Better or worse? Previewing Michigan State's defense in 2020
For as unreliable and stagnant as the Michigan State offense had become during the waning years of the Mark Dantonio era, the defense was a consistent calling card that helped the Spartans at least win 7 games and make a bowl in each of the past 2 seasons.
Insert Mel Tucker after one year as the head coach at Colorado, and the defensive-minded Nick Saban disciple inherits a defense that ranked 18th nationally last year, a down year for a unit that ranked 7th and 10th, respectively, in the 2 years prior under DC Mike Tressel.
Tressel was retained in the regime change but now slides over to safeties coach to allow for Scottie Hazelton to assume defensive control after a year in the same position at Kansas State.
The transition won’t be an easy one for Tucker and Hazelton, as the defense lost 7 starters from 2019, including 6 who were 3-year starters.
Most notably gone is the defensive end Kenny Willekes, who was tabbed as first-team All-Big Ten in each of the last 2 seasons, and the Spartans’ best pass defender in cornerback Josiah Scott.
While the defense will still be the relative strength of this team with so much uncertainty surrounding the offense, will Sparty’s old faithful still be strong enough to keep the team bowl eligible for a 4th consecutive year?
Pressuring the QB: Worse
The obvious elephant in the room here is trying to replace Willekes at defensive end — just the program’s all-time leader in career tackles for loss (51) and 3rd in sacks (26). Then there’s the slightly less daunting task of replacing nose tackle Raequan Williams’ presence and 5 sacks from a year ago.
The Spartans are better equipped at the end position with Jacub Panasiuk returning for his third year as a starter. Panasiuk finished with 34 tackles, 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks as a junior and finally has the opportunity to emerge from the large Willekes’ shadow as the team’s premier pass rusher. Veteran Drew Beesley and Jack Camper will likely compete for the other starting end spot.
Last season Michigan State rotated 4 guys at the tackle positions, and with Mike Panasiuk and Williams graduating, the logical move here is that Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade will be promoted to starters.
Linebacker Antjuan Simmons, the team’s leader in tackles a year ago (90), also proved to be a versatile pass rusher, racking up 3.5 sacks.
The question here isn’t so much if the Spartans will miss Willekes’ disruptive play but rather to what degree they can minimize his absence.
Run defense: Worse
Remember when Michigan State held Tulsa to -73 yards rushing last season?
While that’s not the expectation this year in any game, the Spartans’ run D will likely take a small step back as it tries to replace 2 of its better linemen in recent memory.
Despite needing to replace Panasiuk and Williams on the interior, Jones and Slade demonstrated at times last year that they could be equally effective as a duo, albeit in a small sample size. The pair combined for 29 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in 7 games for Jones and 4 for Slade.
The team ranked 5th in the B1G in run defense last year allowing 113.8 yards a game but was gashed for 323 yards and 222 yards by Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively.
Simmons, who can play at any of the linebacker spots, at the very least will provide a solid piece in preventing running backs from getting past the second level, as will fellow linebacker Noah Harvey, who finished last season with 5 tackles for loss after being thrust into the starting lineup following the suspension of Joe Bachie.
The Spartans will come close to rivaling their run defense from a year ago, but look for an incremental step back until the inexperienced linemen have a little more playing time under their belts.
Pass defense: Better
Michigan State’s secondary was already subpar in Dantonio’s final season, and losing Josiah Scott to the NFL and Josh Butler to graduation creates two sizable holes, but the Spartans’ pass defense should improve thanks largely to the play of safety Xavier Henderson.
Henderson recorded 5 pass breakups, 2 interceptions and ranked 2nd on the team with 83 tackles last year and will likely be an All-Big Ten selection by season’s end. He’ll be tasked with leading a secondary that allowed 24 TD passes in 2019 — 13th in the B1G and tied for 96th nationally.
Shakur Brown is a talented, veteran corner who started the last 5 games after missing 6 due to injury. He and Tre Person at the other safety position return the most experience alongside Henderson.
The story is much the same for the secondary as the defensive line. An inexperienced underclassman will need to emerge if there is to be improvement. Look for Julian Barnett, one of the top athlete recruits in 2019, to be one of those guys. He was forced to play receiver last year but is transitioning to corner and could fill one of those three open corner spots by season’s end.
Special teams: Worse
There’s not much better than a preseason punter position battle and that’s just what Michigan State has on its hands.
After losing Ray Guy Award finalist Jake Hartbarger to graduation, it appears as though it will be a 3-player race for the right to punt.
The Spartans landed UTEP grad transfer Mitchell Crawford in early March. He was All-Conference USA honorable mention in 2018 after averaging 39.9 yards on 73 punts.
Crawford will battle backups Bryce Baringer and Tyler Hunt, both of whom have limited game experience. Baringer had entered his name into the transfer portal last fall but is back with the team.
The loss of so many veterans is just too much to overcome.
Dantonio didn’t leave the cupboards bare, but there’s a lot of unknown with the inexperienced players, and this was a defense that was top 20 in the nation after all.
In the same fashion that a good defense can sometimes be the best offense, the opposite might hold true in 2020 with a bad offense being the worst for the defense. The offense is likely to struggle mightily in Year 1 of a new starting QB and might have trouble staying on the field.
That means fans in East Lansing might be seeing a whole lot of the defense, something that will bear its nasty consequences as the season rolls on.
Tucker and Hazelton both stem from coaching trees with rich defensive pedigree — Tucker was a Saban G.A. and Hazelton was a coach under Gus Bradley, the defensive coordinator during Seattle’s Legion of Boom. They have the knowledge to return the Spartans’ defense to its prime, but expecting that in their first year is too much to ask for.