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B1G 2023: Michigan State Defense

The unit was blasted by injuries quickly, then looked totally incompetent against anyone who threw the ball. What’s the fix?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Wisconsin at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve made mention of this many times over my years here on Off Tackle Empire Dot Com, but having not played football myself and being only socially acquainted with formations, I usually shy away from scheme-oriented commentary. One should stick to what one knows, after all.

But I have no problem saying Michigan State’s defense was utterly and comprehensively broken last year.

The first crack in the dam appeared early, when LB Darius Snow was lost for the season against Akron in the second week. Things really spiderwebbed when S Xavier Henderson went down for a large chunk of the season, as without him, MSU’s defensive alignment looked completely unprepared for whatever was about to come their way. And that’s all before the embarrassing incident in Michigan’s designed-to-cause-fights tunnel, which saw essentially everyone involved being on the defensive side of the ball and drained MSU’s depth on the defensive line and in the secondary down to essentially nothing for the last month of the season.

There were a few games in 2021 where it was plain this defense wasn’t championship-caliber, but a more consistent offense with the ultimate gamebreaker in Kenneth Walker III made up the difference in most cases. Without Walker, MSU’s offense produced a lot of 3-and-outs early in games last year, which snowballed in tandem with a defense that frequently didn’t find any traction at all until the opponent had scored three or four times.

So what’s the solution here? Because other than a couple of position coaches leaving for other jobs, Tucker has kept the defensive brain trust in place, so it’s unlikely the scheme is going to change, notwithstanding the pile of evidence that these players just don’t get it.

They’ll be without a few important pieces, starting with DT Jacob Slade, perhaps one of the more underrated interior linemen in the league the last few years. Henderson is out of eligibility, as are CBs Ronald Williams and Ameer Speed and Henderson’s fill-in, Kendell Brooks.

S Angelo Grose is the elder statesman in the secondary, but there should be a lot of younger blood around him. Sophomore S Jaden Mangham and CB Dillon Tatum have big opportunities, and MSU badly needs a few of Tucker’s young players to make leaps forward; if this defense looks better-organized against the pass, my bet would be one or both of those guys are responsible.

MSU won’t hurt for linebackers, as its base nickel defense de-emphasizes them with only two on the field most of the time and they have an excellent group built around Cal Haladay and Aaron Brule.

Up front, Jacoby Windmon’s return should mean big things for the pass rush, which dropped off badly when he was forced to move to linebacker last season. MSU will miss Slade, but Maverick Hansen, Simeon Barrow, and Derrick Harmon are a perfectly solid group, and Alex VanSumeren should play quite a bit off a redshirt. This is also where the talent Brandon Jordan helped gather before he left should come into play; DE Bai Jobe, DE Andrew DePaepe and DT Jalen Thompson all have the pedigree to play early. Penn State transfer Ken Talley should also figure in here, as the need for a difference-maker across from Windmon is significant.

I’d be remiss to not address the loss of the best punter in the country last year, Bryce Baringer, who will not be around this season to collect his apology Ray Guy like Adam Korsak did last year. Baringer’s phenomenal season was mostly squandered by a defense so bad that it didn’t really matter where the opponent started their drive; indeed, on a couple occasions I mused it might be beneficial for Baringer to shank a punt and give the secondary less space to get lost in.

The plan to replace the bespectacled legend currently seems to be (former walk-on I think?) redshirt freshman Ryan Eckley. Obviously I couldn’t tell you anything about him specifically, but given how disastrously the quest to replace longtime placekicker Matt Coghlin went in 2022, I am not at all looking forward to seeing how Ross Els has molded his next protege.