Previewing the MSU Defense

GoBlueWolverine's Josh Turel breaks down the Michigan State defense by analyzing the Spartan personnel.

Team Ranks
Total Defense: 8th, 1,654 yards against, 330.8 yards a game
Scoring Defense: 8th, 123 points against, 24.6 points per game
Pass Defense: 10th, 1,119 yards against, 12 touchdowns, 223.8 yards per game
Run Defense: 3rd, 535 yards against, 107 yards per game
Sacks For: 11th, seven sacks for 37 yards
Red Zone Defense: 10th (tied) 13-13, 100% scoring

Statistical Leaders:
Otis Wiley: 38 tackles, four tackles for loss, five pass breakups
Nehemiah Warrick: 32 tackles, one tackle for loss
Clifton Ryan: three sacks, four and half tackles for loss
Demond Williams: two interceptions

Defensive Strategy:

The Michigan State defense seems to change each week depending on the opponent. Against Notre Dame the Spartans were very aggressive early in the game, bringing an array of safeties and linebackers.  The very next week they sent hardly any blitzes against Illinois. The zone blitz was something that worked well for the Spartans against Notre Dame, but again, they didn’t use it much last week against the Illini.

The team plays a 4-3 even front with the “bandit linebacker” aligning wide to the tight end side against two wide receiver sets.  He aligns over the third wide receiver in a three wide receiver set. The front will usually work away from the bandit linebacker to provide a contain defender on the weak side. The Spartans don’t substitute much against spread sets because a lack of depth.  Instead, they move their defensive backfield around and play zone. MSU did do a good job of mixing coverages against Illinois, but they need to do a better job of executing them. If they are aggressive, expect to see primarily man. Their main coverage is a form of cover three.  They will also play man to one side and zone to the other to give the quarterback a different post snap read. The safeties usually play at a depth of nine to twelve yards off the line of scrimmage and the short side cornerback is rolled up with the wide side cornerback at a depth of eight to ten yards off the ball. I anticipate they will use this coverage to roll a safety over Mario Manningham (who usually aligns to the short side in two wide receiver sets).

Defensive Line

Stud End
#19 Justin Kershaw  6-4, 254, So.
#94 Jonal Saint-Dic  6-1, 260, Jr.

Rush End
#51 Ervin Baldwin  6-2, 252, Jr.
#47 Brandon Long  6-4, 244, So.

Defensive Tackle
#92 Clifton Ryan  6-2, 302, Sr.
#98 Bobby Jones  6-4, 302, Jr.

Defensive Tackle
#99 Ogemdi Nwagbuo  6-4, 297, Jr.
#17 David Stanton  6-3, 290, Sr.

This group really struggled against Illinois and needs to step up against Michigan and improve on their performance. The star of the unit is tackle Clifton Ryan. Ryan is the most experienced player up front, and it shows.  He has nice quickness inside and also has polish on his pass rush moves. His tag team partner inside is JUCO transfer Ogemdi Nwagbuo. Nwagbuo has very good measurables for the position, but he lacks technique and block-shedding ability. He too often stops moving his feet and gets complacent when getting blocked. Backups David Stanton and Bobby Jones have nice size, but just haven’t shown much yet.

The pass rush for the Spartans has only produced seven sacks, which ranks dead last in the Big Ten. Strongside end Justin Kershaw is one of the Spartans up front that needs to help bring more heat on the quarterback. Kershaw is more of a brute run stopper, which the position calls for, but he lacks the ideal athleticism to challenge offensive tackles. Weakside rush end Ervin Baldwin was another talented JUCO transfer the Spartans picked up.  He has shown some potential thus far, having returned an interception for a touchdown against the Irish. Baldwin certainly has the tools to become a standout rush man, but just like the rest of the defensive trench, he needs to get off blocks more consistently. 

Whip Linebacker
#41 David Herron Jr.  6-1, 245, Sr.
#55 Adam Decker  6-2, 240, Fr.

Bandit Linebacker
#27 SirDarean Adams  6-0, 230, Jr.
#42 Rob Tabatchnick  5-11, 206, Jr.

Mike Linebacker
#43 Kaleb Thornhill  6-1, 239, Jr.
#49 Steven Juarez  6-1, 232, Sr.

This unit has been rather disappointing so far this season. Inside linebackers David Herron Jr. and Kaleb Thornhill have a good mixture of toughness and experience, but both struggled mightily against Illinois. Each of them have fallen into streaks where they don’t take proper angles to the ball and lose leverage on the ball-carrier. Neither one is great in coverage, but they have shown steady progression in being in better position throughout their careers. SirDarean Adams fit’s the “bandit” linebacker position well from a speed and size perspective, but like his fellow linebackers, he needs to improve in pursuit. Adams has been inconsistent guarding the flats because of his flat angles to the ball and he doesn’t leverage the ball inside enough. He has shown to be a playmaker in the past, but must improve on his fundamentals to become a complete player. Steven Juarez is the best of the reserve linebackers and could see some rotation at mike linebacker.


Field Side Cornerback
#29 Greg Cooper  5-11, 186, Sr.
#34 Jelani Nantambo  5-9, 186, So.

Boundary Side Cornerback
#9 Demond Williams  5-9, 174, Sr.
#38 Kendell Davis-Clark  5-11, 195, So.
Strong Safety
#3 Nehemiah Warrick  6-1, 203, Jr.
#13 Travis Key  5-10, 185, Jr.
Free Safety
#21 Otis Wiley  6-2, 209, So.
#33 Dan Fortener  6-1, 191, Fr.

This unit is susceptible to the big play and was absolutely lit up against Notre Dame. Short side cornerback Demond Williams has outstanding quickness and break on the ball skills, but lacks size, physicality, and man coverage skills. Williams is at his best when the play is in front of him.  If the Wolverine can isolate him in a jump ball situation or in man coverage, they could work this mismatch. Former Wolverine Greg Cooper is the starter at wide side cornerback. The Flint (MI) native gave up a big play against Illinois but may be the more complete cornerback than Williams. Cooper has good size for the position and generally plays the run the best of the cornerbacks. He also is good in zone coverage.  The Wolverines will look to capitalize on any man coverage they get with him on Steve Breaston.

The safeties also struggled with the deep play against Notre Dame, but they are young developing players. Strong safety Nehemiah Warrick is a talented JUCO transfer that is slowly settling in to the position. The Spartans like to use him in a lot of ways, including blitzes and underneath coverage. Warrick has been fairly solid against the run, but still needs to improve on his angles and tackling technique. Otis Wiley shows good tools and instincts for the free safety position, but is still a bit raw in the discipline department. He has made some nice plays so far this year, but can be susceptible to play action and misplaying coverages. 

Special Teams

 #8 Brandon Fields  6-6, 235, Sr.

 #14 Brett Swenson  5-8, 151

Kick Returner
#9 Demond Williams  5-9, 174, Sr.
#2 Diego Oquendo  5-9, 178, So.
Punt Returner
#18 Terry Love  5-11, 177, Jr.
#3 Nehemiah Warrick  6-1, 203, Jr.

Punter Brandon Fields can be inconsistent punting the football, but he is averaging a solid 44.5 yards per punt this season.

Kicker Brett Swenson has seems to have cured Michigan State’s kicking woes. Swenson is seven of eight thus far with his only miss coming from 51 yards out.

The return units have been decent with the Spartans having two explosive athletes in Terry Love and Demond Williams back as return men.

The Kickoff coverage unit needs work, ranking dead last in the Big Ten averaging a little over 39 yards net yards per kick.

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