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Michigan State Football: Projected playing time for defensive freshmen

How much will these freshmen play in 2024?

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Michigan State football
© Eric Rueb/Providence Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Now, I move onto the defensive side of the ball for Michigan State football. How much do I think these signees will be playing this fall?

In my other article, I broke down the projected time for the Michigan State football signees on the offensive side of the ball. If you would like to see my projections on Nick Marsh, Rustin Young, and the other members on that side of the ball, click here. I’d highly recommend it.

Today, we will be looking at members on the defensive side. I will be giving some information to know the prospect by, and then breaking down their route to the field. Of note, there are two athletes in Michigan State’s class right now who have signed. Both Keshawn Williams and Andrew Brinson IV were introduced as defensive backs during Jonathan Smith’s National Signing Day press conference, so you will find them both here.

Note: Mikeshun Beeler committed right before signing day so I will have a breakdown of what to expect from him in the coming weeks.

Without further ado, let’s break down the playing time odds of the newest Michigan State football defenders.

  • Kekai Burnett, Edge

EDGE outlook

Losing: Jacoby Windmon, Zion Young
Returning: Khris Bogle, Bai Jobe, Brandon Wright (?), James Schott, Ken Talley, Andrew Depaepe, Avery Dunn, Jalen Thompson
Adding: Quindarius Dunnigan

Kekai Burnett is the second Hawaiian in this class, alongside offensive tackle Rustin Young. The Punahou High School product was another Jonathan Smith flip from Oregon State. Legi Suiaunoa pushed hard for Burnett, and he committed to the Spartans over a late push from BYU.

Burnett rates out as the highest defender on 247Sports from Michigan State football’s 2024 class. The composite is much, much lower. Burnett is rated No. 1,306 in the composite, and the No. 90 edge rusher. On 247Sports, Burnett’s player rating jumps to an 88, and he is the No. 41 edge rusher in the country.

He was named to the Polynesian Bowl alongside Young and helped lead Punahou to the state title game in 2022. He put up an impressive four sacks in a game this year as well and Punahou went on to win their division for the second year in a row.

Projection

Watching the tape on Burnett, the main thing that always stands out to me is the defender’s ability to remain fundamentally sound. Burnett has a high motor and is one of those players that make the defense work by the philosophy of “do your job.” This type of philosophy reminds me a lot of former Spartan Zion Young, who just left an opening in the roster by heading to Mizzou.

The Spartans are losing some of their top defensive talent this year, including Jacoby Windmon and Young. Both of these two spent a lot of time at the edge position in their time. Brandon Wright’s status is unknown for 2024, as he was a senior, but may have a COVID year remaining. If he indeed does, he also was carted off the field against Indiana in the MSU home finale last season. This, along with how Burnett’s tape reminds me of Zion Young, makes me think Burnett might play considerable time this year.

He will not be rushed onto the field, however. Michigan State football also brought in Quindarius Dunnigan in the portal, which aids that position.

Overall, the edge rusher room has a lot of bodies, but none proven. Khris Bogle has seen a lot of action when he has not had injury setbacks. Bai Jobe and Andrew Depaepe were highly-coveted recruits who saw little time in 2023. Ken Talley and Jalen Thompson have each seen the field as well but also worked as speed rushers on the defensive interior during the late-season contests. Avery Dunn had a few good games in 2022 but stepped back in 2023. James Schott is a player who saw sparing time all season and can not be written off yet.

Burnett has his work cut out for him, but I see him either forgoing a redshirt or being a player who sees the field for a lot of four games before being shut down for 2025.

  • Brady Pretzlaff, LB

LB outlook

Losing: Jacoby Windmon, Aaron Brule, Quavian Carter, Sam Edwards (?)
Returning: Jordan Hall, Cal Haladay, Ma’a Gaoteote, Darius Snow, Aaron Alexander, Jay Coyne
Adding: Jordan Turner, Wayne Matthews III

Brady Pretzlaff was another late flip that this staff garnered. However, instead of the Oregon State-to-Michigan State football route, Pretzlaff flipped with defensive coordinator Joe Rossi from Minnesota. The in-state product was a long-standing commit to Rossi and PJ Fleck but gained some late hype when Michigan State hired Smith. Following a few weeks of the Spartans pushing for Pretzlaff, Smith had hired Rossi as his new defensive coordinator, and the linebacker followed suit a few days later.

Pretzlaff is a prospect that 247Sports and their composite completely agree on. Both have him near an 88 rating as a prospect and at the No. 61 linebacker in the country. Since the composite runs most recruits with national rankings, I will include that here: he is rated No. 678 nationally. The composite also has Pretzlaff as a top-15 prospect from Michigan. On3 was much higher than either, though, with Pretzlaff rocketing to the No. 221 overall player and adding a fourth star.

The Gaylord High School defender chose the Spartans over a few Big Ten schools, including Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan (as a walk-on). Pretzlaff was a menace this year in backfields, recording 31 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Between his final two high school seasons, the backer had 13 sacks. Something tells me that he will pair excellently with Jordan Hall.

Projection

Despite my earlier statement, I think it will be hard for the Hall-Pretzlaff pairing to take full effect this season. The Spartans added Wayne Matthews and Jordan Turner in the portal, and one or both of them likely replace the voids left by Aaron Brule and Jacoby Windmon. Jordan Hall was a freshman All-American honorable mention despite playing sparingly to start the season, and Cal Haladay is a multiyear starter that you cannot replace easily. Aaron Alexander saw more of the field late in the year, and he can build on that momentum this offseason. Ma’a Gaoteote and Darius Snow both return from injuries that forced them to miss most of the 2023 season.

The room for linebackers is so full, that I think it might be hard for Pretzlaff to even be a special teamer this year. Sam Edwards was a depth player and core special teamer, and I see a player like Jay Coyne or Gaoteote filling that this year. Sam Edwards had another year available but was part of senior day festivities.

Overall, I’m very high on Pretzlaff, but this room is loaded with talented players. Fortunately, besides Hall, nearly all of them are in their last or second-to-last season of eligibility. In all honesty, I do think Pretzlaff avoids the redshirt this year. I think he plays a similar role to that of freshman-year Gaoteote, being a rotational player for eight or so games. Anything more is a bonus, and maybe less (as in, under four games) could be viewed as a bonus, too. The future is bright for the linebacker.

  • Justin Denson, DB

CB outlook

Losing: Chester Kimbrough, Semar Melvin, Justin White
Returning: Charles Brantley, Chance Rucker, Angelo Grose (nickel), Dillon Tatum, Ade Willie, Armorion Smith, Marqui Lowery Jr., Khary Crump, Caleb Coley
Adding: Jaylen Thompson, Keshawn Williams, Andrew Brinson IV

Justin “The Slim Reaper” Denson was one of the most coveted players on this list. His offer list might be the most impressive, as he brought offers in from Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Penn State, and over 20 more teams. The Rhode Island native ultimately chose the Spartans in July and signed with the program in December.

Despite the tremendous schools craving Denson, he was rated as the No. 755 product in the nation and No. 64 cornerback, per the 247Sports Composite. However, 247Sports is higher, again, but only barely. He comes in a half point higher than the composite and the No. 58 corner.

Denson moved high schools for his senior season after winning a state title in Rhode Island in 2022. He was new to Pennsylvania high school ball and only replied with five interceptions in his only season. The corner was honored by being named to the East team in the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.

Projection

Denson enters into the same situation as Burnett. There is a lot of potential and talent in the cornerback room, but nothing is proven. Charles Brantley and Dillon Tatum started the year at outside corner, but both missed multiple games with injuries. Armorion Smith transferred in and provided a few crucial plays, showing promise, but his season was cut 10 games short. Marqui Lowery was called in, and then also was injured. Chance Rucker got his call, and he played extremely well for a true freshman. I believe he locked in a spot. Ade Willie and Caleb Coley have yet to receive considerable playing time to be judged. Khary Crump was suspended for eight games.

Outside of Rucker, and maybe Tatum, it’s a free-for-all.

Angelo Grose will likely start the year at nickel and remain, but it is his last season. Every position is up for grabs. I would not be surprised if Denson comes in and plays at a high level. He enrolled early, giving him more time to shine and make a claim.

I hope Denson gets to see the field early and often. His accolades and offers have me confident that he will shine. I expect him to not be redshirted, and be a depth contributor who could flirt with starting if injuries strike the room again.

  • Jaylen Thompson, CB

CB outlook

Losing: Chester Kimbrough, Semar Melvin, Justin White
Returning: Charles Brantley, Chance Rucker, Angelo Grose (nickel), Dillon Tatum, Ade Willie, Armorion Smith, Marqui Lowery Jr., Khary Crump, Caleb Coley
Adding: Justin Denson, Keshawn Williams, Andrew Brinson IV

Jaylen Thompson is another corner in this class, and much like Denson, he stuck around throughout all the coaching changes. He was the longest-standing commit of the 2024 Michigan State football recruiting class, with that dating to December 2022. Thompson, a Tennessee native, was highly coveted by the SEC, with Auburn, Oklahoma, and Arkansas all offering. Ultimately, he chose to stick to his pledge.

Thompson is the rare player from this class who the composite is much higher on than 247Sports. The composite ranks Thompson No. 764 nationally and the No. 65 corner. He drops to No. 84 on 247Sports and falls down a point and a half in ratings. This is offset by ESPN rating him as the No. 43 cornerback.

Thompson was his regional MVP this year in high school, with the Riverdale High School product adding six interceptions and four pass breakups in his final season. Adding to that, half his interceptions were pick-sixes. He is not the only Riverdale player who signed with the Spartans, with teammate Keshawn Williams having his prediction next.

Projection

Thompson is another talented corner entering the room. With the aforementioned breakdown, reps will be hard to come by as well. I am also very high on Thompson, as he shows good measurables (6-foot-0.5, 173 pounds). While he is lighter than Denson, I do not see that being a detriment to his physicality. Thompson had nearly 60 tackles last season.

He is enrolling early alongside Denson, and both players have their work cut out for them to try to start early for the Spartans. Tatum, Brantley, and Lowery all spent much of last season injured, and I am unsure of their health. If they have to start in non-contact jerseys to start practices in a month or so, it is Thompson’s time to shine.

Predicting defensive backs and wide receivers is one of the hardest parts for incoming freshmen, as their ratings get thrown out the window for their fundamentals and intangibles meeting a coach’s scheme. Obviously, I hope Thompson matches well with Blue Adams and Demetrice Martin’s scheme. We will find out a lot more if we see him on the field early for the spring showcase (Smith likely not holding a traditional scrimmage). I’d feel confident saying that Thompson will make his debut this year, but I do not know if he will make it a redshirt season or see the field often.

  • Keshawn Williams, CB

CB outlook

Losing: Chester Kimbrough, Semar Melvin, Justin White
Returning: Charles Brantley, Chance Rucker, Angelo Grose (nickel), Dillon Tatum, Ade Willie, Armorion Smith, Marqui Lowery Jr., Khary Crump, Caleb Coley
Adding: Justin Denson, Jaylen Thompson, Andrew Brinson IV

Keshawn Williams is another play projected as a cornerback this year. He committed to the Spartans amidst the coaching uncertainty, being the only player to do so in this class. Michigan State football was one of three FBS teams to offer Williams, the others being Middle Tennessee State and Georgia Southern. While not exactly a flattering list, I do want to draw a fitting tie: Darqueze Dennard was another southern corner that was only offered by MTSU until the Spartans came calling.

Williams was a late-riser, in part due to an ACL tear during his junior season. He is very low on the composite, coming in as the No. 1,595 prospect overall, and No. 146 corner. But 247Sports is much higher on Williams, unlike his high school teammate Thompson. He slots in just behind Thompson, being ranked corner No. 86 in this class.

Despite his junior year being lost for an ACL tear, Williams responded in a major way this last year. He was named the regional co-athlete of the year, catching 14 touchdown passes and piling up over 870 yards. However, Smith and defensive back coaches Martin and Adams want him at cornerback and he put up over 50 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and an interception this season. With two Spartan signees on the team, I am sure it is unsurprising to hear that Riverdale was very good this year. They swept their division and went 10-3 this season.

Projection

While I am excited for the future for Williams, I think he is a player that needs time. He is slightly taller than Thompson and Denson, at 6-foot-1. However, with cornerback as hit second position in high school, he will need time to address. We saw this with Tatum out of high school, as the primary running back needed more time before breaking into the lineup in non-out-of-hand situations. With his receiving ability and a lack of proven options, we might see Williams there this season as well.

Additionally, this class has a lot of players entering years 3 or above in eligibility, meaning that there are only 2-3 seasons max for them. There will be no pressure on Williams to contribute, yet. Unlike Thompson, Williams remained at Riverdale for his last semester of high school, so we will have to wait until the summer to see more of the explosive athlete.

That said, Tatum was rated a lot higher than Williams, and I think the Riverdale product will need another year or two to learn the system. I do like Williams’ explosiveness and track speed, and he might be a special teams star before breaking into the lineup. Justin White did the same before his transfer this offseason, and that could be Williams’ niche. Perhaps we could see him sooner if the staff goes this route with him.

  • Andrew Brinson IV, Athlete (DB)

DB outlook

Losing: Chester Kimbrough, Semar Melvin, Justin White
Returning (CB): Charles Brantley, Chance Rucker, Angelo Grose (nickel), Dillon Tatum, Ade Willie, Armorion Smith, Marqui Lowery Jr., Khary Crump, Caleb Coley
Returning (S): Jaden Mangham, Sean Brown, Eddie Pleasant III, Malcolm Jones, Shawn Smith, Khalil Majeed, Malik Spencer
Adding: Justin Denson, Jaylen Thompson, Keshawn Williams

Andrew Brinson IV is the final defensive member of this class, but it certainly does not mean he is the least. He was another player that Smith brought over, flipping him from Oregon State. Brinson held 26 offers, including UCF, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, and Purdue.

Brinson was viewed as a wide receiver in his recruiting before switching to athlete or defensive back, skewing his ratings a bit. He ranked No. 1,039 nationally and the No. 85 receiver according to the 247Sports Composite. And 247Sports was not as high, rating him No. 115 among athletes.

Brinson switched to defensive back for Gaither (Florida) this year, as he only caught the ball twice for 26 yards his senior season. He was much more active on defense, racking up 30 tackles and two passes defended. He also acted as a return man for Gaither.

Projection

Brinson IV is a player that is an athlete, with all-around explosiveness. Unfortunately, I think he needs a season or two before he can contribute his athleticism on the field for Michigan State football. Brinson shows promise, but the cornerback room has the aforementioned players, plus Thompson and Denson.

Safety is even harder to crack the lineup, and Jaden Mangham had a strong sophomore campaign, Malik Spencer had moments where he was the top defender on the field, and Khalil Majeed made quite a few plays in the latter half of the season. Those three, along with Malcolm Jones, Sean Brown, and Eddie Pleasant, make it hard to see the field soon. I remember being extremely high on Pleasant and Brown in the last cycle, and I think they compete this year. I am unsure where they will place Brown, but his length at 6-foot-3 makes me lean toward him being a safety.

This makes Brinson the odd man out this season. He also does not enroll early, furthering his place as hard to make an immediate impact. With Spencer and Mangham as juniors, though, he has a year or two to make his case as the next great. I think Brinson redshirts the season and learns from Blue Adams and Coach Meat (Demetrice Martin). He was a player that Adams wanted into his system right away, and I trust our new defensive backs coach. Brinson will be great, I would keep tabs on him in the next few seasons if I was betting.

Michigan State Media and Information Management Class of '22. Emmett covers primarily football, recruiting, and basketball for Spartan Shadows. He has also written for Spartan Avenue, Basic Blues, and Hail WV.

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