While the secondary and defensive line could prove to be very young and inexperienced, it’s the linebacking corps that, like in most seasons under Mark Dantonio, should be the heart and soul of the Spartan defense.
Before linebacker coach Mike Tressel switched titles to join Harlon Barnett as co-defensive coordinator last season, the linebackers that came through the program thrived greatly. Now that Tressel’s sole focus is coaching the ‘backers, he, along with the experienced talent at that position, look to be the defensive anchor for the Spartans this season.
The linebackers look like the most experienced and proven group on the defensive side of the ball and will be leaned on heavily to make plays for the defense. The Spartans are looking to improve upon their defensive efforts after allowing an abysmal 364.8 yards per game last season. 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.
After Jon Reschke suffered a season-ending injury last season, the Spartans turned to then-freshman Bachie, who played in the final six games of the year. 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.
Joining Bachie in the starting linebacker core is senior captain Chris Frey. Frey has been a four-year player under Dantonio and towards the latter half of last season elevated his production and really emerged as a leader of the defense heading into this season as one of two captains on the team. Frey led the team last year with 96 tackles in his first year as a starter, and will look to bring his hot play from the end of last season into this season, starting the Spartans off on the right foot. 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.
Playing alongside Bachie at the other backer position is junior Andrew Dowell. Dowell is coming off a year in which he recorded 67 tackles for the Spartans. With Dowell grabbing just one interception last season, his ability to defend in pass coverage is one of the areas he’ll need to improve upon for this season. 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. Dowell has the athleticism and speed to be a guy rushing off the edge, coming off last season with six quarterback hurries, so if he can effectively find a balance of pass-rushing and dropping back into coverage, he can become a big playmaker for the defense from the outside backer position.
While the Spartans have their linebacker core set for the season opener, they also have some depth at the position littered with high-potential players who should be ready to take on some bigger roles this season. Fifth-year senior Shane Jones can back up Bachie at the MIKE position, but he’s versatile enough where he can play anywhere in the linebacking scheme. Redshirt sophomore Tyriq Thompson is a guy to keep an eye on, who will be ready to step in for valuable playing time at the SAM position, backing up Frey. Freshman and previous Ohio State commit Antjuan Simmons also is in the mix to get some adequate playing time at one of the outside linebacker positions.
With some other position groups with a bit of uncertainty heading into their season opener with Bowling Green, the linebacking core is one of the Spartans’ deepest and most experienced groups that is poised to get back to the Spartan defenses in years past, looking to grab hold of the Spartan program before it slides entirely off the rails.