2017 midseason grades: Young players surprise, pilot MSU’s defense

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Let’s face it. At the beginning of 2017, nobody knew what to expect from the Michigan State defense.

Apparently that “nobody” included us.

At the beginning of the year, Impact Sports published a series of articles grading each position group on the Spartan football team. In a shocking development, we didn’t get everything right. This is exactly why we decided to re-grade the positions now that we are just beyond the halfway point of the regular season.

To be fair, there were about three to nine reasons to be skeptical of this year’s defense, especially since they lost cornerbacks Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland, safeties Montae Nicholson and Demetrius Cox, linebacker Riley Bullough and defensive tackle Malik McDowell who were all starters at some point in the season. But that’s exactly why you play the game. Nobody knows this better than the Spartans, who currently rank No. 4 in the FBS in total defense.

Defensive Line

Preseason grade: C-

Mid-season grade: A-

“It seems as though the consensus is that the line plays a little closer to national average in 2017, but don’t expect elite play from this group any time soon.”

Elite is a strong word, but this unit is much better than average. For starters, they are generating a pass rush. They’ve already accumulated 18 sacks on the year, as opposed to 11 in all of 2016. This includes two sacks against Minnesota who, going into that contest, averaged 0.2 sacks allowed per game.

“When [Raequan] Williams is on, he is a disruptive force in the middle, and excels in getting to the quarterback. His defense in the run game is still improving, but as one of the most experienced returners in the front seven, Williams’s play up front could dictate how well the line plays this season.”

Now this is on point. Even when the Spartans don’t get sacks, they manage the ability to get to the quarterback. Much of this credit goes to defensive tackle Raequan Williams and as well as Mike Panasiuk. They may not necessarily attack the quarterback themselves, but they don’t always need to. In many cases, their role is to create space in the middle for blitzing linebackers.

Another name to remember is defensive end Kenny Willekes. We didn’t talk about him quite as much as his counterpart Demetrius Cooper, and why not? How high could a former walk-on’s ceiling be?

As it turns out, pretty high. Willekes is a big guy at 6’4” and 244 pounds, but displays superb speed backed by an exceptional first step. He has already recorded a team-leading four sacks complemented by four QB hurry-ups. Take a bow, Kenny.

Linebackers

Preseason grade: B+

Mid-season grade: A-

“Coaches are hopeful this defense can see improvement through the play of sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie, who will be the quarterback of the defense at the MIKE linebacker position…While Bachie has played less than 100 snaps in his early career as a Spartan, his physicality, athleticism and his innate understanding of the game is what has fans confident that they’re in good hands at the linebacking position.”

This is an understatement. Bachie’s redshirt was removed in the middle of 2016, and you can see why. He leads the team in tackles by a large margin with 63. He’ll have a chance to break 100 by the end of the year. He also recorded an interception, fumble recovery, pass deflection, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Bachie is seemingly everywhere at once with tremendous energy unmatched by any single player on the defense, and perhaps the team as a whole. He’s quick, physically intimidating and smart. And did we forget to mention that he’s just a sophomore?

“Frey had one of the better latter halves of the season last year, elevating his play on the field and quickly emerged as the vocal leader of the team. Frey is a guy who hopes his aggressive attitude and relentless effort in practice and in games will translate to all of the younger players on the defensive side of the ball.”

This is where things get interesting. Most people expected Chris Frey to be the top dog in MSU’s linebacking rotation. Although he probably is the best pass rusher with 3.5 sacks, Frey is by no means the “top dog.” We’re seven games into the year and he only has 30 tackles.

Something has been missing with Frey this year. He hasn’t been awful, but not great. He seemed to take a step back in terms of physicality. The senior captain is probably the best leader on the defense, which makes it that much more surprising that he’s been the culprit of a few costly personal fouls, one of which came in a critical moment against Michigan.

“[Andrew] Dowell and the linebackers know that the success of the defense will fall on the shoulders of the linebackers and their ability to shut things down in the middle of the field and make plays.”

Lost in this whole thing seems to be Andrew Dowell. It feels like since Bachie rose to power, Dowell has fallen under the radar. But he shouldn’t. Dowell’s pass defending ability isn’t the greatest, but he has been a run-stopping force. With 48 tackles on the year, it’s not impossible that he joins Bachie in the 100-tackle club by the end of the year. Dowell is an equally important part of a linebacking group that is, as usual, the heart of the Spartan defense.

Secondary

Preseason grade: C-

Mid-season grade: B+

“At corner, the projected starters are Josiah Scott and Justin Layne. Scott was ranked three out of five stars according to 24/7 Sports’ Composite rankings. The 5’10”, 173-pound true freshman may not seem like much at first glance. But he came on the scene at the MSU Green-White spring game where he impressed with a team-tying eight tackles along with an interception.”

As it turns out, this was no fluke. Scott is doing things nobody thought a three-star true freshman could manage. After week one’s contest against Bowling Green, Pro Football Focus gave Scott the highest grade for a true freshman in the nation. He recorded an interception the very next week. Since then, Scott has continued to impress. His name isn’t usually heard on the PA, but for a defensive back, that’s usually a good thing.

Justin Layne has also made an impact in his sophomore year. Last week he guarded Indiana’s top receiver Simmie Cobbs, and limited him for the most part, allowing just 53 yards. He also accumulated 10 tackles. Layne’s speed and knowledge as a former wideout make him an instrumental part of stopping the passing game.

“The last safety to potentially make a big 2017 splash is everyone’s favorite Spartan, Jalen Watts-Jackson.”

As much as we all wanted this to happen, it just wasn’t meant to be.

“At safety, Khari Willis and Grayson Miller are the guys to beat. Willis is a 6’0” 215-pound junior. He recorded 30 tackles two pass break-ups in 2016, including a start at Michigan. Willis showed flickers of excellence last year and will look to build on that for a breakout 2017 campaign.”

We were a bit off about Miller, but right on the money with Willis. He’s not exactly a lockdown on the deep threat, but is one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs you’ll ever find. He has one sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and 43 total tackles, which is the third-most on the team. Considering that safeties play further back than any other position, these stats aren’t bad at all.

Lastly, we’ve got David Dowell, and you can add him to the mile-long list of players nobody thought would do anything, but is. Dowell has played sparingly throughout the year, but came on the scene in Michigan where he recorded three turnovers. He’s started ever since. With five pass deflections and two interceptions, Dowell may develop into that big-time cover safety the Spartans have been searching for since 2014.

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