Michigan State knew it had holes to replace at defensive tackles after last year’s Rose Bowl.
Through six games, their improvement has been notable to coach Mark Dantonio.
”I have been impressed with our defensive tackle performance inside,” Dantonio said. “(Thomas) had a good fall thus far, he's quick bodied and I think he's playing with effort in there and I think he's been extremely solid in there.”
Heath said the transition from defensive end to tackle has taken an adjustment but he and Thomas have made quick strides.
“The improvement from both of our standpoints has been tremendous,” Heath said. “In terms of using our hands, getting off the ball, explosion, absolutely a head over heels difference.”
Thomas, a former 5-star linebacker, has been waiting to see the field consistently after dealing with injuries and moving from fullback to defensive end before finally finding a home at defensive tackle.
Thomas and Heath have started all six games for the Spartans this season, with Thomas accumulating nine total tackles on the season and two sacks and Heath with 13 total tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss and half-sack so far.
Junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun has seen a lot of improvement in Heath and Thomas after a “shaky” start to the season.
”They’ve definitely been maintaining their gap a lot more, definitely a lot stronger,” Calhoun said. “When they first got in there it was there first time really starting and it was kind of shaky.
”But I feel as if as the games went on, they’ve gotten better and better. They’ve taken responsibility that this is my gap, I have to make sure that no one runs in here and if they do I have to make a play on it.”
Dantonio also spoke of senior defensive tackle Damon Knox, who still is “getting back into it” after being out for nearly six months for an undisclosed injury.
“This past week, he started to play and then, you know, had to pull himself out for a second,” he said. “But he'll be capable of playing this week and we'll continue to get reps from game I don't know, but I think he's a solid performer in there right now.”
Heath said the return of Knox brings the Spartans more consistency, depth and overall excellence to the defense.
“I really think we’re becoming more of a consistent D-line,” Heath said. “In terms of having enough guys to be able to fill those plays, knowing that we have guys to come in and we know that they’ll make the play for us.”
Calhoun said Knox’s return is more important while playing an up-tempo team like Indiana.
”Rotation is key on defense,” he said. “Especially against the Indiana offense, fast paced, even against slower offenses, guys are going to need breaks at times.
“So to have that rotation to have people that are going to come in and there’s not going to be a letdown, it’s definitely key to a defense.”
Calhoun said after the game was the first time he was really proud of Thomas and Heath.
”Just watching those guys advance each and every week, I told Joel and LT after that Purdue game, ‘Man, I’m proud to call you guys my D-tackles,’” he said. “It makes me so happy just to see them improving, because I know their talent level and I know how good they are.
“So to just see them work on the field, it’s finally all coming together.”