The Spartan Red Zone crew is nearly done with their preview of the Michigan State roster. For yesterday’s view on the MSU secondary, click here.
Michigan State’s linebackers are involved in perhaps the most “drama” of any unit heading into 2018. With only three starting positions waiting to be filled, by nature there are plenty of eyes on the “Money” or strong-side linebacker position battle.
The departed Chris Frey is currently in training camp with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent, and the search for his replacement is between a handful of names.
Junior Tyriq Thompson and sophomore Brandon Randle are the two main contenders for the starting slot alongside middle ‘backer Joe Bachie and senior Andrew Dowell. The two have unique playing styles and each may see time depending on down and distance defensively.
Randle saw most of his time last year as a defensive end in passing-down situations. His speed would fit well into a Spartan defense that already knows how to swarm to the ball, but his decision-making hasn’t really been on show in every-down situations. Thompson has been described as a “thumper” by defensive coordinator Mike Tressel and may have the edge when it comes to reading plays and the mental side of the linebacker position.
At Thursday’s unveiling of the Spartan team captains, head coach Mark Dantonio was still unsure of which of the two has the edge.
“We’ve got a lot of ways we can go with the linebackers,” Dantonio said. “I think it’s still up in the air.”
Joe Bachie returns as a second-year starter and last year’s team MVP. The junior was just named as a team captain (alongside junior quarterback Brian Lewerke and senior safety Khari Willis) and has been named to preseason all-conference teams by multiple publications. Forcing five turnovers and racking up 100 total tackles, barring injury there is little doubt he ends up among the best linebackers in the Big Ten. There are still little bits and pieces for Bachie to improve on, but he’s one of the best run defenders in the country and can match up with running backs or tight ends.
Senior Andrew Dowell heads into his third year as a starter as a solid, unspectacular piece in the defense. One of three brothers in the Spartan defense, Dowell is often in coverage as a weak-side linebacker and has struggled at times to track down quick running backs. However, the extra experience he’s picked up through two Big Ten campaigns should enable him to rack up 70-plus tackles again in 2018.
Backing up Randle and Thompson is a familiar name to Spartan fans in recent memory. Jon Reschke was an impact contributor during the College Football Playoff run of 2015, serving as one of the starting linebackers on a solid unit that didn’t break records but did enough to win games. Reschke picked up 75 total tackles in 2015, including solid performances against Oregon and Ohio State.
However, after 2015 was where things got murky for the Sterling Heights, Mich. native. His 2016 was cut short just two games in, as he suffered an ankle injury against Wisconsin that left him out for the year. During the offseason, Reschke was kicked off the team for insensitive remarks made about a teammate. Following a team vote, the sixth-year player is back for the 2018 campaign (despite not having a scholarship) and his playing time will depend on his ability after spending a year-plus away from live football.
Sophomore Antjuan Simmons is projected to back up Dowell at the “Star” linebacker spot, as one of the players with a bright future in 2019 and beyond. As a true freshman, Simmons saw plenty of time on special teams with 34 total tackles. He even saw time in the linebacker rotation later in the year, featuring heavily against Ohio State, Maryland and Washington State. He has the talent to push Dowell for playing time and his play in a couple of early-season games could be the difference. Senior Byron Bullough has been talked up by the coaches as an improved backup behind Bachie in the middle and could see time here and there. Converted tight end Noah Harvey has also generated practice buzz and could be another name in the mix behind Reschke.
Overall, this unit will go as Bachie goes. If either Thompson or Randle fails to take the reigns at the open starter position, the defense could be just “very good” instead of elite, but the two players put together plus a returning Reschke should be enough to put this unit in the upper echelon of the Big Ten.