Michigan State football: Way-too-early predictions for Spartans' defense in 2022
Michigan State’s defense wasn’t a typical MSU defense this past fall.
In 2021, the Spartans could handle the run, at times, but could rarely contain the passing attack.
Remember those units anchored by the likes of LB Greg Jones, the No Fly Zone DBs and a dominant d-line? Those years are gone, but the potential for the Spartans to reboot a similarly skilled defense could be just a couple of years away; it all starts this fall for the Spartans, who, despite wildly inconsistent defense, competed for a Big Ten title and won a thriller over Pitt in the Peach Bowl.
The defense actually held together after nearly breaking vs. the Panthers during that New Year’s Six duel, so there is hope for improvement this season. Again, it’ll take a couple of years for MSU to get back to the days of No Fly Zones, Malik McDowell and Greg Jones — among several others during the reign of former DC Pat Narduzzi (now the Pitt coach) — but the building blocks are steadily stacking up in East Lansing.
What should we expect this year? Here are some way-too-early calls for the Spartans’ defense heading into the 2022 season.
Pass defense will get better
The only way is up for the Spartans’ defensive backs, who, at one time in 2021, allowed the most passing yardage of any team at the FBS level. Let that sink in for a few seconds — the worst in all of major college football.
That’s not a distinction any player group wants.
So, here it goes: Way-too-early to say, but the Spartans won’t be dead-last at any point this season; in fact, they may even place in the top 50, in terms of pass yardage allowed. In 2021, Alabama had a pretty solid defense but ranked No. 50 overall in the passing aspect, allowing roughly 218 yards per game.
Let’s go out on a limb and say that MSU won’t be torched, on average, for more than 200 per Saturday.
With DB/LB Cal Haladay, who led MSU with 2 picks (both pick-6s), and Xavier Henderson returning, the DB group has great experience to rely upon. Throw in Angelo Grose, who made some strides, and the Spartans have a good safety tandem in Henderson and Grose.
Ameer Speed, a transfer from Georgia, should add some athleticism. The 6-3, 211-pound former 3-star said it was an easy choice to pick Michigan State as his next destination. With DB coach Harlon Barnett, an MSU legend, and coach Mel Tucker, Speed couldn’t help but be excited.
“So, the fact that they were both here together was one of my biggest reasons why I came here,” Speed said after a spring practice, per MLive. “I just feel like why not? Those are two guys I had faith in, they had faith in me before, so why not come here and be a part of something different?”
Michigan State won’t have the worst pass defense in the land. Speed should lead the way for the corners and the safeties look to be in good hands with Henderson and Grose. Haladay’s flexibility is also a plus.
There is some lack in kind-of experienced depth with the departure of DB Michael Dowell and CB Kelon Gervin, but the Spartans look to have enough to avoid the FBS pass-defense cellar this year.
Tough in the trenches?
Simeon Barrow and Jacob Slade stand in line to serve as the power in the trenches for the Spartans, who, as mentioned earlier, used to field dominant D-lines under coach Mark Dantonio. Throw in Dashaun Mallory, another senior, and the Spartans have 3 solid options at the DT position. Though Mallory has only made one start (Peach Bowl), he has enough knowledge and experience to translate to a successful final go-round in East Lansing.
In 2021, Michigan State finished No. 15 against the run, giving up 117.2 yards per game. If things fall in place, look for that total to hover near 100 this fall.
As mentioned, the Spartans have some players to get excited about this fall. Barrow and Slade should serve as a steady 1-2 combo in the middle, while the defensive backs should be much better this season after falling flat in 2021. There are some questions surrounding the linebackers, though, which is the only group that doesn’t have a well-known/potential star in the mix. But the front should be OK and the secondary should survive. If MSU tightens up in the middle, it should have a defense that ranks in the top-half of the Big Ten, in terms of overall statistics — if not, there is no way the Spartans will win more than 9 or 10 games this fall.