How Michigan State can reload its defense
Michigan State is in the midst of a successful run the program hasn’t seen since before it joined (and won) the Big Ten in 1953. The Spartans have made nine-straight bowl games — the longest such stretch in program history — and have lost no more than one conference game in five of the last six seasons. They’ve collected three Big Ten titles, and have finished ranked in the top six each of the last three years.
With this level of recent success, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that many are still considering them contenders for the Big Ten championship this year, despite key losses on both sides of the ball. The AP Top 25 has Michigan State ranked 12th heading into the 2016 season, with the coaches poll ranks them one better at No. 11. However, the program’s own history shows it could be in for some struggles this season, as the last time the Spartans had to replace a multi-year starting QB was in 2012 when Kirk Cousins graduated and moved onto the NFL, and Michigan State finished 7-6 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten.
This year it’s Connor Cook who is moving on (selected by the Raiders in the fourth round of this year’s NFL draft) after starting the last three years in East Lansing, and unlike 2012 — when nine of the 11 defensive starters returned — this year’s defense has also seen significant attrition. Moving on is star DE Shilique Calhoun, DE Lawrence Thomas, DTs Joel Heath and Damon Knox, LB Darien Harris and CB Arjen Colquhoun.
With so many key players from last year’s national playoff-qualifying team gone, it is crucial that the returning starters elevate their game while new players fill into the vacated roles. Looking at the veterans back for 2016 analytically, each level of the defense has a critical era it will require improvement based on last year’s results. These critical areas of focus will be vital to the success of the Spartans this year, and are worth monitoring throughout the season.
The defensive line must give Malik McDowell supplemental pass-rush help: We are huge fans of Malik McDowell’s game, and believe he compares favorably to former Oregon Ducks and current San Francisco 49er DeForest Buckner in both size and ability. Last season he compiled 39 total QB pressures, including five sacks and seven hits. He has lost weight over the summer in an effort to give him more edge rush opportunities and limit his exposure to blockers, as the Spartans understand McDowell with be the focal point of every opposing offensive line they face this season. While he should develop into one of the best players in the conference, he won’t be as productive as he’s capable of being if he doesn’t have help from the rest of the defensive line.
None of the other five returning defensive linemen with snaps played in 2015 had positive pass rush grades, as they put up a combined total of just 31 pressures, most of them coming from Demetrius Cooper. Cooper started off 2015 on fire, with three sacks and 13 other pressures in the first three games, but once the conference season started he cooled down considerably, only posting eight total pressures for the remainder of the year. Now in his third year, he in particular needs a breakout performance to help prevent the defense’s star player from seeing constant double teams.
The linebackers can’t miss as many tackles as they did last year: Very simply put, this unit must improve its tackling. The departed Darien Harris missed nine last year, which was the lowest total of the three starters. The other two, Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke, missed 14 and 22 respectively. Both of them return, and while their experience should certainly help a team in transition, it is paramount they become more consistent tacklers.
Among linebackers who played at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps, Bullough’s run grade ranked him 113th out of 126 linebackers in FBS, certainly in large part due to his excessive number of missed tackles. Not surprisingly, Reschke’s total ranked dead last in the Big Ten, and third-worst among linebackers from power five schools.
In Michigan State’s two losses against Nebraska and Alabama, the duo combined to miss ten tackles, and the team combined for a total of 27 misses between the two games. The Spartans are still hoping to get good news about Ed Davis’ application for a sixth year of eligibility, which would be a huge boost to the LB corps, but the point remains: without improved tackling, the Spartans could see more losses in 2016 where this deficiency is one of the obvious culprits.
The secondary must allow a lower completion percentage: The back end was the clear weakness of last year’s defense, as evidenced by the fact it only had one player grade at or above average. With Colquhoun now trying to make the Dallas Cowboys’ roster, the onus will fall on players like Demetrious Cox, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks (the top three returning Spartans in snaps played) to elevate the play of the secondary.
In 2015, the above trio combined to give up eight touchdowns compared to 11 total passes defended, and each of the three gave up completion rates of at least 62 percent. To put this in perspective, the top player returning in the secondaries of Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern all defended at least seven passes on their own and gave up completion percentages of under 51 percent last year.
Based on last year’s performances, Michigan State simply doesn’t have that type of talent, and made it far too easy for opposing QBs to complete balls on them. The Spartans have sent a slew of defense backs to the NFL in recent years, thus it wasn’t surprising to see attrition finally catch up to them last year. This being said, considering the lack of experience and production in the front seven, it could be difficult for this year’s group of corners and safeties to significantly improve upon last year’s output.