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August 28, 2011MSU FOOTBALL 2011: DEFENSIVE LINE
The following analysis appears in the September issue of SPARTAN Magazine. The September issue of SPARTAN Magazine - available online now - previews the 2011 Michigan State Football team with in-depth analysis of each and every position group. To purchase a digital version of the magazine, or to subscribe, go here.
THE FOUNDATION IS SET
Veteran D-Line Is Strong up the Middle and Promising on the Edge
By Paul KONYNDYK
The emphasis on identifying and signing four-year defensive line recruits has been a focal point of Michigan State recruiting efforts from the first day Mark Dantonio and his staff arrived on campus.
The byproduct of those recruiting efforts is a Spartan defensive line that has the talent and depth on the inside and edge to match up against any opponent on the schedule in 2011.
"You can't have sustained success on the defense without continuity and consistency on the D-line line," explained Michigan State defensive line coach Ted Gill. "We have great continuity. We also have the talent and the depth at every position to make the D-line the foundation of our defense this year."
The strength of the Spartan defensive line heading into the season is the experience and depth at the two inside positions. All-American candidate Jerel Worthy (6-3, 310, Jr., Huber Heights, Ohio/Wayne) begins his third year as the starting defensive tackle for the Spartans after leading the defensive line in sacks (4.5) and tackles (40) as a sophomore. Second-year junior college transfer Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 316, Jr. Battle Creek Central/Fort Scott, Kan.) will make his debut as the starting nose tackle for the Spartans this fall after backing up Worthy at defensive tackle in 2010.
Fifth-year seniors Kevin Pickelman (6-2, 288, Marshall, Mich.) and Johnathan Strayhorn (6-0, 272, Detroit/Oak Park) provide quality depth behind Worthy and White. Both are three-year letter winners with 68 games and 13 career starts between them.
Converted offensive lineman Micajah Reynolds (6-4, 320, Soph., Lansing Sexton) rounds out the interior defensive line rotation, with walk-on Blake Pacheco (6-1, 264, Sr., Salinas, CA) serving as a solid third-stringer. Fellow walk-on Jordan Sanders (6-1, 288, R-Fr., Rochester, Mich/Adams High) was held out of August camp after a good spring, and still has the potential to inch toward a role in 2012.
"Three of those guys have been with me for four years with Worthy, Pickelman, and Strayhorn," Gill said. "Those guys know how to play football, they have great experience, and the depth that we have on the inside is going help us a play at a consistently high level each week. A lot of teams have a couple of guys that can make plays, but we have guys that can make plays and we have guys behind them that can make plays.
"In today's game, especially in the Big Ten where it is so physical, I think you need to have depth and you need to have a good rotation of guys who are able to play," Gill said. "If a guy can play four solid plays and then you get another guy in there and then maybe even another guy, it gives you opportunities to make plays that wouldn't happen otherwise. It also keeps you in a position to make plays throughout the year because guys are going to be
Tyler Hoover (6-7, 290, Jr., Novi) and Denzel Drone (6-2, 265, Soph., Plant City, Fla.) return after breaking into the starting line-up at defensive end in 2010. Both are candidates to start at defensive end along with William Gholston (6-7, 280, Soph., Detroit
Southeastern) and Marcus Rush (6-2, 250, R-Fr., Cincinnati Moeller).
"We do not have as much experience at defensive end as we do at tackle, but we do have five guys returning that got on the field last year and two guys who started for us," Gill said. "The talent level at defensive end is the best that we have had since we've been here. We have had guys that can get after the quarterback in the past or guys that can play the run. I think these guys are going to be able to have success at both."
STRENGTH UP THE MIDDLE
At Big Ten Media Days in July, Mark Dantonio told reporters that the next step in the maturation of the Michigan State football program was putting a team on the field that consistently demonstrated the ability to win at the point of attack on both sides of the football.
Gill believes the Spartans have the players in place on the defensive line to accomplish that end. The veteran assistant expects this year's D-line to set new program standards against the run. He also believes the group will be much-improved in their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks without an over-reliance on blitzing linebackers or defensive backs.
"We are going to very good against the run and I think that we are going to have a lot of success getting after the quarterback," Gill said. "Back in the spring we saw some things that have us excited about the potential of this line. I think we came off the spring with a
great excitement and that has carried over into camp. These guys believe they have something special."
Gill believes it too. He is especially excited about the starting inside tandem of Worthy and White.
"Jerel Worthy has chance to make his mark as a leader of our defensive line," Gill said. "He had a great off-season in the strength program and I think he is eager to live up to the high expectations
we have for him. He had a great year for us last year. I think he is going to be a lot better for us this year."
Worthy has started in 24 of the 26 games he has played at defensive tackle since breaking into the defensive line rotation as a red-shirt freshman in 2009. The Dayton area product has totaled 77 tackles with 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks during his first two seasons in the playing group.
All-American Greg Jones (New York Giants) was the face of the Spartan defense for the last three years. He was also the focal point of opponent game plans. Worthy will be the guy teams try
to stop in 2011.
"Jerel is a special talent," Gill said. "When he was a freshman two years ago, Trevor (Anderson) used to tell him that he was the key to us having success on defense. Worthy has been an impact guy from that time. The thing that has me excited about what he is going to be able to do this year is the fact that we have a guy next to him that is comparable in terms of his size and athleticism. Those guys have an opportunity to complement each other and that is what you are always looking for. It is not easy to find to guys with that size and athleticism. But if you can, you have a chance be special."
White played in 13 games as a backup behind Worthy during his first year in the Spartan program after transferring from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College with three years of eligibility in 2010. He recorded 17 tackles during his first year before emerging as an impact player this spring.
"Everybody thinks that a junior college transfer is going to step on the field contribute immediately," said Gill. "A lot of it depends on the background he has. Rashad came out of a program where they let him do things any way that he wanted to. Coming into a structured system was really different for him and it was difficult.
"We do things with precision in there and he had a tough time understanding all of the little things about steps and
hands and being in the right place because he had never been taught that. He had to learn all of that and he has done a great job of learning that during the past year. Now he knows what we expect. The comfort level for him came during the spring because it was the
second time he was presented with the concepts that he struggled with last year."
White has thrived at nose tackle alongside Worthy. He has also demonstrated increased competency at defensive
"All of our inside guys can play both positions," Gill said. "Jerel can play both and so can Rashad. I think by letting them play both it gives a slightly different look and it keeps the offense off balance a little bit. They can't just say Jerel is always going to be here and Rashad is going to be here or Pickelman is going to be here. They can't line up and tee off on a guy because it gives us a different combination when you let both of those guys play different positions."
White did not dominate offensive linemen during August training camp the way he did during the spring. Spartan coaches do not believe that is a reason for concern heading into the 2011 season.
"I think our offensive line is doing a good job," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "I think they have neutralized him a little bit, to be honest with you, so you don't notice him making as many big plays in the backfield and I think that's a tribute to what Coach (Dan) Roushar and (Mark) Staten have done in terms of the development of those offensive linemen, getting another year. Rashad is going to be a force inside. He has been banged up, but I don't think he has missed a day. He is tough. He has had a bad hip and he is still going."
Few are as tough as Pickelman. He recorded 31 tackles and made seven starts at nose tackle in 2010. The three-year letter winner added 10 pounds of good weight during the off-season and is better at the point of attack at the onset of his senior season.
"He has done nice job in the weight room and you can tell it has given him confidence," Gill said. "He is moving well and he is playing fast the way you expect from someone with his experience. Pick is one of the most reliable guys in our program. There are some years where Pick would be the top guy I had on the inside. The guy knows how to work and you love having a guy like him on your football team. He is always asking what he can do to get better and he takes a lot of pride in his craft."
Pickelman signed with Michigan State as a 215-pound linebacker in Dantonio's first recruiting class. Five years later and 75 pounds heavier, Pickelman looks back with pride at how far he has come and what he has been able to accomplish.
"The defensive line has changed a lot since my freshman year," Pickelman recalled. "There was some tension between the older guys who were recruited by the former staff and the guys coming into the program and I think that some of the guys that had been in program didn't feel the responsibility to bring the young guys along the way the upperclassmen do today. There is a lot more competition for playing time now because of the depth that we have now, but there is a feeling that we are in this together and part of a family."
Strayhorn finished second on team in sacks (3.5) and recorded a career-high 27 tackles during his first year on scholarship at defensive end. The former walk-on played in 13 games as a junior. Strayhorn started two games last fall against Northwestern and Alabama.
"He is a guy that can play inside and outside but with the improved depth we have at defensive end he can help us out the most on the inside as a three technique," Gill said. "He gives us a lot of athleticism and he is a good passrusher. I think he is going to be able to carve out a nice role for himself on third-and-long."
Micajah Reynolds enters the season as the fifth member of Michigan State's defensive tackle rotation after earning the first letter of his Spartan career on offense at right guard last season. The former Lansing Sexton star struggled with the position move initially last spring. Reynolds has made substantial progress during training camp.
"He is getting off the ball, playing with better technique," said Narduzzi. "Last year in the spring he was playing d-tackle like an offensive guard, coming out with his elbows up to block you and stuff like that. Now he is playing like a defensive lineman. He is using his hands better and getting more penetration into the backfield."
While his role on the defensive line might be minor this fall, Reynolds has an opportunity for a substantial role on the defensive line in 2012. The big sophomore could even find himself in a position to push for a spot in the starting lineup if Worthy leaves for the NFL after his junior season.
"When you go from offense to defense in this league, you can't jump
over here and play," Gill said. "You have to learn techniques and understand schemes and watch other guys play and the strength factor and all the things that are involved. That guy really jumped in and rolled his sleeves up and went to work. He wants to play and he
is hungry, which I think is good. And that will be a good surprise if he continues to get better."
TWO JOBS, FOUR APPLICANTS
Tyler Hoover and Will Gholston entered training camp as projected
starters at left and right defensive end respectively for the Spartans. But neither player gained the separation from Denzel Drone and Marcus Rush who have both made a strong case for consideration as starters.
"Our top four are Gholston, Rush, Hoover and Drone, without a doubt," Narduzzi said. "Who is going to be the No. 1 and who is going to be the No. 4? We don't know. They are all competing with each other. I'm going to get the two best ends out there, one on the left and one on the right. It doesn't matter. They can all put both hands on the ground, play to the left or right, or field or boundary. It's a flip of the coin as to who is out there. As I told them, there is not a 1. If I had to grade them from No. 1 to No. 5, I would say we have two No. 2s and there is no No. 1. No one has stepped up and said, ‘I'm the guy. I'm the best end on the team.' No one has done that yet. Maybe every day someone gets closer, but no one has done it yet."
Even though Hoover and Gholston have not seized a starting spot at defensive end, there is a good chance that both will be selected ahead of Drone and Rush by their coaches. Both players have the size to get off blocks and make plays against the run.
"When you look over there on the other side of the ball you can see those offensive tackles getting bigger, faster and stronger," said Gill. "Having a couple of guys like Will and Tyler allows us to keep up with the Joneses. Those two guys fit into the mold of what we are looking for in terms of athleticism at defensive end but they also have the bodies to put weight on retain their quickness."
Hoover is the biggest defensive end in the Michigan State program. At 290 pounds, the former Novi star weighed is close to 15 pounds heavier than he was a year ago when recorded 36 tackles and three sacks with nine starts at left defensive end.
"He spent a lot of time during the offseason trying to develop his body and add weight in a way that works for him and doesn't diminish his speed," Gill said. "I expect him to play at around 285
pounds during the season. He has improved against the run and as a passrusher."
"He looks good," added Narduzzi. "He could probably shed five or six pounds, and he has shed some. But he is a big, strong, powerful man, so he is doing a good job."
Gholston enters the season 30 pounds heavier than he was as a true freshman when he recorded 13 tackles and registered 5 hurries while playing on the edge in Michigan State's nickel defense during the first 10 games of 2010 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
"He was playing at 255 last year and he was getting thrown around," Gill said. "I think that he saw he saw that and got his strength up and he is really improved in his overall knowledge of the game. One of the things that I thought Will did during the offseason which was a really good thing is that he studied football. He studied things that he did, right and wrong, and I think it made him a better player because it motivated him to start working on trying to develop himself. The guy is an endless worker. He has done a good job of trying to get himself better."
The highest ranked player signed in the Big Ten as a high school senior in 2010, Gholston has as high a ceiling as any defensive player in the Spartan program. He has an opportunity to be a plus defensive end for Michigan State this season but he needs to play every play with at a high energy level and he needs to play with sustained focus. Gholston has accumulated more sacks than any defensive end in the Michigan State program in the five controlled scrimmages (three during spring, two during training camp) that have taken place since the 2010 season. But he needs to play with greater consistency and effort before he gains the trust that he needs from his coaches to earn a permanent spot as a starter.
"One play he looks like an All-American and the next play, you kind of go, ‘William, what are you doing?,'" said Narduzzi. "He just has to be more consistent."
Denzel Drone is lighter than either Gholston or Hoover but he, like Hoover, has experience as a starter at defensive end for the Spartans after starting four games in 2010 as a red-shirt freshman. The converted linebacker has gone to great lengths during the off-season to improve against the run.
"When you look around our conference you see successful defensive ends in different sizes, but the big thing that stays constant is that everybody is strong and they can run," Gill said. "And that is what Denzel has developed himself into a guy that is a complete player
all the way around."
Issues with stamina could hurt Drone's chances to win a job at defensive end.
"He has to keep his motor going," Narduzzi said. "He has sickle cell (and with it, occasional symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath). So you have to be cautious with guys who have that. It seems like he has a motor one play and the next play there is a lull. I almost have to tap his head and get a fresh guy in. There are some guys that have that. I don't know if that's it. I think he is in great shape, but some guys have a little trouble keeping it going."
Michigan State coaches expected Marcus Rush to work his way into the rotation at defensive end as a redshirt freshman, but they did not expect him to make a sustained push for a spot as a starter given overall depth at defensive end.
"Every year there is guy that comes to camp and surprises you a little bit by is that guy for me this year. He had a good spring and we knew he was going to be ready to play because he had great coaching when he was in high school. But he has been better than expected and those older guys understand that he can take their job away if they're not bringing their best effort."
Rush is not as big as the other three potential starters at defensive end. That does not bother his position coach or his defensive coordinator.
"He plays bigger than 250 pounds," Gill explained. "He is a competitor, he plays with good leverage, and he has great hands. He isn't going to get tossed around out there as a first-year defensive end. He is ahead of where most guys are because of the background he has."
"Rush is playing well," said Narduzzi. "He just has a high motor and he is doing a lot of things right, a lot of things real well. He's 6-2, he is short compared to Hoover and Gholston, but there is nothing wrong with being 6-2."
THE REST OF THE ROTATION
The defensive end playing group has been as small as four and as large as six during the first four seasons of the Dantonio era at Michigan State.
"If guys demonstrate that they can play at a high level during practice, you want to give them an opportunity to show what they can do during a game," explained Gill. "Sometimes you put a guy on the field and he surprises you because he is one of those guys that is for whatever reason better in games than practice. Five guys has been a good number for us in the past. We might have a few more than that during the non-conference to see what guys can do."
Corey Freeman (6-2, 250, Jr., Cleveland Heights, Ohio ) was the fifth defensive end for the Spartans in 2010, often seeing time as a designated pass rusher with the nickel defense, albeit with limited success. He played in 11 games and finished the year with six tackles. Freeman could return to the field in the role that he had a year ago. It is also possible that the job will be taken from him by a younger defensive end. Freeman has shown improvement since last
year and remains a player with upside. But Freeman, a former All Ohio selection who spent two years away from football in 2008 and 2009, has battled injuries.
"Freeman is up and down," Narduzzi said. "The knees are bothering him. He will have a great practice and then you will kind of go, ‘Well ...' And he's sore and then he'll have to take a practice off." Redshirt freshman Taylor Calero (6-3, 245, Beverly Hills, Mich./ Southfield Christian) has a shot at a spot in the rotation as does true freshman Shilique Calhoun (6-4, 220, Fr., Middletown, N.J./ North). Calero had limited reps during the first half of training camp as coaches used reps he would have gotten to evaluate first-year players. The former Southfield Christian linebacker had his chance to make an impression on coaches during
the second half of camp.
"The last couple of days he has turned it on," said Narduzzi. "Early in the camp we were trying to get those young guys a look so we were repping 1s, 2s and then freshmen, and the 3s were kind of hanging out and doing nothing in the team period. You can't go 1s, 2s, 3s and freshmen and try to get anything done, so we skipped the 3s a little bit. The first week or so is freshman spring ball. That's our philosophy."
Calhoun is the most athletic member of what appears to be an outstanding incoming defensive line class.
"He could be a pass rush specialist right now, really," said Narduzzi. "He is very intelligent, maybe one of the smartest ends I've coached here at Michigan State. The other day we threw him in our third down package and he knew exactly what to do and I was like, ‘Whoa.' He listens. He's smart.
"He has a motor and he just knows how to rush the quarterback a little bit. He understands. He has a knack. He understands, ‘Okay, that guy overset me, now I do this.' He just understands. "I'm not saying for sure that he is going to play this year, but he is going to be a great player down the line."
HIGH MARKS FOR ROOKIES
The combination of athleticism and instinct give Calhoun the best chance of Michigan State's six rookie defensive linemen to see the field during his first year in the program. But Calhoun is not the only first-year defensive lineman that has stood out during training camp. Damon Knox (6-4, 274, Muskegon), Joel Heath(6-5, 270, Cincinnati Mount Healthy), Brandon Clemons (6-3, 262, Milford, Pa./Delaware Valley) have all shown signs of having a bright future at Michigan State.
"I think that freshman class is going to turn out to be one of the best we've signed," Gill said. "Damon is a raw talent with an incredible upside. He is further along than I thought he would be and I am excited about his future. Joel Heath is big, big guy who is going to be a beast out there. He is a big rangy defensive end and he has great acceleration. Shilique is a tremendous athlete who has a
great feel for the game."