Over the last two weeks, Impact Sports previewed 2014’s “No Fly Zone,” comprising of the cornerback and safety units.
This week, the focus is on the linebackers — one of the most impressive units of the 2013 season that will feature some new faces next season after the departure of a few key players.
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Key Departure: Denicos Allen
If you told most Spartan fans that they had to choose the most crucial departure from last season’s linebacking corps, most would think of Max Bullough.
Bullough, a two-time captain and third-team All-American, may be the obvious choice. However, Bullough proved to be replaceable when Kyler Ellsworth stepped in for him in the Rose Bowl.
One man who was anything but replaceable for the entire 2013 season was strongside linebacker, Denicos Allen. Allen led the team in tackles and tackles for loss, recording 98 and 16.5 respectively. As a three-year starter, he was a veteran and a leader on what was one of the nation’s best defenses all three years.
Allen also had a knack for getting stops when the Spartans needed him most. Most recently, he stuffed Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller on a 4th-and-2 midway through the 4th quarter with a three-point lead. After the forced turnover by Allen, the Spartan offense scored a touchdown to seal the 34-24 victory and a Big Ten Championship, along with an invitation to the Rose Bowl.
Key Returner: Taiwan Jones
Of the returning linebackers for 2014, Jones easily has the most experience. He started 13 of 14 games last season as the weakside linebacker while recording 67 tackles, which was good for fourth on the team. He also led the Spartans in the Rose Bowl against Stanford with eight tackles, including one for a loss.
As of now, Jones is slated to fill Bullough’s spot at middle linebacker next season. Look for Jones to step into more of a leadership role in what is to be his senior season.
Other Contributors: Darien Harris, Ed Davis, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke
Juniors Harris and Davis have the most returning experience besides Taiwan Jones. Between the two of them, they have 38 combined tackles playing 27 games apiece, mainly as reserves or special teams. They are the leading candidates to take the two remaining starting linebacker positions, with Davis at strongside and Harris at weakside.
Both Shane Jones and Reschke were redshirted as freshmen last season, but look to make an impact on the field in their first season of play. With both of them measuring comfortably over six feet tall and over 230 pounds, they certainly have the size to play linebacker at the Big Ten level.
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Preseason Grade: B
Despite losing big names like Allen and Bullough, along with key reserves Ellsworth and Jairus Jones, fans should not be worried about this group in 2014.
If Ellsworth’s performance replacing Bullough in the Rose Bowl tells anything, it is that Michigan State does not rebuild defensively — they reload.
Starter Taiwan Jones is returning for his final season and likely will make the move from weakside to middle linebacker, becoming essentially the quarterback of the defense. Harris and Davis look ready to take on more responsibility in the defense and Shane Jones, Reschke, along with others such as Mylan Hicks, will provide depth.
While this unit will not be close to having the same experience as they did with Bullough and Allen leading the way, there is no lack of athleticism or potential. Expect them to have some growing pains early in the season, but really come around to elite form by the time the Big Ten season starts.
Dan Tyler is the host of Spartan Red Zone for Impact Sports.
Photo: David Defever/Impact Sports