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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: A look at the 2016 defense



Defense wins championships — it is a manta football fans have all heard about a thousand times. However, the 2015 Michigan State Spartans showed exactly why the mantra is there in the first place.

MSU’s legacy in the Dantonio era was and is built on defense and 2016 won’t be any different, except for some of the cast of characters that look to make the Spartans defense feared once again. Names like Malik McDowell and Riley Bullough are back to make their own mark on this defense.

Still, plenty of parts from last season have departed and the stats show things weren’t as good as some remember them to be. Alabama’s 28-point second half in the College Football Playoff semi-final served as a cold shower to MSU’s defensive dominance.

Will it also be the catalyst towards a return to scary-good defense for the Michigan State Spartans? Let’s take a look at how this defense sets up for the 2016 season.


Defensive Line

The face of the Spartans defense for the last few years, Shilique Calhoun, is gone. However, the Spartans recruiting efforts as of late mean his shoes aren’t nearly as big to fill as those of his predecessors. Looking to take up the mantle as a feared pass rusher this season will be Demetrius Cooper, who just so happened to have an impressive sophomore season and finished second on the team with 5.0 sacks on the year.

Opposite of Cooper will likely be senior Evan Jones, who comes in to the season with just eight tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss in his career. To be fair, he’s been waiting a long time to climb up the depth chart and this will be his first time getting major playing time.

Luckily for the defensive ends, they won’t be the only ones counted on to produce up the field this season. That’s because star defensive tackle Malik McDowell has become a force in the run and pass games. His unique size and athletic ability make him an absolute matchup nightmare, especially because he isn’t just out there to eat up space like plenty of defensive tackles in a 4-3 defense are.

McDowell will team up with the intriguing sophomore Raequan Williams on the inside, and it could well be the Spartans’ best tandem on the inside during the

Outside of the starters, this group is very inexperienced and lost a ton of potential with the offseason departures of both defensive tackle Craig Evans and defensive end Montez Sweat. While there’s talent along the line, this group is thin on experience and at least Evans and Sweat had that heading in to the 2016 season.


While we all know that Riley Bullough is the established star of this linebacking corp, the good news is that he may not be the most talented of the three. That title could well belong to sophomore Andrew Dowell, who was just one of six true freshmen to see the field for the Spartans last season.

Most of that action was on the special teams side of things, but Dowell’s consistency there also earned him the trust of the coaching staff and he didn’t disappoint this spring.

Opposite of Dowell will be the solid, but underrated Jon Reschke,who finished his sophomore campaign with 75 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. Not shabby for a first season as a starter, and the combo of these three is a dangerous one in the Big Ten.

However, the depth is where this group shines. Look for names like Robert Bowers, T.J. Harrell and the third of the Bullough brothers, Byron, to get in the mix early in their careers.


Vayante Copeland‘s incredible return from a broken neck means the world to the Spartans secondary, and don’t be surprised to see him amongst the Big Ten’s best if his consistency from spring continues on in to the fall.

He isn’t the only one with star potential as both Demetrious Cox and Monte Nicholson have the potential to be nice backstops at safety. Cox had 79 tackles and three interceptions last season, earning him third team All-Big Ten by the coaches and honorable mention by the media.

The big mystery that needs to be solved will be who steps up and takes a hold of the second cornerback position. Early money is on Darian Hicks to be the likely starter, but expect a challenge to come from sophomore Tyson Smith along with Josh Butler as well.

Overall, this group has an interesting mix of experience and potential. With Copeland back in the mix don’t be surprised to see this group head back towards the level of the “no fly zone” secondaries of the past in East Lansing.


Questions That Still Need Answering

Who is the second cornerback?

Darian Hicks had the chance to show and prove last season, especially with Copeland out for a majority of the season. However, he didn’t really make a large jump as the season went along and ended the year without a single interception and had just three passes defensed on the year.

Those numbers opened up the competition for the second starting cornerback spot this offseason, and it has been an intriguing battle. It’s also one that Hicks hasn’t clearly one, and that’s troubling given his experience on the field and the lack of it from those behind him.

Of course, it’s also encouraging that a young group of cornerbacks behind Hicks and Copeland are stepping up to the plate. Watching to see what happens at the second cornerback spot will be a huge part of fall camp.

Just how deep is the defensive line?

Football often means injuries, and that is where quality and experienced depth come in really handy. The 2016 Michigan State Spartans defense doesn’t necessarily have the experienced part of the depth, but they could indeed have the quality.

However, this is a group of young players and injuries to key players like Malik McDowell and Demetrius Cooper could spell trouble, as the Spartans simply don’t have the pieces to replace them and the losses from the roster this offseason didn’t help matters.

If this group can prove that recruiting and quick coaching can work, the depth just may be there. Until we see it though, we’re in the “wait and see” category.


Projected Starters

DE: Demetrius Cooper, RS Jr.
DT: Malik McDowell, Jr.
DT: Raequon Williams, So.
DE: Evan Jones, Sr.
STAR: Andrew Dowell, So.
MIKE: Riley Bullough, Sr.
SAM: Jon Reschke, RS So.
CB: Darian Hicks, Sr.
SS: Montae Nicholson, Jr.
FS: Demetrious Cox, RS Sr.
CB: Vayante Copeland, RS So.

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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