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An early look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans defense

Michigan State’s defense returned to form in 2017, what does 2018 have in store for the signature side of the ball under Dantonio?

From the bottom to the top, now can they stay there? The Michigan State Spartans had one of the biggest turnarounds in conference history in 2017 and nearly pulled off an improbable East division title en route to a 10-3 season.

It was a return back to the top after a year of turmoil on and off the field. But, we’re not so interested in the past here. Instead, we want to look forward to 2018 and what the Spartans may have up their sleeves for the season to come.

We start our look forward with an in-depth look at what 2018 holds for the Spartan Dawgs a.k.a. the Michigan State defense.

Biggest Question Mark:

How does coaching change affect the Spartans?

The hallmark of Mark Dantonio’s era at Michigan State has been its dominating defensive performances. MSU got back to that level for the most part in 2017, but it came at a price as reports indicate that defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett is taking the same job with Florida State. (later confirmed here)

Michigan State must now find a quality replacement for the second time in Dantonio’s time in East Lansing. Barnett was an obvious hire after the departure of Pat Narduzzi for the Pitt head coaching gig. This blow is much different, as it is a lateral move (although probably for more money).

Barnett did a fabulous job turning around this defense and it will be a veteran group for the most part. However, coaching changes can be interesting to watch, even if they happen internally. Chemistry and fit are important factors, and even having a coach jump up internally from a position level to coordinator can mess with that.

Should the reports be true, Michigan State faces a massive question in front of itself. Barnett wasn’t some fly-by-night coach under Dantonio, he was a loyal assistant who came with the head coach from Cincinnati and has been on staff in East Lansing in some capacity since 2014. He’s also a former All-American at Michigan State.

It’s likely that Barnett wanted the sole ownership of a defense, as he shared coordinator duties with Mike Tressel since Narduzzi’s departure. Will Tressel step in as sole defensive coordinator and is that a wise move? Most sources I speak with indicate that Barnett was a powerful figure in the locker room and amongst the defensive players, so there is going to a major void to be filled by Tressel or someone else that is brought in.

Reason to be Optimistic:

Have you seen that front seven?

Michigan State’s rise back towards the best defenses in the country can be pinpointed to one thing and one thing only in 2017 — great defensive line play. So, it’s only right to look up front to see how things would stack up heading in to 2018.

So, it’s easy to be optimistic about whatever happens for the Spartans defense this upcoming season when you see that three of four starters return. Soon-to-be junior defensive linemen Raequan Williams and Kenny Willekes stepped up in a huge way in 2017 and are poised to be stars in the Big Ten this upcoming season. Willekes was named third team All-Big Ten and could be one of the best returning defensive linemen in the conference.

The loss of Demetrius Cooper is going to be felt, as he racked up 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season. But, it was more of his overall motor that will be hard to replace.

But, that is a minor issue to say the least and one that depth showed could be overcome even this past season. That’s the real reason to be optimistic about Michigan State’s defense — names like Jacub Panasiuk and Naquon Jones were big in reserve roles this past season.

Look for this unit to be the biggest strength of the team.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

Coaching Change for an O.K. Secondary

Uncertainty in the back end of a defense can lead to all sorts of trouble. So, this is less about being pessimistic than it is about being cautious. But, with the loss of Barnett as co-defensive coordinator also comes the loss of him as the secondary coach.

This group has been the hallmark of the toughness and aggressiveness MSU has become known for on defense. Barnett’s personality and coaching of the aggressive secondary was a large part of that identity and now he is gone.

There is another reason to possibly pick this group — stats. On the one hand, this group finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. On the other hand, Michigan State was good at picking off the ball and finished fourth in the conference with 14 interceptions as a team, and was a really green secondary in 2017.

But, with Barnett gone this group sees a big leadership vacuum come in to the fold. For the past 14 seasons, no one had to wonder who was coaching this group, but now they do.

If there’s a reason to perhaps see 2018 as not great for the Spartans defense, it could be that the changes on the coaching staff affect the secondary more than people realize.

Let’s see what kind of personal leadership is there from the players in the secondary group themselves. Perhaps they pull together through this change and come out stronger…or

Projected Starting Lineup:

DE: Kenny Willekes, Jr.
DT: Mike Panasiuk, Jr.
DT: Raequan Williams, Jr.
DE: Jacub Panasiuk, So.
STAR: Andrew Dowell, Sr.
MIKE: Joe Bachie, Jr.
SAM: Brandon Randle, So.
CB: Justin Layne, Jr.
FS: David Dowell, Jr.
SS: Khari Wills, Sr.
CB: Josiah Scott, So.

Overall Outlook:

Harlon Barnett’s departure is a big one, and while it is tempting to think that things will remain the same for MSU’s defense, I’m a little worried about this loss.

One big reason is that Barnett’s ability to get the most out of the secondary has ben a highlight of the Spartans defense throughout the Dantonio era. Can whomever they hire come in and maintain that level f coaching and development of players?

But, the good news for the Spartans is that they return a ton of talent in the front seven, talent that was young and proved it was up to the challenge. Look for that front seven to be the catalyst for an impressive MSU defense in 2018…as long as it doesn’t lose its personality with Barnett now gone.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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