Willekes, defensive line looking to repeat ’17 success a year later

The Spartan Red Zone crew continues its positional previews this week with a look at Michigan State’s defensive line. For the most recent look at the offensive line and tight ends, Kyle Turk has more here.

Michigan State’s defensive line situation is simple. They have three excellent returning starters, but one glaring hole at the end left by the departure of Demetrius Cooper. The Spartans return three of the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten in tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams and defensive end Kenny Willekes. If these players stay healthy, it will be difficult to find a more ferocious trio of linemen in the conference.

As an entire unit, MSU had the second-best run defense in the nation last year, as only Alabama allowed fewer rushing yards per game. It’s hard to do that without a strong presence up front.

“We have a great group of guys,” said Willekes at MSU media day. “Everyone’s stepping up. Everyone’s talking. There’s position leaders at every group…at tackle, Raequan (Williams) and Mike (Panasiuk). So we have a lot of upperclassmen, lot of leadership on our defense, which is good.”

Panasiuk is coming off an impressive sophomore campaign where he notched up 121 production points in the regular season—good for third on the team. He started all 13 games and was voted honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media.

At 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds, Panasiuk’s sheer size and strength makes him a wrecking ball. If you look at his stats alone, nothing particularly stands out with 25 tackles, 2.5 for loss last year. But Panasiuk’s role was often to simply hold up offensive linemen to make room for blitzing linebackers and defensive backs. In this regard, he has been very successful.

Williams, who will start next to Panasiuk, is nearly the same size as his fellow tackle. The biggest difference between the two is that Williams has a step on Panasiuk in terms of athleticism and his first step.  With this, he could potentially play defensive end in addition to tackle. Williams has 31 tackles including six for loss and 2.5 sacks. Perhaps most impressive is his seven QB hurry-ups.

“Raequan’s athletic,” said MSU defensive coordinator Mike Tressel at MSU media day. “To be able to do that, you need to have a D-end who can play like a linebacker… you also need to have one of your inside guys who can play on the edge. And we feel Raequan’s athletic enough to do that, without a doubt.”

Like Panasiuk, Williams earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. He also won the MSU Iron Man Award (strength and conditioning). Any team the Spartans face should have their hands full with these two interior linemen who led the fourth-best rushing defense in the nation a year ago.

Behind Panasiuk and Williams lie Gerald Owens and Naquan Jones. Owens played in 12 games last year and will look to stay in regular rotation this season. Jones, however, may play a larger role. As a redshirt freshman, he quietly assisted to the Spartans’ pass rush with four QB hurry-ups. He moves well for a 342-pound monster tackle and may be difficult to leave off the field.

Further down the depth chart are Mufi Hill-Hunt and incoming freshman Dashaun Mallory. It’s likely that neither will play much barring injuries, although MSU coach Mark Dantonio has commented on the improvement of Hill-Hunt throughout the offseason.

Willekes was perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2017 Spartans. The former walk-on exploded on the scene after a big-time spring game performance, followed by a break-out season at defensive end. Willekes recorded 73 tackles, seven sacks and eight QB hurry-ups.

The success of Willekes was a shock to many, and he is still probably one of the more underrated pass rushers in the nation. If Willekes continues to improve at this rate, he’ll be an absolute force on the defensive line.

The main question mark for the Spartans’ defensive line, and perhaps the team as a whole, is finding a starter opposite of Willekes to replace Cooper. The leading candidate at this point is Mike Panasiuk’s brother, Jacub. The redshirt sophomore hasn’t played a lot of snaps, but he worked his way into all 13 games last year. However, it is still unclear if he is able to develop into a successful every-down starter.

Senior Dillon Alexander and junior Justice Alexander will also compete for playing time, although Dillon will sit out for an unspecified amount of time after acquiring an offseason non-contact injury. Both should compete for minutes, though neither has proven to be a starting-caliber defensive end.

Another name to watch out for is incoming freshman Parks Gissinger. The California native is a top-50 weakside defensive end in the nation. He has the ferocity to compete in the Big Ten. But at 227 pounds, Gissinger will probably have to put on some weight to truly make an impact. Still, with the new rule that allows freshmen to play in four games without burning their redshirt, Gissinger should be able to at least compete for playing time.

Although not strictly a defensive end, Brandon Randle is another player who can make some serious noise at that position. Randle played in every game last year, mostly as a specialized edge rusher where he recorded a sack and three QB hurry-ups. He will not play every down as a defensive end, but the sophomore could play as a third-down pass rusher.

The good news for the Spartans’ defensive line is that they return three capable starters, each with high upside. The bad news is that it is that the hole left by Cooper is a big one with no obvious replacement. It is also unclear how deep this rotation is and what will happen if one of the three players falls with injury. Depending on these factors, this unit has an extremely high ceiling, but a fairly low floor.

Grade: B+