The entire Mark Dantonio era has been built on the backbone of good defense and last year was no different for the Spartans. The program did lose long-time defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi as he decided to voluntarily become the head coach at Pitt, yet Michigan State's defense kept rolling in 2015.
Starters Returning: 6/11
Key Losses: DE Shilique Calhoun, DE Lawrence Thomas, DE Montez Sweat, DT Joel Heath, DT Craig Evans, LB Darien Harris, CB Arjen Colquhoun, S R.J. Williamson
Key Returnees: DE Demetrius Cooper, DT Malik McDowell, LB Riley Bullough, LB Jon Reschke, LB Chris Frey, LB Ed Davis, CB Darian Hicks, S Demetrious Cox, S Montae Nicholson, S Grayson Miller
FEI Defense Rank: 15
S&P Defense Rank: 12
S&P Rush Defense: 21
S&P Pass Defense: 10
Turnovers Forced: 28
Cracks in the Facade?
On the surface, the Michigan State defense looks like it didn't skip a beat without Pat Narduzzi. Most of the stats loved them. They were 11th in run defense, 26th in total yards, 21st in first downs surrendered, and 24th in scoring.
However, they gave up the worst yards-per-play (5.47) of the Dantonio era (to be fair partly a function of the explosive offenses today) and were seriously susceptible to giving up big plays, particularly through the air. For example, the Spartans were 80th in 10+ yard plays given up, 90th in 20+ yard plays given up, and 110th in 10+ pass plays allowed.
The traditional pass defense only landed in 77th nationally which is the same spot the YPA allowed by opponent quarterbacks finished. Even more puzzling, Michigan State had a terrible red zone defense finishing 79th in scoring and 85th in touchdown percentage.
So how did they finish with such a highly rated defense? A good run defense, lots of negative plays in the backfield, a bunch of turnovers, and forcing perhaps the worst Urban Meyer-coached offensive performance in history.
Michigan State finished 13th nationally in sacks, 19th in tackles for loss, 8th in fumbles forced, and 23rd in interceptions.
Is it likely that the Spartans become less disruptive in 2016? Probably not as they return about half of their sacks and tackles for loss. But, if they do struggle a little bit in these areas and can't drive down explosive plays given up and YPP it could be cause for concern.
Depth Up Front
There's some mild concern about the defensive line depth in East Lansing, particularly after Montez Sweat and Craig Evans recently left the football program. That makes it a loss of 5 starters or rotational players up front from 2015.
Spartan fans are excited for Demetrius Cooper to get his chance as a full-time starter at defensive end. He's coming off 5 sacks from a year ago and got plenty of reps in 2015. Behind him things are pretty thin. For spring, 5th-year senior journeyman Evans Jones has been starting after 7 tackles last fall and tight end Jamal Lyles has been lending a helping hand.
We can expect a bunch of youth to get their shot on the edge. A pair of redshirt freshmen in Cassius Peat and Justice Alexander are immediately in the two-deep. Luckily for State, a pair of high 4-star true freshman are showing up in Josh King and Auston Robertson. The latter didn't ink in February but after clearing up some legal issues recently signed his Letter of Intent.
On the interior things look much better thanks to rising junior Malik McDowell who is coming off a 13 tackle for loss season and has All-American potential. For now, 6th-year senior Damon Knox (15 tackles) is a capable new starter. A few more bodies will get a look like redshirt sophomore Enoch Smith or redshirt freshman Raequan Williams.
To summarize, this should be a solid group of starters but they're one injury away from being in trouble, especially playing early in week 3 against Notre Dame.
Happy Times at Linebacker
The Spartans are feeling really good about their linebackers for 2016. Fifth-year senior Riley Bullough leads the way as a 2nd-team All-Big Ten player at Mike linebacker finishing with 106 tackles, 7.5 TFL, and 4 sacks. Redshirt junior Jon Reschke is returning at strong-side after an honorable mention All-Big Ten season complete with 75 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and 2 sacks.
Junior Chris Frey and sophomore Andrew Dowell come in with plenty of experience from a year ago and it's been Frey who has been receiving some strong reviews while starting this spring at the Star position.
Added to the mix is 6th-year senior Ed Davis who tore his ACL during fall camp and missed all of the 2015 season. When he last played Davis put up 58 tackles, 12 TFL, and 7 sacks. Before he was injured Davis was a pre-season All-Big Ten and Bednarik Watch nominee.
In all likelihood this will be the toughest defense Notre Dame faces in 2016. The one thing that might not make that true is the matchup coming in week 3. I'm not sure if the Spartans could overcome the loss of someone like Malik McDowell if he was injured before the trip to South Bend.
I haven't even mentioned the secondary yet where 5 out of the top 6 and 10 out of the top 12 players are back in the fold. Michigan State will also get a boost from the return of redshirt sophomore corner Vayante Copeland who started the first two games last year but missed the rest of the season with a neck injury.
Amazingly enough, Dantonio has a 6-year streak with a defense coming inside the Top 29 of the S&P rankings. Many folks think that for as much publicity as Narduzzi received for being DC it was always Dantonio who was the dominant voice for the Spartans defense.
I don't love their defensive line depth at all but with a player like McDowell that can be minimized. Plus, Michigan State always seems to find at least a couple athletes to play above their previous skill level and provide enough strength and power to stop the run. As always, Notre Dame better come ready to play on offense and expect a physical affair with the Spartans.