On Sunday, we showed you our projection of Michigan State’s offensive depth chart for 2018.
It was pretty straightforward. Starters and backups return at nearly every position. Not much is expected to change. But things get a little trickier on defense. Michigan State has lost some impact makers at defensive end and linebacker and will have to look to some unproven players to fill the voids.
Still, there are plenty of players coming back from the group that ranked first in the Big Ten in rushing defense. Here’s how things might shake out next season.
Defensive end: Kenny Willekes, Dillon Alexander
Michigan State finds itself in a tough spot after losing Robert Bowers, Josh King, Lashawn Paulino-Bell and Auston Robertson in the last year. So once the opener comes around, the Spartans might have two former walk-ons starting. Kenny Willekes has emerged as a star, but Dillon Alexander has a lot to prove after recording 4 tackles in 2017. Jacub Panasiuk will likely back up Willekes on the strong side, and this might be the year Brandon Randle breaks through as a pass rusher on the weak side.
No. 2: Jacub Panasiuk, Brandon Randle
Defensive tackle: Mike Panasiuk, Raequan Williams
They started together to close out their freshman seasons. They started together all throughout 2017. And now Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams will surely do it all again with the stranglehold they’ve put on the tackle spots. Behind them, Gerald Owens and Naquan Jones return. Jones is a fast-rising star, and Michigan State will need to find ways to get him on the field more. This is yet another position of great depth and experience for the Spartans.
No. 2: Gerald Owens, Naquan Jones
“Star” linebacker: Andrew Dowell
Andrew Dowell has held down this position for several years now. It’s his until someone proves otherwise, and that looks unlikely this year. He had 74 tackles as a junior, second on the team, and Antjuan Simmons backed him up with 34 tackles in an outstanding freshman campaign.
No. 2: Antjuan Simmons
Middle linebacker: Joe Bachie
It’s tough to imagine how Joe Bachie could improve on his breakout sophomore season. He had 100 tackles, 3½ sacks, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and a recovery. He still has All-Big Ten first-team and All-America honors to pursue, but a Big Ten title is probably more important. He’ll be backed up by Byron Bullough, who returns for his senior year.
No. 2: Byron Bullough
“Money” linebacker: Tyriq Thompson
Tyriq Thompson has a lot on his shoulders. He finished with 11 tackles in 2017 but didn’t get the reps he might have wanted behind senior captain Chris Frey. If he makes a big jump, Michigan State will be in business. Behind him, plenty of questions remain. Can true freshman Chase Kline step in and make an impact? He certainly has the talent.
No. 2: Chase Kline
Cornerback: Justin Layne, Josiah Scott
No questions here. Michigan State’s two starters and two backups return to try to recreate the “No Fly Zone” in the secondary. Justin Layne, originally recruited as a wide receiver, has become a regular in the defensive backfield, while Josiah Scott played as big a role as any true freshman has under coach Mark Dantonio. Josh Butler and Tyson Smith are capable backups who have dealt with their fair share of adversity since coming to Michigan State. Butler’s father died during the 2017 season, and Smith suffered and recovered from a stroke going into the year.
No. 2: Josh Butler, Tyson Smith
Safety: David Dowell, Khari Willis
Khari Willis has been a mainstay at safety, while David Dowell earned his role by proving himself to be a takeaway machine. He had 5 interceptions and a fumble recovery on the year and recorded 52 tackles while Willis had 71. Matt Morrissey and Grayson Miller are likely to retain their No. 2 spots, but Tre Person and Dominique Long made their presence felt as true freshmen in 2017.
No. 2: Matt Morrissey, Grayson Miller