Mel Tucker’s defense was rather disappointing in 2021, but his Michigan State football team will improve drastically in that regard.
When you go down the list of numbers from a season ago, Michigan State football looks solid on both sides of the ball until you get to ‘passing defense’ and ‘total defense.’
The Spartans had a top-50 offense and a top-40 scoring offense to go along with the No. 54 scoring defense and the nation’s 15th-best rushing defense. And then you keep going and things get ugly. The passing defense was dead-last in college football, ranking No. 130 and the total defense was No. 111 in the country — both were worst in the Big Ten.
With a coaching staff that is loaded with great defensive minds, this was unacceptable.
Don’t fret, though, things will turn around quickly in 2022.
Mel Tucker is taking on more responsibilities, putting himself in charge of coaching cornerbacks. As a former cornerback as well as national title-winning defensive coordinator himself, this move just made sense.
Harlon Barnett is still the defensive backs coach, but Tucker has moved over to help out. There’s no excuse for finishing last in college football in passing defense with the talent that was on the roster. Sure, there were some injuries throughout the year, but every team suffers that same fate. Teams did also attempt their most passes in a single game against the Spartans regularly all year — but still, no excuse for the numbers.
This group is going to undoubtedly improve this season.
To help out, Michigan State has brought in Ameer Speed from Georgia to start at cornerback alongside former Alabama corner Ronald Williams. Charles Brantley, Justin White, and Marqui Lowery provide some solid depth there along with incoming freshman Caleb Coley (who I’m most excited about) and Ade Willie who Tucker has praised this week.
Xavier Henderson returns at safety to lead the defensive backfield as one of the best in the Big Ten at the position. Angelo Grose will line up alongside him and he’s going to have a nice bounce-back year. Kendell Brooks, Jaden Mangham, and Dillon Tatum provide solid depth there as well.
Finally, at nickelback, the Spartans have Florida transfer Chester Kimbrough who struggled a bit last year along with a guy I’m excited to see get a chance: AJ Kirk.
I’m not expecting just a 20-30 spot improvement in passing defense from last year, I’m expecting the Spartans to be somewhere in the 60-70 range nationally. There’s too much talent here to be any lower.
Now let’s get to the front-seven.
Jacob Slade might be the team’s best defender and one of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten. He leads one of the top-three defensive lines in the conference with Khris Bogle transferring in from Florida to finally have his potential tapped into and 2021 breakout star Jeff Pietrowski.
Depth up front is wildly impressive:
- Tank Brown, Edge
- Brandon Wright, Edge
- Michael Fletcher, Edge
- Zion Young, DL
- Alex VanSumeren, DL
- Simeon Barrow, DT
- Maverick Hansen, DT
- Jalen Hunt, DT
- Dashaun Mallory, DT
- Derrick Harmon, DT
And that’s not even really getting into all of the pieces. There are some other young guys who could provide depth there but when you have 10-plus starting-caliber defensive linemen, you have to be pleased. Brandon Jordan is also going to squeeze all the talent out of these guys and we should see the line take a massive step from an already-impressive group to a great one.
OK, so defensive line depth is great, but linebacker depth is elite.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these names:
- Cal Haladay
- Aaron Brule
- Jacoby Windmon
- Darius Snow
- Ben VanSumeren
- Ma’a Gaoteote
- Quavian Carter
- Tank Brown (can also play here)
In a 4-2-5 defense, this is just an embarrassment of wealth at linebacker. The two transfers, Brule and Windmon, may be the best of the bunch, but Haladay was a Freshman All-American, and Snow moved over from safety/nickel and just has that it factor.
This front-seven is going to be really, really good. And vastly improved.
Michigan State has some dudes at every position and if the offense can take another step forward with the defense catching up, the sky is the limit for this team.
I expect Michigan State to finish in the top half of college football in total defense and so should you.