Michigan State defense ready for another big year
Michigan State lost defensive lineman Jerel Worthy to the NFL, and there was a time when a departure like that would have left the Spartans reeling the following season.
''Our linebacking corps is so much better, our DBs are so much better,'' linebacker Denicos Allen said. ''Even though we lost guys, the guys that we had last year have gotten a lot better.''
Worthy left school early and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round, but the Spartans return eight starters on defense after allowing only 18 points per game last season. That's the main reason expectations are so high in East Lansing despite the loss of quarterback Kirk Cousins and some talented receivers.
No. 13 Michigan State opens the season Friday night against No. 24 Boise State, and that defense will again have a chance to be among the nation's elite.
''We expect to be good. We know what we're doing,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''We've not had any attrition really within our football team itself, other than we had Jerel leave I guess earlier than we would have thought. So we continually try to get better. We critique what we do - not satisfied where we're at. That's just the M.O. that's been built.''
Michigan State finished sixth in the nation in total defense last season. The Spartans had nine sacks in a win at Ohio State then chased Denard Robinson all over the field in a victory over rival Michigan.
Worthy had 3 1/2 sacks and turned pro, but the Spartans were able to keep defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi after he mulled an offer from Texas A&M.
''The name of this football game is tackling in space, pressuring the quarterback, turnovers, those types of things. We'll continue to try to do that,'' Dantonio said. ''Our defense has had success as of late. We need to continue doing that. Again, we're all starting over at this point. It's good to say those things, but you have to prove yourself over and over.''
With Worthy gone, William Gholston - all 6-foot-7, 278 pounds of him - now anchors the defensive line. He had five sacks last season despite missing a game when he was suspended for throwing a punch at a Michigan player.
Juniors Allen and Max Bullough lead an impressive group of linebackers. Bullough led the Spartans in tackles, and Allen had a team-high 11 sacks.
Cornerback Johnny Adams returns after contributing three sacks and three interceptions last season.
There may be some added pressure on the defense while new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and the offense work through any initial growing pains. Michigan State won't have a chance to ease into the season. Boise State - with its clever offense - awaits this week.
''Complicated - that's the one word I'd say,'' Bullough said. ''It's a great offense because it's hard to put your finger on what they're doing.''
The Spartans have already been taking steps to prepare for the pace of the Broncos' offense. Maxwell said that in practice Michigan State has been running offensive sequences with two huddles, so one group of players is ready to rush to the line and run a new play as soon as the previous one is done.
''We're always trying to get better and looking at the next challenge. The next challenge is Boise,'' Dantonio said. ''They present a very big challenge because, just like everybody, they put you in space. They try and outflank you, try to take advantage of some of the things we do. Whether it's running bubbles, running screens, whatever it is, they're going to keep us off balance, and we understand that. That's part of the game.''