Perhaps the biggest question for Michigan State football heading into 2017 is its defensive line. After the historic run of the teams that achieved Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Playoff appearances, the trenches were a major negative for the Spartans in their disaster of a 2016.
This group also loses defensive end Malik McDowell, who left East Lansing after his junior year, to be drafted by Seattle in the second round. While McDowell is clearly talented enough to play professionally, he had a subpar 2016, largely due to injuries as well as a questionable work ethic.
The rest of the offseason was not much kinder to defensive line coaches Ron Burton and Mark Snyder. Snyder was moved to coach the defensive ends in the offseason as a re-organization of head coach Mark Dantonio’s staff.
Ends Auston Robertson and Josh King are both no longer with the team, both for separate incidents involving a form of sexual assault. King was dismissed from the team in June, and Robertson in April.
Speaking from a purely football-related standpoint, this is not a good thing for MSU. Both players were four-star recruits that seemed to have enough talent to hold their own in their sophomore seasons with the team. While neither player produced enough to stand out as a potential starter in 2017, they would definitely have an impact this season if they were still involved with the program.
For a position group that was among the team’s worst last season, it is tough to predict a return to the form that gave the Spartans elite defenses at the start of this decade. Last season’s run defense wasn’t that terrible, moving from 2015’s fifteenth-best to 49th in run-game S&P+.
The only problem is that with McDowell missing three games, and a lack of production opposite Demetrius Cooper, MSU slid all the way back to 124th in the nation out of 129 against the pass. An abysmal pass rush did not make life any easier for a secondary that featured converted wide receivers, and outside of a solid showing in a near-blizzard at home to Ohio State, the secondary was rightly torched against teams like Northwestern.
The one position MSU has a potential problem on the line is at the defensive end spots. In a surprise move, Tuesday’s press conference and depth chart release named two former walk-ons, sophomore Kenny Willekes and junior Dillon Alexander as the two starters, ahead of Cooper, who led the Spartans in sacks in 2016, with two and a half.
It is likely that Cooper will still see substantial playing time, and it is unclear if the demotion is possibly disciplinary in nature following Cooper’s troubles with the law in the offseason. Either way, co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett mentioned in Wednesday’s press availability that Willekes and Alexander won their starting jobs due to “fast and physical” play in summer camp. That play is all excellent news in camp, but on the field it may be a different story. Those two didn’t exactly set the world on fire in their playing time last season, although Alexander did feature in MSU’s last three games of the season.
Expect that trio of ends to see the most playing time this season, with Cooper’s status in the starting lineup serving as an X-factor for the season. If Cooper sees extended playing time past this week’s matchup with Bowling Green, chances are that the pass rush may head back towards respectability after an awful 2016. Without Cooper on the field, the linebackers will need to blitz heavily, leaving the secondary in potential problem spots.
On the interior of the line, the depth chart named sophomores Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams as the two starters, with Williams serving as the nose tackle. The former four-star recruit out of Chicago saw the 20-year-old make eleven appearances, including three starts. His best game was likely at home against Wisconsin, where he notched a sack and forced fumble early on before fading in the second half.
When 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.
Panasiuk saw extensive playing time as a true freshman in 2016, and the former three-star recruit heads into Bowling Green as the starter ahead of junior Gerald Owens. Like Alexander, Panasiuk started the last three games of 2016, and had an impressive performance against Ohio State, recording seven tackles, a huge number for an interior lineman. An offseason of development for the Roselie, Ill. sophomore can only help his play on the field, but it is unclear whether a game like Ohio State is just a flash in the pan, or if it leads to continued success.
This entire unit needs to stay healthy to be even remotely successful. There are upperclassmen waiting in the wings, but if they were good enough to start over the younger players, they’d be doing so already. Kyonta Stallworth and Naquan Jones are both young backups with solid recruiting profiles. If they see the field, it may be a little dicey, but it cannot be the end of the world given that we’ve pretty much seen the bottoming-out of the pass rush in 2016. 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.