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B1G 2021 // Michigan State’s Defensive Overhaul

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After years of strength, the Spartan defense needs to find new playmakers.

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Yesterday’s article, recounting a morbid string of the Michigan State offense’s stats and attempting to identify some causes, was a depressingly familiar one for this writer, as the story on that side of the ball hasn’t changed much in several years.

However, as the Dantonio Era recedes in the rearview mirror, the reliably-sturdy Spartan defense now faces the task of remaking itself under its base 4-2-5, with the negative affects of Dantonio’s lackluster late-stage recruiting becoming very apparent.

Defensive Line

Despite boasting solid experience across the board, MSU’s defensive line wanted for playmaking last season. DEs Drew Beesley and Michael Fletcher tied for the team lead with three sacks each; reserve DT Dashaun Mallory pitched in two more, but nobody else had more than one. NT Naquan Jones is off to the NFL, so Mallory figures to step into a much larger role alongside returning DT Jacob Slade.

Beesley and DE Jacub Panasiuk returning for the extra year of eligibility helps a bit, considering some depth was loss to transfer - DE Jasiyah Robinson, DT DeAri Todd (Montana), and DT Chris Mayfield are out, though as none of them had played a snap, the loss in depth is really on paper only. Coming back the other way is former Duke DE Drew Jordan, with 48 career games, 15 TFLs, and 10 sacks under his belt. Ideally, adding him to the rotation helps Beesley, Panasiuk, and Fletcher kick it up a notch.

Linebackers

Here’s an interesting group - returning starter Noah Harvey has a ton of experience, and Chase Kline has had some moments in a relief role, but everyone else will be new.

Antjuan Simmons’ departure opens a big hole in the middle of the field, but despite that opportunity, the linebacker room cleared out: Jeslord Boateng (Akron), Marcel Lewis (Central Michigan), Luke Fulton (Kentucky), and walk-on Charles Willekes (Arkansas State) all departed, though it’s worth noting Fulton and Willekes both left the team before the 2020 season following indefinite, arrest-prompted suspensions.

Thankfully, this is also the position group likely to get the biggest benefit from incoming talent. Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee), Itayvion “Tank” Brown (Minnesota), and Ben VanSumeren (Michigan) all join the linebacking group, along with the best prospect in MSU’s prep recruiting class, CA 4* Ma’a Gaoteote.

With MSU’s base defense only requiring two linebackers on the field at a time, ideally some combination of Harvey, Kline, and the newcomers can not only replace Simmons, but exceed the group’s 2020 production.

Secondary

Here is the one area where the number of players leaving makes a Spartan fan flinch a bit, as Dantonio’s staff did reliably identify and coach up excellent defensive backs even as the rest of the program sagged.

There are some good pieces still left here, as S Xavier Henderson, CB Kalon Gervin, and CB Angelo Grose were some of MSU’s better defensive players last year. Of the departures, S Dominique Long (Duke), S/CB Tre Person (uncommitted), CB Chris Jackson (Washington State) and CB Shakur Brown (draft - UDFA, Steelers) were regular contributors. Davion Williams (Western Kentucky) was primarily a special teams player. In an interesting statistical anomaly, Brown grabbed all five interceptions the MSU defense accounted for last season.

The Overall Picture

It’s definitely going to be different, that’s for sure. It’s fine to talk about a more normal offseason allowing better implementation of the defense, but even with a new scheme and some mismatched pieces playing big snaps, this was still a top-30 defense last season according to F+. The incoming talent suggests the ceiling this fall could be higher, but there’s also more risk of a drop-off given Dantonio’s sharper eye for defensive talent, most of which is now gone.

Poll

Michigan State’s DF+ Ranking After 2021 Will Be:

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    1-29
    (20 votes)
  • 50%
    30-59
    (41 votes)
  • 21%
    60-89
    (18 votes)
  • 3%
    90+
    (3 votes)
82 votes total Vote Now