Suspensions, academics and underachievement have the Spartans staff scrambling to put together a representative defense.
"The defensive side of the ball is crucial for us," acknowledged Smith. "We must be able to step up and stop our opponents - it's that simple for our success. I think we will be better prepared offensively; however, I'm very excited with what we see happening defensively as well."
Senior Jaren Hayes, who was supposed to be the starting corner, has been suspended indefinitely for off-the-field incidents. With Hayes donning the cover of the Spartans media guide, the suspension is an embarassment to the program.
With Hayes unavailable it is expected that Pima, AZ junior-college transfer Demond Williams will eventually win the job and become the starting corner opposite Ashton Watson although the Spartans currently list Travis Key as the starter.
Smith had earlier decided to move senior strong safety Eric Smith, a stalwart in MSU defensive backfield, to bandit but deftly reversed field and decided to sink-or-swim with Sir Darean Adams, a prized recruit from Bradenton, FL. Adams will be thrown into the fire and Smith will return to try to add a steadying influence to a shaky secondary.
"Right now, [Adams] is penciled in to a starting role at the bandit position," announced defensive coordinator Chris Smeland.
"Other new faces [that could move into the playing group] include Demond Williams and a guy that we have moved over from the offensive side of the ball in Irving Campbell, who will be competing for one of those cornerback spots. We have guys that have come off of walk-on situations like Travis Key. We are looking to find out who is going to line up for us out there at the edge and who is going to get the job done for us."
The Spartans continue to await word on whether Haywood Howard, a freshman defensive tackle from New Orleans will qualify. The Spartans had hoped Howard might be able to fight for playing time in a thin group up front.
That group is led by junior Clifton Ryan who appears to be taking a more vocal leadership position. Ryan spoke out to his teammates about the rash of off-the-field incidents that plagued the Spartans this offseason.
Joining Ryan across the front are fellow seniors Domata Peko, Brandon McKinney and Michael Bazemore at the two defensive tackle spots. Smeland admitted the Spartans will rely heavily on their seniors to produce and stay healthy.
"We have five seniors that we are excited about," said Smeland. "If we are going to have a good season as a defensive football team, all five seniors have to have a big year. We are counting on those guys to do that: Mike Bazemore, Domata Peko, Brandon McKinney, Ashton Watson and Eric Smith. All five of those guys are expected to be starters."
With Adams taking over for the departed Tyrell Dortch at bandit, MSU will play a familar name, Thornhill, at middle linebacker. This time it's Kaleb the younger brother of former Spartan standout Josh.
The Spartans are hoping they can get something out of injury-proned Seth Mitchell, who's collegiate career could be over. "That's a prayer at best," said Smith of Mitchell. "I don't think we can count on that at all. If we get anything then it's icing on the cake."
Without Mitchell in the picture, junior David Herron, Jr. is expected to be the starter at the weakside
"We recruited a young man at one linebacker position: Steve Juarez, who played at L.A. Harbor College," added Smeland. "We had a little bit of a depth problem at depth last year. We expect Steve to come in and give us that depth right there and be productive, so we are excited about these (JC) guys and we're counting on them to contribute on the defensive side of the ball."
MSU has talent, but a few injuries could spell doom for the Spartans. "I'm kind of agreeing with Coach Smith in the fact that the defense has got to come along. I think everyone feels good about the offense being able to score points and get the ball into the end zone, but on every championship-caliber football team - I don't care if your offense scores 50 points - your defense had better be pretty darn good," said Smeland.
"You look at conference standings year in and year out and the top two or three teams in the conference defensively are always going to January bowl games because they play great defense. It motivates us defensively to get the ball back into the offense's hands because if it can score 50, we have a good chance of getting wins."