On defense the Spartans need to replace three, one each from the defensive line (Anderson), linebacker (Denson) and the secondary (Fortener). None of the defenders were truly impactful and finding capable replacements shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibilities.
Defensive Line: The one positive that I came away with from watching the Spartan front four was redshirt freshman, Jerel Worthy. Worthy displayed a decent amount strength and quickness and an ability to get up field and into the opponents backfield than any other member on the defensive front. His every down consistency needs to improve, but he appears to be the cornerstone of the line for the next few seasons. Blake Treadwell did an admirable job after having his redshirt removed midseason. He too has good quickness but will need to hit the weight room harder to get stronger. He definitely would have benefitted from a redshirt year but due to the lack of improvement displayed by either Michael Jordan or Ish Johnson the staff was left with no option but go with the true freshman.
I keep hearing about how well Oren Wilson plays at his nose tackle position but his numbers never impress. He had the fifth highest number of tackles for a defensive lineman behind Anderson, Neely, Worthy and Pickelman. For someone who has been a two year starter his performance seems a bit pedestrian and unimpressive. He still has difficulty controling the line of scrimmage at the point of attack, and rarely makes plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Kevin Pickleman has a heart of a warrior and does the best with the abilities he has. Even though he is not the strongest and often times is giving up 30+ pounds to the man across from him, battling him is like fighting with a tiger in a phone booth. If his tenacity could be bottled and shared with the other members of the defensive line the Spartans would probably not need to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback. You have to appreciate his effort even if it does not equate to impressive numbers.
Redshirt freshman Dan France is an unknown commodity for the interior of the defensive line and the fact that he wasn’t selected over Treadwell to give up his redshirt indicates that he probably wasn’t ready. Hopefully the off season conditioning program will see him improve his strength and stamina. France at 6’6″ is the tallest defensive tackle on the roster and his long frame could be a disadvantage if he is unable to keep his pad level low and gain leverage.
Collin Neely returns as MSU’s most productive defensive end with 3 sacks. His improvement from the 2008 season was noticeable, however he may have hit his ceiling with his 2009 performance, and MSU requires more. Pushing Neely for paying time is converted linebacker David Rolf, and former walk-on Jonathon Strayhorn. Rolf, like Neely, made strides this past season at his new position but still needs continued improvement. His strength is his quickness, but at 230 pounds he is much to light to be considered an every down DE. Strayhorn at 6′ and 260 will be a senior in 2010, and can only be considered a rotational player at best and not a viable starter.
The other defensive end spot will be up for grabs this spring with redshirt sophomore Tyler Hoover, redshirt freshman Denzel Drone and possibly converted linebacker Drew Stevens. Hoover played sparingly in 2009, managing half a sack and knocking down one pass. Hardly the stats for a highly ranked DE recruit, but with this only being his first year hopefully he will be able to build on it. According to coaching reports Drone is coming off an impressive redshirt year on the scout team defense and in bowl practices. What he lacks in height (6’2″) and weight (242) he supposedly makes up for in speed and quickness. How this will translate come game time has yet to be determined. The status of Cameron Jude is difficult to understand. He was not part of the bowl roster, but apparently is still on the team. The reasons for Dantonio not allowing him to travel with the team to San Antonio have not been made public and the secrecy is eeriely familiar to that of Roderick Jenrette’s removal from the roster in 2008.
Overall MSU’s defensive front is average at best. Worthy and Treadwell are two players who weathered their first year and need to display a more consistent effort. The defensive ends, aside from Hoover, are on the shorter side averaging 6’2″ and definitely undersized, averaging 240 pounds. Hopefully with the addition of William Gholston, Marcus Rush and Taylor Calero MSU will find a suitable pass rushing defensive end from these three. MSU is desperately in need of defensive tackle help, and getting at least one solid recruit in the 2010 class is a necessity. MSU is pushing hard to get one or any combination of Bruce Gaston, Jibrell Black, or Jerome Davis to sign in February.
Linebacking: As much as I appreciate Greg Jones and that he has decided to come back for his senior season I feel he is playing out of position as a MIKE linebacker. His 6’1″ 222 pound frame appears better suited for the outside. He definitely is the leader of this defense with his 154 tackles and first team All-American honors. The graduation of Adam Decker leaves MSU without an experienced backup to spell Jones. Redshirt freshman TyQuan Hammock and true freshman/early enrollee Max Bullough will be the two MIKE’s vying for the roll of Jones backup this spring. Hammock has the benefit of having been in the system now since preseson camp and could possibly hold an edge over Bullough. Bullough of course comes from a Spartan lineage of terrific linebackers/defenders starting with his grandfather and including his dad and uncle. Regardless of who gets the number two spot on the depth chart, Jone’s backup will be inexperienced.
Eric Gordon returns for his senior campaign in 2010. He has lived up to his high rating for the most part even though his performance gets overshadowed by Jones. He is not the biggest or fastest linebacker, but he plays smart and knows his assignments and compliments Jones very well. Behind Gordon is undersized but speedy senior, Jon Misch. Misch could have possibly beaten out Gordon if he was able to add and maintain his weight. At 202 pounds and 6’2″ he looks more like a safety and not someone who should be playing so close to the line. For all his toughness and desire he just hasn’t been able to put it all together because of his weight problem. He is a spirited special teams player who I would consider deserving of a captainship for that unit. Behind Misch is redshirt freshman Jeremy Gainer and Drew Stevens (depending on if Steven’s doesn’t go to DE). Gainer has some filling out to do, at 215 pounds he still appears a little light for a linebacker. Hopefully since his arrival at MSU he has added solid muscle and weight while keeping his impressive speed. I fully expect to see Gainer make a strong push for playing time this year if he has picked up and understands his assignments.
2010 will be the third consecutive season MSU will be looking for a suitable accompaniment to Jones and Gordon. In 2008 MSU used a converted wide receiver in Ryan Allison. Last year Brandon Denson, a converted running back was the starter. 2010 will hopefully produce a multi-year candidate from the group consisting of redshirt sophomore Steve Gardiner, and true sophomore Chris Norman. Gardiner has been used primarily on special teams. At 6’1″, 215 pounds he is another of MSU’s many undersized linebacking candidates. He supposedly has good football instincts and decent speed, but for whatever the reason hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup even when the talent ahead of him was mediocre at best. Norman was a prized recruit from the 2009 class. His freshman year was a bit of a waste in my estimation as he wasn’t able to beat out Denson, and his limited playing time indicated that he could have benefitted from a redshirt year. Hopefully the experience he gained throughout last season and heading into spring will pay off and he will become the defensive difference maker that this team has lacked for many years.
MSU will be in a bit of a rebuilding mode with the secondary so spring practice will be an opportunity for many players who saw spot duty last season and several redshirt freshmen to stake their claim as a starter.
One returning starter is Chris L. Rucker. He had an up and down year in 2009 high lighted by a team high seven pass breakups. He only managed one interception, but was credited with forcing two fumbles. The one interception is a bit discomforting seeing how often opponents threw the ball against the Spartan defense. One of his most disheartening moments was when he dropped an apparent interception that would have prevented ND from scoring the go ahead touchdown. A player of his caliber should definitely have more than one interception, and dropping interceptions is not acceptable. He ended the year suspended from the bowl game due to the Rather Hall incident. As inconsistent as his play was in 2009 he definitely could have benefitted from the additional practice time.
Backing up Rucker is redshirt sophomore Johnny Adams. Adams had a respectable freshman campaign in 2008 and was expected to make an impact last year. Because of some medical issues the staff saw fit to have him redshirt and recover fully. He has decent height for a corner at 5’11”, but at 165 pounds he definitely could use an additional 15 pounds of solid muscle. If Adams is 100% healthy I would not be surprised to see him unseat Rucker. He showed an ability to play the ball in the air and has excellent speed, and the fact that he isn’t affraid to hit despite his small frame makes him a strong candidate. Behind Adams is redshirt freshman Dana Dixon, who at 6’2″ is one of the taller corners on the team.
Expect some shifting for the other corner spot as redshirt freshman Patrick White is the only one listed after the graduation of Ware and Weaver. Adams is the most logical candidate because of his experience.
MSU returns two safeties with playing experience is redshirt sophomore Trenton Robinson, and senior Marcus Hyde. Robinson won the starting spot at the start of 2009 but eventually was replaced by Dan Fortener, as his play was too inconsistent and he made numerous freshman mistakes. Hopefully he learned enough that he can assume the responsibility of making the secondary calls. Redshirt freshman Denicos Allen is listed as Hyde’s backup, and the owner of one of the most menacing looks on the Spartan football team. Another redshirt freshman safety is Jarius Jones, who has not been mentioned either positively or negatively regarding his performance on the scout team and is Robinson’s replacement. The fact that the safety position is responsible for making the calls for the secondary, and how poorly it was handled this past season is reason for concern in 2010.
The secondary is an enigma. Mark Dantonio’s reputation was founded on his ability to coach and develop strong, tough, secondary units. Unfortunately he has not been able to transfer those same skills and abilities to his present secondary coach, Harlon Barnett. The consistent under performing play and repeated mental and fundamental breakdowns by this group over the past three seasons makes me question his competency. Dantonio has become more involved with this unit by spending time with the safeties. Will that be enough to correct the absymal play of the secondary? The answer will be determined when the team hits the field in September, but heading into spring ball this unit is the weakest part of the defense and their collective inexperience could exacerbate the problem.