Michigan State University Student Radio

Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM

Michigan State University Student Radio

Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM

Michigan State University Student Radio

Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM

MSU Football: Breaking Down the 2016 Defense

This is the second in a series of previews of Michigan State football. To read about the Spartans’ talented tailback trio, click here.

If asked one word to associate with Michigan State, what would the typical college football fan answer? Defense.

MSU has landed in the top 10 in total defense and top 15 in total rush defense nationally in four of the past five years. The only season in that five year span where MSU finished outside of those areas: 2015.

The squad may have finished 46th in total defense last year, but actions speak louder than words (or numbers in this case). The Spartans defense peaked against the three best Big Ten opponents that they faced: No. 12 Michigan, No. 3 Ohio State, and No. 4 Iowa. They yielded less than 15 first downs and surrendered no more than 270 total yards in each contest.

Michigan State returns six starters on a talented unit. Similar to last year, this group will keep the team in every game by living up to its strong reputation of stingy and smashmouth defense. Let’s dive into the details, shall we?

Defensive Line

Out of all the positions on the list, the defensive line will be encountering the biggest setback by losing six contributors from last year. Hyped up Craig Evans and Montez Sweat were released due to violations of team rules, and sixth year senior Damon Knox decided to forgo his final year and pursue a law career. But the biggest blow is the departure of three senior starters, including three-time All-American Shilique Calhoun.

Junior Malik McDowell is a superstar in the making and is expected to fill the gaping void. College football expert Phil Steele regards him as the best defensive tackle in the nation. He possesses unbelievable elusiveness for a man in his 6-foot-6, 280 pound frame. He used his physicality to his advantage to rack up 41 tackles, including 4.5 sacks.

It is up to McDowell and his sidekick Demetrius Cooper (five sacks) to push first year guys like Josh King and Raequan Williams to improve. The Spartans might convert senior tight end Jamal Lyles to defensive end, as he showed a lot of promise in the spring game with back-to-back tackles for loss. MSU also acquired Nebraska transfer Kevin Williams and Delaware State transfer Gabe Sherrod in order to bulk up on the depth chart. Defensive line coach Ron Burton hopes it is a smooth transition for the transfers in terms of environment and competition. It would be all the better for this unit if the newcomers can step to the forefront and utilize their impressive raw talent to take as much pressure off of McDowell as possible.


This could very well be one of the best assembled linebacking groups in not only in the country, but in MSU football history. The dynamic trio is conducted by Riley Bullough, Chris Frey, and Jon Reschke. They execute at a very high level because of their deep understanding of the fundamentals of football. This crew is the heart and soul of the team.

Generation after generation, the Bullough family has carved their profound legacy in the program. Of course, “the computer” was Riley’s brother Max’s nickname during his tenure at Michigan State due to his ability to predict offensive plays. Riley Bullough may not be as wildly intelligent as his older brother, but he makes up for it in speed. The senior has a nose for the football, who led the team with 106 total tackles last year. The future captain specializes in shutting down the run and making solid open field tackles.

On one of Bullough’s sides, Chris Frey is an outstanding pass rusher while having a knack for causing fumbles. To the other side, Jon Reschke is constantly wreaking havoc in the opposing backfield and is effective when dropping back into pass coverage.

Meanwhile, Ed Davis has the opportunity to make an enormous impact returning from a season-ending injury last year. His sixth year in the program is not official since his eligibility waiver is still pending, however. They will all serve as a great security blanket to a blooming defensive line, as the big boys adjust to their new roles.


Could we finally see the comeback of the “No Fly Zone” in 2016? This position has the chance to either make or break Michigan State’s season. Former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi integrated his high-risk/high-reward system by assigning his defensive backs one-on-one matchups with the receiver with no help over the top. The results were satisfying with steady pressure and hauling in interceptions, thanks to the secondary’s accurate reads.

Faster than the blink of an eye, Darqueze Dennard graduated in 2013 and Narduzzi vacated to accept the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh one year later. To top it all off, future first rounder Trae Waynes declared pro when the 2014 season came to a close. All their absences have haunted the defensive backfields, as the Spartans finished in a disappointing 92nd in total pass defense last year. They surrendered nearly 3,000 passing yards for the entire season, including succumbing to roughly 230 yards per game. The No Fly Zone’s image has been severely tarnished after the appalling performance from last year.

It is time for Mark Dantonio to implement deep zone coverage in order to prevent the deep ball from being MSU’s Achilles’ heel once again. The growing confidence of the secondary starts with safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson leading the charge. Cox is a terrific tackler (83 tackles last year) while Nicholson is a threat to disrupt the opposing receivers routes (three interceptions). Their timing on hits is very imposing, while swatting and breaking up pass attempts from sideline to sideline. Cox finished the year in style with one of the craziest interceptions of the year. Facing the undefeated Big Ten Western Division champions in the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 2015 B1G Championship Game, he picked off quarterback CJ Beathard in the 2nd quarter in Michigan State’s endzone, catching the ball off of teammate Riley Bullough’s back.

The best cover corner is believed to be sophomore Vayante Copeland. Despite suffering an early season-ending injury, he displayed signs of inner greatness. His potential is sky high as he follows his man stride for stride as well as any cornerback in the country. Just ask former Oregon star receiver Braylon Addison, who was held in check against Michigan State until Copeland’s injury. If this collective unit can consistently help out in run support and prevent huge gains while securing several takeaways, this group can go from being the biggest liability to possibly being the biggest asset.

Final Thoughts

I’m very confident that the defense will once again fit the mold of the Spartan’s reputable tough as nails defense. They will outshine an offense who loses a plethora of key pieces, none more important than the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history in Connor Cook.

All three components on defense have incredible depth, which should favor MSU in the later stages of big time games. While the defensive line is taking a few steps back with only a couple proven players, the linebackers and secondary are taking giant leaps forward by returning an abundant number of veterans from a year ago.

Expect the linebackers led by Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke to rise to the occasion by ceasing the opposing ground game by clogging up the running lanes with heavy penetration. Don’t be surprised to see new faces on the defensive line like Josh King and Gabe Sherrod stepping up and showcasing their efforts in the opposing backfield. I also predict that the MSU defensive backfield behind the leadership of seniors Darian Hicks and Demetrious Cox, who will be more polished as they discover their own identity. They will limit the big plays downfield and can be depended to come down and assist in stopping the running game and short pass plays. It is crucial that the cornerbacks and safeties understand the phrase “Anticipate, not guess” and apply it to their own game.

The defense will force several three and outs which will give a youthful offense many golden opportunities to move the ball in solid field position. LJ Scott and company should be able to feed off of the success of the lockdown defense, which will allow them to gain confidence and mature as a unit as the season progresses.

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