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B1G 2020: Michigan State’s New Defense

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No longer guided by Mark Dantonio and turning over a ton of personnel, MSU’s defense is going to have to redefine itself

Maryland v Michigan State
Antjuan Simmons is one of the few carryovers from last year’s MSU defense
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Looking solely at the numbers, Michigan State’s 2019 defense was far from the team’s biggest problem. Their statistics described a unit that was once again one of the nation’s best, especially against the run, and advanced metrics tended to like them as well. Individual players like DE Kenny Willekes, DT Raequan Williams, CB Josiah Scott, and LB Joe Bachie Jr. (until his midseason suspension for a failed PED test) all looked the part, at least at times, of all-conference players.

Of course, numbers don’t always tell the entire story. As formidable as they generally were against weaker offenses, the Spartan defense had quite a bit of give in it against the better passing games they faced. Giving up 34 to Ohio State is nothing to be ashamed of, but in multiple other games, the defense wilted when faced with an opposing tactic they couldn’t deal with - the jump-ball utilized by Illinois and the simple RPOs run by Michigan come to mind.

The Departed

Part of the reason the last two years have been as disappointing as they were was that MSU had a large group of battle-proven players, experience purchased in the brutal 2016 season when those guys were freshmen. Having failed to do much with that group other than a 10-win Holiday Bowl season in 2017, MSU must now replace:

  • DE Kenny Willekes (38 starts, 229 tackles, 51 TFL [school record], 26 sacks, 2019 Burlsworth Trophy winner)
  • DT Raequan Williams (42 starts, 160 tackles, 29 TFL, 11.5 sacks)
  • DT Mike Panasiuk (41 starts, 100 tackles, 4 sacks, 18 TFL, 2 INT)
  • LB Joe Bachie Jr. (34 starts, 285 tackles, 8 sacks, 27.5 TFL, 5 INT)
  • LB Tyriq Thompson (25 starts, 123 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT)
  • S David Dowell (36 starts, 176 tackles, 8 INT)
  • CB Josiah Scott (30 starts, 98 tackles, 25 PBU, 7 INT)
  • CB Josh Butler (16 starts, 54 tackles, 11 PBU)

That’s...quite a bit of experience and production going out the door, at the same time a new coordinator is in town. The good news is there are apparent answers at some of these positions, and the carryovers at each level of the defense - DE Jacub Panasiuk, LB Antjuan Simmons, and S Xavier Henderson - are all capable, proven Big Ten starters.

Next In Line

Up front, the presumed DT combo to replace Panasiuk and Williams is massive NG Naquan Jones and DT Jacob Slade. Jones has shown flashes of brilliance, but is in line for a much larger role than he’s had thus far. The depth behind those two is a bit iffy, but Dashaun Mallory is an intriguing option. Opposite Panasiuk, the end with the most experience is Drew Beesley, but it’s tough to mistake this former walk-on for Kenny Willekes. Michael Fletcher, coming off a redshirt, figures to get a long look. The incoming freshman class includes five defensive ends, so presumably at least one gets substantial playing time.

After Joe Bachie’s disappointing positive drug test in the middle of last season, the main playing time beneficiary was then-sophomore Noah Harvey. He’s not the same physical specimen Bachie was, but he didn’t look overwhelmed in his first extended action, and racked up most of his 49 tackles in the five starts he made. Simmons and Harvey give the linebacking group decent experience, but it remains to be seen how the staff will align them.

New DC Scottie Hazelton has stated he plans to stick with more 4-3 this season, as probably a wise choice given the amount of linebackers on the roster. Chase Kline showed some pass-rushing chops in limited action last year, and former well-regarded recruits like Luke Fulton, Jeslord Boateng, and Marcel Lewis figure to jockey for snaps as well.

The departure of three starters, places some urgency in sorting out the defensive back depth chart. With both corner spots open, most accounts indicate that some combination of Shakur Brown, Kalon Gervin, and Julian Barnett seem to be in line for the most playing time. Alongside Henderson, safety is more of a question mark; Tre Person got some rotation snaps last season, but I would consider the remaining secondary snaps up for grabs.

The New Beard in the Booth: Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton

MSU’s new defensive coordinator, hired away from Kansas State, took a long and winding path to get to the FBS level, starting in the late 90s as a position coach at his alma mater, Fort Lewis College in Colorado. Along the way, he’s made a couple stops at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State (hence the connection to Kansas State HC Chris Klieman from their 2011 overlap). His FBS experience has heretofore been out west, jumping from NDSU to USC in 2012 and then spending time at Nevada and Wyoming, with an NFL stint with the Jaguars mixed in there.

From a scheme standpoint, Hazelton has historically preferred a 3-4 base, but, as noted above, has suggested he’ll be flexible, at least for this year, to try and make the best use of the available players. This, frankly, was welcome news. MSU’s already dealing with substantial turnover, and their recent recruiting struggles have put them in a bit of a talent deficit, especially relative to the powers in the division. Compound those issues with a scheme none of the current players were recruited for, and things could have been ugly.

Whatever the scheme looks like this season, there’s reason for optimism on this side of the ball. Mel Tucker is, himself, a defensive coach, and he retained two of Mark Dantonio’s better assistants - DL coach Ron Burton and now-safeties coach Mike Tressel. He also brought back Harlon Barnett, the former MSU defensive coordinator who found himself out of a job when Willie Taggart’s Florida State tenure came to an early end.

The biggest cause for enthusiasm, though, is Hazelton’s most recent resume point. Last year at Kansas State, the historically talent-bereft Wildcats fielded the second-best scoring defense in the Big 12, and were especially stout against the pass - opponents barely managed 200 yards per game through the air against Hazelton’s defense. If he can coax anything resembling those numbers out of MSU’s defense, he’ll be worth every penny of the hefty paycheck Tucker used to lure him to East Lansing.