The Spartans defense was not up to par last season. Michigan State allowed 33.2 points per game, 39.2 in Big Ten games and an astounding 44.8 in six conference losses. The Spartans were particularly poor against the run, yielding more yards than all but seven teams in the country. Michigan State was adequate against the pass, but only one starter returns in the secondary. The Spartans did not make enough big plays and perhaps worst for a young unit—the team yielded progressively more to opponents as the season progressed.
As with the Spartans team in general, however, the x-factor is new coach John L. Smith. How will his new style change Michigan State's fortunes? The question is very difficult to answer at this point. Smith employs an attacking style of defense, consistently rushing at least five players. With an experienced front seven that was torn apart against the run last season, something has to change.
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 33.2 (96)
Rushing yards allowed: 213.8 (110)
Yards per carry: 4.73
Passing yards allowed: 188.83 (30)
Yards per pass: 6.78
Total defense, yards allowed: 402.67 (83)
Yards per play: 5.52
Turnovers forced: 19—six fumbles forced, 13 INT
Sacks: 19 for 113 yards.
Defensive Line Analysis:
All four starters return to a unit that must show improvement. The pass rush needs improvement, but an increased sack total should come with Smith's attacking style. If it does not and the extra man out of coverage is exposed, the Spartans are going to suffer many long afternoons.
More importantly, especially for Smith's defensive philosophy, the Spartans must improve against the run, and that starts up front, where Michigan State was obliterated last season.
Five defensive tackles received starts last season, and all five return this year. The starters are a pair of juniors—312-pound Brandon McKinney and 294-pound Matthias Askew—each of whom received four starts last season. McKinney contributed 26 tackles, 3.5 for loss and two sacks last season, while Askew added 46-6-1.
The top reserves at tackle all have ample starting experience. Kyle Rasmussen has started 28 games, including all 12 last season—eight at tackle and four at end. The 303-pound senior will be a top reserve across the line this season. He led the defensive tackles with 49 stops last year. 269-pound junior Greg Yeaster started the season's last two games at tackle and finished the year with 13 tackles. Another junior, 298-pound Kevin Vickerson, had six starts, and 42-6-1.
Senior Greg Taplin is starting for the third consecutive season at defensive end. The 259-pounder contributed 38-2-2 in 2002. Joining him at end is 264-pound junior Clifford Dukes, who displayed a reasonable ability to disrupt the backfield last season, leading the Spartans with four sacks and tallying 8.5 TFL, second on Michigan State's defense.
The top reserve at end is 279-pound redshirt freshman Clifton Ryan, who had two tackles a year ago.
Far and away the best defensive unit, the Spartans linebackers should provide adequate to good production. All four starters return and Smith's defense provides four spots for them, even if three will be on the field at any one time.
234-pound junior Ronald Stanley, who started on the weakside last season, moves to the middle, or MIKE ‘backer, spot this year. He is the Spartans' top returning tackler, recording 99 stops last season. Entering his third year as a starter, Stanley also led the team with 9 TFL.
Moving from the middle to the strongside is 270-pound Mike Labinjo, who recorded 62-5-1 last season. Labinjo started at the SAM position two seasons ago.
A couple of twists for the Spartans defense are more than mere monikers. 249-pound sophomore Seth Mitchell, who started five of the last six games at middle linebacker last season, moves to the newly renamed WHIP position, replacing the old WILL spot on the depth chart. As the name suggests, Mitchell, who had 29 tackles, will play a more active role from this spot.
At times, MSU will replace the SAM ‘backer with a BANDIT linebacker, Monquiz Wedlow. The 199-pound senior was third on the team with 90 tackles last year and also recorded three sacks, starting 11 games last season.
Michigan State gave up the third fewest yard through the air of any team in the Big Ten last season, but only Indiana allowed more passing touchdowns (23) than the Spartans 22. Michigan State's coverage units certainly could have benefited from a better pass rush, and this year will be no different in that regard. This season, however, the Spartans have to replace four of their top five defensive backs. The unit has talent, but there is a dearth of experience.
The long returning starter in the secondary is 195-pound junior free safety Jason Harmon, who boasts nine career starts and 2002 numbers that included 64 tackles and three interceptions. Joining Harmon is 196-pound sophomore Eric Smith, who should be solid at strong safety.
Smith prefers to leave his corners in man coverage, allowing him to be more aggressive up front. Thus, plenty of attention will be drawn toward new starters Ashton Watson and Roderick Maples. Both are athletic, especially Watson, a 6-0, 177-pound player who can fly. According to Smith, Maples had the best spring he has ever witnessed from a corner. So perhaps there is hope for Michigan State's aggressive scheme.
If nothing else, Michigan State's defense will be more exciting than last season's version. The team may still give up plenty of yards, perhaps in a more balanced fashion this season, but the Spartans will likely make more big plays once Smith's defense is implemented. With a talented group of linebackers, an aggressive, attacking scheme would appear the best medicine for an ailing unit. Still, do not expect Michigan State to stop too many teams in their tracks.