Scope of the Spartans: The Goal…is Elevation Part 2

2015 Cotton Bowl defensive line of scrimmage MSU vs BAMA Photo courtesy of Tom Ackerson.
2015 Cotton Bowl defensive line of scrimmage MSU vs BAMA Photo courtesy of Tom Ackerson.

Scope of the Spartans: The Goal…is Elevation Part 2

Here we go again, Spartan Nation. To being my tenth season talking #5 Spartan Football with you all let’s take a close look at this team and program to begin 2018. Almost a complete outlook, if you will. Here is part two: defense and special teams.

Defense

The Bachie Ball Defense came up a yard short of having the top Rush Defense in the country last year. Had Georgia gained another yard on Alabama in the second edition of the SEC Championship game, which some claim was a National Championship Game, MSU would've stood atop the list. Safe to say, Mike Tresseland company have kept that yard in the back of their minds the entire offseason. This unit is ready to turn some heads again.

Rush Defense is generally held to be the most important stat for a Defense in college football, for good reason. By this point in the Dantonio era, the vast Spartan Nation knows and understands that a great Spartan Defense begins with stopping the run. When you stop the run well you're also likely to have good rankings in both Scoring and Total Defense. If you rank well in those two categories too, you're going to have a great defense. That's what the Spartan Dawgs returned towards in 2017 and that's the level they're expected to play at in 2018.

Bachie's explosion onto the national scene in 2017 did not go unnoticed around the sport. His All-Big Ten level play last year will lead to a brighter spotlight in 2018 and could lead to big-time post-season honors for Bachie and those around him. This unit doesn't play for individual awards though, as Spartan Nation appreciates, so look for Bachie to lead the 2018 unit towards their collective goals, and for no player on the Defense to be distracted or tempted by too much individual praise.

While Bachie organizes the Defense, especially up front, Senior co-captain Khari Willis will lead MSU on the back end. Though the Defense will be without Josiah Scott for at least a while, the secondary is not short on talent. This is a loaded backfield that will show up for 2018 with a little more confidence and swagger that they had a year ago. Harlon Barnett has gone to coordinate the Florida State Defense, but the 2018 playing group should retain the same basic fundamentals that Spartan Football has kept in the backfield during the Dantonio era. Plus, there could be some new ideas and wrinkles coming in from new staff members that are now providing input to this playing group.

Before you go ahead and pencil in the Spartans as the Big Ten's best Defense for 2018, consider the most important part of the unit when it comes to the biggest games MSU plays in-conference. The Defensive Line is critical to what the Spartan Defense will do in 2018, especially those space eaters in the interior of that line. Spartan Nation members know the inside positions have made the difference when MSU and Ohio State have battled during the Dantonio-Meyer era. That's the game that has decided the balance of power in the Big Ten more often than not lately. Until proven otherwise, expect that trend to continue. When MSU has had outstanding play from the interior of the Defensive Line they have competed with and have beaten the Buckeyes. When they have not performed as well up front, Ohio State has gone on to beat MSU. That’s what that game has boiled down to again and again.

The Spartans are sitting pretty up front for 2018. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams may be the Big Ten's best combination already, and they're only Juniors. Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens begin the depth at those positions so key to MSU’s hopes of getting back to the College Football Playoff. Outside on the edges, the picture is a little less clear.

If there was a “Blair White Walk-On" award, Kenny Willekes would've taken it in 2017. Willekes came out of nowhere and flew into backfields around the Big Ten last fall. This year he will not get to anyone by surprise. He will lead a playing group that's got some youth to it, and hopefully some surprises in store for 2018. Chuck Bullough's return to East Lansing should be noticed by the performance and season-long development of this group on the edges. If there's a spot on this Defense that is a question mark and curiosity relative to a new position coach coming in, it's at the Defensive End spot.

There's a good chance the 2018 Defense will be the best the Spartans have had since 2013. As we chat about it in late August, however, that’s not automatic. They are playing in a more difficult division in a stronger overall conference than five years ago. And unlike 2013, expectations for this unit are to be among the very best in college football from week one. That's a lot for Bachie and Willis to navigate, but who in Spartan Nation could ask for much more when you consider where this unit was about a year ago.

Special Teams

Among the highlights of the Spartans fantastic bounce back 2017 was the rebirth of Spartan Special Teams. After a couple of disappointing seasons, outside of a couple history-making plays, this unit became a mismanaged mess. The Spartans slipped away from the Dantonio tradition of sending their best players on the field for these plays and paid a very heavy price for doing so. That strategy had helped MSU win a number of games they would have otherwise not. Thankfully, 2017 brought that tradition back, and with it woke up the napping giant that is Spartan Special Teams.

While Keshawn Martin isn't trotting out to field kicks ever again, 2017 gave us a preview of how good the MSU kick return game could be this year. The Spartans look set to feature the likes of Cody White and Darrell Stewart, Jr., in the return game. Gone for good, hopefully, are the days of too many different players getting an in-game shot as a kick returner. MSU did enough of that last year. If they're going to compete for the Big Ten and College Football Playoff in the coming years they're better off settling on a handful of guys max to return kicks.

While the kicking game in College Football is set to leave millions of fans scratching their heads this fall, trying to understand how the new rules help the game, don't expect the Spartans to skimp on kick coverage and kick protection schemes. Expect to see some new names and high energy efforts going both ways on kicking plays. The Spartans roster is plenty deep that a lot of guys are going to have to make their name initially through Special Teams. Spartan kick coverage and protection should, therefore, be very solid this fall.

While the Punter position looks as good for MSU as any in the Big Ten, the impact of Jake Hartbarger's heavy foot will probably be tempered by the new and unpopular touchback rules coming in for 2018. Prepare for more angled kicks, to say the least. The Place Kicker position should be one of strength for MSU as Matt Coughlin returns for his Sophomore (Red Shirt) season, but some kickers have struggled in their second season as MSU's main scoring foot. Coughlin should have a ton of confidence coming off 2017 and an offseason to fine-tune his technique, but this is not professional football. It would be a mistake to bank on Coughlin being better as he was in 2017 just because it is one season later.

Kicking plays are going to look a bit different around College Football this fall, for better or (likely) worse. The Spartans are in a position to get consistently more out of their Special Teams in 2018 than they have at least the past three seasons. Adding some new Special Teams ideas from coaches and program additions that have spent time outside of Spartan Football should only help the unit’s current revival. If all goes as expected, MSU Special Teams should return to being one of the best in the Big Ten. Rest assured that the days of this unit hurting the Spartans chances to win games are gone for good. Better yet, 2018 could be the first year in a while that this unit consistently flips the field in favor of MSU.

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