B1G 40: Can Spartans weather loss of defensive playmakers?

B1G 40: Can Spartans weather loss of defensive playmakers?
June 18, 2014, 9:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

Can the Spartans weather the loss of some of their top defensive playmakers?

Michigan State had one of the nation’s best defenses a season ago, allowing an unbelievably low 13.2 points per game to opponents. Opposing offenses averaged just 252.2 yards per game, 165.5 passing and only 86.6 rushing. The All-Big Ten teams were littered with Spartan defenders. Six different players made either the coaches or media first or second teams. It’s the main reason why Michigan State won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl and finished as the No. 3 team in both the AP and coaches polls.

But that defense is not returning intact.

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All in all, the Spartans lose six starters. Of those aforementioned six players on the All-Big Ten teams, four have moved on: cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Max Bullough, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. While the other two — defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun and safety Kurtis Drummond — are projected to be among the best defensive players in college football this season, will Michigan State be able to overcome the loss of those departed stars?

The Spartans will be breaking in a pair of new starters at linebacker, and the one returning starter, Taiwan Jones, will be moving from outside to middle. The secondary will be a bit more stable with Drummond and returning cornerback Trae Waynes, but there will be two new starters there, too, as there will be on the defensive line (though Calhoun and Marcus Rush are anchors on the ends).

Still, Bullough was the leader of the defense. Dennard was the best cornerback in the country. These were more than just talented players.

But there’s another reason Michigan State’s defense was one of the nation’s best. The Spartans emerged from the offseason still counting Pat Narduzzi as their defensive coordinator, perhaps somewhat of a surprise given the amount of times his name surfaced in head-coaching rumors. It’s huge that Narduzzi, considered by many to be the Big Ten’s best assistant, is back with the green and white.

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It's Narduzzi, though, who might be the most skeptical. He wasn't too impressed with his unit this spring, saying this in a video that went up on Michigan State's website:

"Really, nothing has impressed me about these guys right now. I'm impressed with some of our returning starters, and really they have progressed through the years,'' Narduzzi said in the video. "But really, you talk about defense, it's 11 guys doing the things you want them to do.

"Is their hustle impressive? Not yet. Is their knowledge impressive? Not yet. The total talent on the field right now is not impressive, but it will be, we'll get it to be where we want it to be. But it's not where we want it to be.''

That's not the most ringing endorsement. At least the returning starters got their due from the defensive coordinator, and it figures to be the returning guys that step up to be the next group of leaders. Calhoun was astounding last season, at one point accounting for more touchdowns than the Spartans’ passing game. He finished with 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, plus a pair of forced fumbles and an interception. Drummond had 91 tackles and four picks. Narduzzi mentioned both in the video as players stepping up to lead.

There's reason to be concerned, especially when you hear from Narduzzi. But this is still a talented group, and it’s expected to be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten and nationwide.