usually the safety breakdowns that lead to big plays vs MSU. The 2014 pass defense took a step back with the loss of 1st round draft pick CB Dennard and S Lewis. But the front 7 (8) was ferocious as normal in run defense - they were once again #1 in all of FBS in rush defense. They have been top 10 the past 4 years. If you cannot open up MSU's defense with a competent accurate mid range throwing QB you pretty much can chalk up a loss since you won't run on them without any pass threat on the outside. And the Big 10 lacks these type of QBs. This defense would get exposed in a conference like the Pac 12 where a guy like Kevin Hogan is the 9th ranked QB (he'd be #4 in last year's Big 10) but it works wonders in the Big 10. Oregon didnt run much at all on MSU yet still scored over 40. Baylor didnt even try to run and threw for 600ish yards. OSU (and Purdue of all teams) were the 2 teams in 2014 that were relatively balanced vs MSU - OSU pure talent and speed, Purdue had a QB who was forcing the safeties to go wide using the Oregon playbook, which thus opened up lanes inside for the running game. Everyone else was pretty impotent trying to do things against MSU even with their weaknesses in the secondary.
2015 looks a lot like MSU's 2014 defense - although I believe their front 7 will be better and their back 4 worse. Which again will cause issues vs competent QBs ...of which MSU won't see many of in the Big 10. Their front 7 should feature 6 upperclassmen including 5 RS SRs starting. And the other guy is Malik McDowell. That's damn good. 3 of the 4 DL should be 1st or 2nd day draft picks IMO.
Much like the return of RS SR helped the offense, so does the return of RS SR Shilique Calhoun at DE. He was projected top 10-15ish preseason but while having a good season displayed some warts in terms of size/strength/speed (which the NFL uses for projections) that pushed him down the mock drafts a bit. While still a borderline 1st/2nd rounder he decided to return. Calhoun is an excellent college player with 8.5 sacks and 12.5 TFL (tackles for loss) in 2014 - teams focused on him quite a bit more after his breakout 2013. Calhoun's return alleviated MSU from losing both DEs. The other DE was the much underappreciated Marcus Rush who probably was the least recognized "very good" player in the Big 10. A four year starter who is ridiculously assignment sound Rush had almost the same statistics as Calhoun with 1 less tackle, 0.5 less sacks and 2 less TFL. His tweener size is the main thing preventing him from IMO being a mid level NFL prospect - his loss is not to be understated.
The depth chart shows RS SR (and former 5 star talent) Lawrence Thomas taking over the DE spot at 300 lbs. Most thought it would be Malik McDowell flashing out from the DT to DE this year but the depth chart shows Thomas instead - I would not read that in stone as I could see those 2 flip flopping a lot. Thomas career took time to take off - at one point he was a LB, then a FB, then a DT, now a DE. But the last 3-4 games of 2014 I thought he was one of the best defensive players on the unit. It will be interesting to see how he fares at DE and how long that lasts - he seemed to be making a lot of great players on the interior late in the year.
As for backups, "the next Calhoun" is RS SO Demetrious Cooper. If you believe the MSU beat writers and practice reports this guy rips the heads off women and children in practice and doesnt apologize. He was supposed to be ahead of where Calhoun was at similar points in their careers. But he has not really seen the field too much, stuck behind Calhoun. I actually thought they might flip him to the other DE so that both would be starters this year but on the depth chart he remains as a backup to Calhoun. Behind Thomas we have RS JR Evan Thomas who has not done much and two RS FR who are typical MSU recruits - big rangy athletes converted from other positions in HS who they develop in house after a redshirt year - Montez Sweat and Robert Bowers. This was part of a 2014 defensive line recruiting class that might have been among the top 2-3 in the nation.
With Lawrence Thomas starting out on end, the depth chart has SO Malik McDowell moving into the starting DT role. Michigan fans will be extremely familiar with him. He is the only "young guy" slated to start in MSU's front 7. Next to him is RS SR Joel Heath who returns to his starting role from 2014. While it is difficult to "judge" DTs as a common fan McDowell (while a bit of a hot head with some penalties) seemed to play quite well, especially as a true freshman in a very demanding part of the field. He had 4.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks but again at this position your impact is not so much stats. Based on MSU's run defense and the amount of playing time he received from a staff that doesnt play freshman much - he looked as good as the hype. He played a bit more than Mone did for UM.
Behind McDowell we have RS SR Damon Knox who played a lot when healthy last year. Behind Heath are a beavy of young DTs from a loaded 2014 class. The headline is RS FR Craig Evans who looks built like a Mack truck. This was a Wisconsin commit who aparently could not make the grade at Wisconsin so MSU swooped in at the last minute with their "more friendly" admissions requirement and gave Coach Gary Andersen the snake oil treatment. With losses like that you could see why Andersen got frustrated. Outside of Evans, RS FR David Beedle and RS FR Enoch Smith Jr will also push for time. Combine those 3 with Malik McDowell and I'd argue this was the best DT haul in the country in 2014. As long as 1-2 guys outside of McDowell develop well, MSU should be set for a few years here.
MSU has a bit of a unique LB structure with 2 traditional LBs at one OLB spot and the middle, and then their 3rd (weakside) is more of a hybrid safety/LB guy ("STAR") generally in the 210-220 range. A guy like UM's James Ross III is generally who plays there. Or if Dymonte Thomas played for MSU he'd be a perfect STAR considering his coverage struggles vs fleet WRs and HS LB instincts. The one loss off this unit was MLB Taiwan Jones who was a converted OLB trying to fill in for Max Bullough for 1 year. He did fine especially in TFL but his impact was not the same as Bullough. He will be replaced by yet another Bullough - JR Riley Bullough....or SO Jon Reschke. I'd expect a platoon of sorts as MSU is high on both these guys. You may remember Bullough as the starting RB for MSU early in 2013 when their offense was LOL, before Langford came out of nowhere. He is another player that started to really come on late in 2014. Reschke has been hit with injuries for much of his early career.
The other 2 LB spots are manned by returning starters in RS SR Ed Davis, and RS SR Darien Harris. You may notice I am typing RS SR a lot in these first 3 categories of defense. If you only watch UM v MSU games you might think Ed Davis is the best LB in the country. He is not - but he is pretty darn good. In his 58 tackles, he had 12.5 TFL and 7 sacks (with 90% of them coming vs UM every year). Darien Harris has a different responsibility set in the MSU D so won't wow you with stats per se.
Behind this group is a bunch of young guys that we have not really seen on the field - well other than Chris Frey pulling off his helmet and acting a fool before getting ejected last year as a freshman. Frey, Jalyn Powell and Shane Jones are a trio of SOs who look to be the next wave - with their inexperience one could argue a LB injury to MSU would potentially lead to a step down in production.
The secondary is the one area of the MSU defense where youth shall prevail. All American S Kurtis Drummond (who struggled a bit at times last year) graduates while RS SR R.J. Williamson returns. Williamson was benched at times last year in favor of (sigh) true freshman Montae Nicholson. (Editor's note - UM "missing out" on Nicholson bothers me much more than McDowell as he apparently wanted to be a Wolverine and for some reason no one can figure out Hoke & Co dropped pursuit. So instead he was looking at Northwestern before MSU came in to take him. So we don't want this calibar of guy for a team who has not had top end safety play outside of a walk on in years, and whose S depth chart last year read as Jarrod Wilson + pray. Just friggin boggling). Anyhow, Nicholson - 6'2, 216 lbs with Peppers type speed is starting at MSU next year instead of UM. Cuz yeah. In fact the MSU starting S pair is a lot like UM's right now - a very talented SO and a solid but not great SR. Difference being Nicholson played all last year while Peppers does not have much game experience. The other backup S last year was highly rated HS player Demetrious Cox - who on the MSU depth chart has been flipped out to CB.
The current backups at S are JR Mark Meyers and RS FR Matt Morrissey. I don't believe Meyers played much, if at all last year. However, Dantonio went out and got an experienced JUCO transfer in Taylor Martinez's (YTTM) brother Drake Martinez who is a S. If the Big 10 approves him not sitting out a year (which MSU is petitioning to happen) I'd expect him to be the primary backup at S. Dantonio has stated things are progressing "well" on that front this week so I'd expect Martinez to be playing in the fall and immediately fix their lack of depth here. JUCOs must be nice.
The departure of Trae Waynes is the biggest loss on MSU's defense. The above mentioned JR Demetrious Cox looks to have been moved from S to CB at the boundary. JR Darian Hicks - who started most of last year - is competing with RS FR Vayante Copeland at the other corner. Hicks struggled mid season and after the OSU game (I believe) he was benched in favor of Tony Lippett playing 2 ways (Lippett was a corner in his early MSU days). Not sure how much Hicks played after that but the coaches seem to think he needs to become more physical - obviously cornerback is a spot you need confidence. So this is the beauty (and pain) of college football; after having the best pair of corners in the country in 2013 MSU has a relatively untested group just 2 years later. That said - again - Saban says Dantonio is the premier developer of DBs in college football and recent results bear it out. Dennard and Waynes were both borderline 2/3 star athletes on nonbody's radar - who are a pair of 1st round draft picks. Maize colored glassed fans will say "luck" but that's like saying Burke, Nik, Caris are luck for Beilein. The question is how quickly those type of guys can be replaced and how good the next guys are - even with good coaching everyone has a different ceiling and MSU hit 2 back to back home runs. One expects a dropoff for this year at least in the CB area. The question is how many Big 10 QBs can exploit these young guys with the ferocious front 7 and the general inability of Big 10 QBs not at OSU or Indiana to throw good passes over 12 yards.