Michigan State Defense
In 2005, the Michigan State defense was a weak spot for the team. Three times the defense gave up more than 40 points in a game. The Spartans ranked 77th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average of 28.7 points per game. They were equally poor defending the pass and the run, allowing 244.9 yards per game through the air, and 164.6 yards per game on the ground. In 2006, it will be the play of the defense that decides how well the team will do in the long run. Stanton and the offense are going to score points. The question however, is can defense make enough plays to allow the Spartans to be competitive?
Defensive line is an obvious problem area that Coach John L. Smith will need to address in 2006. Not only are they low on talent, but they have very limited experience. The Spartans will replace two starters along the defensive line next season. In 2005, the MSU defensive line struggled getting to the opposing quarterback. Of the 16 total team sacks, the Michigan State defensive line only accounted for six. These statistics will need to change if the Spartans expect to win more games in 2006.
Junior DE Clifton Ryan led the team with 3 sacks. With 34 total tackles, he will also be the top returning tackler on the defensive line. The other starting defensive end slot could go to redshirt sophomore Justin Kershaw. He was second amongst all defensive linemen with one sack.
At defensive tackle, there is very limited experience returning for the Spartans in 2006. Gone are starters Domata Peko and Brandon McKinney. One player that could become the starter is senior David Stanton. Stanton transferred to MSU from the College of the Canyons in California before last season. He was a big recruit for the Spartans when he came to East Lansing and Coach Smith will look to Stanton to live up to the hype in 2006. Another player who could emerge at defensive tackle is junior Joe Toth. Toth recorded three tackles in limited action in 2005.
As much as the Spartan defensive line is a weakness, the linebacking corps is strength. The starters are fast, athletic playmakers who can get all over the field.
Senior David Herron finished 2005 second on the team in total tackles with 65. He also had two sacks. Herron arrived in East Lansing as a fullback, but has converted to the defense nicely. The position change has paid dividends as Herron has been a full time starter since 2003. In fact, he was the only returning starter to last year's unit. Look for David Herron to be the leader of the Spartan defense.
Also look for junior Kaleb Thornhill. He emerged on the scene during his freshman year in 2004 when he started four games. At 6-1 240 pounds, Thornhill is a versatile player who can play middle linebacker as well as the roaming "bandit" linebacker used in Coach Smith's defensive system. In 2005, Thornhill was third on the team with 63 total tackles, four of which were for a loss.
SirDarean Adams not only has the best name on the team. He could also be the Spartans' best athlete. In high school, he ran a 40-yard dash of 4.42 seconds. He broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2005. His statistics from this past season are indicative of Adams' athletic ability. Adams was fourth on the team with 60 tackles, tied for second with two sacks, and his three interceptions and two forced fumbles led the entire Spartan defense.
If the Michigan State defense improves in 2006, it will be due to the performance and leadership of the linebackers.
The Spartans will replace a starting cornerback and safety in 2006. At safety, the Spartans are led by senior Greg Cooper. Cooper has been a contributor since his freshman season when he started three games. In 2005, Cooper had 48 total tackles and one sack. As a leader of the secondary, it will be up to Cooper to help improve a group that allowed opponents to throw for 25 touchdown passes in 2005. However he will be doing it with a group of young, inexperienced players. The other starting safety position could go to Otis Wiley. He is an athletic safety with great size (6-2), who in 2005 had 18 tackles, one sack, one interception, and one fumble recovery.
One player who got some experience at cornerback in 2005 was junior Demond Williams. Williams transferred to Michigan State last year form Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He made an impact on defense where he had 29 tackles, two pass deflections, and one interception. The other starting cornerback position will be up for grabs and should be decided in spring practice and fall camp.
Coach Smith has one asset that many other coaches absolutely covet, a great punter. Senior Brandon Fields returns to the Spartans next year as one of the best punters in the country. In 2005, Fields had a 41.6 yard average per punt. He also had five touchbacks. In addition to being a solid punter, Fields handled the majority of the kickoffs in 2005. Fields' ability to pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory will be a huge bonus for a team that has struggled defensively.
Kickoff and punt return duties will be handled by two of the Spartans' speediest receivers. Senior Jerramy Scott should be the main threat in kick returns. In 2005, Scott averaged 19.5 yards on six kick returns. Look for junior Terry Love to continue as a solid punt returner. Love handled the majority of punts in 2005 averaging, 8.7 yards per return.
As much as the Michigan State offense was efficient in 2005, the Spartan defense struggled to stop opponents from scoring. They need to do everything better – get more pressure on the quarterback, read offenses, and create turnovers. Even the slightest improvement should help this team. With an offense as explosive as the Spartans', it won't take much to keep them in the game. Doesn't that sound familiar?