EAST LANSING- Michigan State’s defense took a big step from their drastic fall in 2016 to leading the Big Ten in rushing defense last season. Part of that was due to inexperience and part of that was due to depth. Both affected Michigan State’s linebacker group two years ago.
However, coming into 2018 neither appear to be an issue as the Spartans prepare for their opening matchup against Utah State just under four weeks away.
Michigan State returns six linebackers who had in-game experience last year. That is a luxury they did not have late in 2016 and heading into 2017.
One name that is not returning to East Lansing is Chris Frey who departed after graduating. Frey’s loss goes beyond the field. His wisdom and leadership was heard throughout Michigan State’s locker room. It is a coveted role to be filled, one that senior Andrew Dowell and junior Joe Bachie are not shy about wanting to have.
“It’s huge for me and Joe (Bachie) to have that experience,” said Dowell. “Young guys can go to 15 different guys and get help and leadership advice so I’m looking forward to using that to our advantage this year.”
Dowell and Bachie will be focal points of not just Michigan State’s defense but their entire team. They are looked as leaders both on and off the field.
Sophomore linebacker Antjuan Simmons was a young player that took advantage of learning the game from the likes of Bachie and Dowell to have a standout season last year. Heading into year two in East Lansing, his progression is being well noticed.
“Antjuan point blank is a ballplayer, you know he gets after it,” Dowell said. “He’s a guy that you won’t be able to keep off the field no matter what position he is at or whoever he is at so we are looking forward to working with him again this year.”
Simmons is a candidate to jump right into the linebacker position left by Frey. His improved knowledge of the game and the linebacker position has given him a step up over other candidates for the starting spot.
“He’s (Simmons) out there with me in certain situations asking me questions,” Bachie said. “ He’s already kinda got it. I can see by the way he moves around and his confidence level. He’s a guy to keep an eye on this year. He is going to have a special year.”
Senior Grayson Miller was another player tabbed to keep an eye on. Miller made the transition from safety to linebacker this offseason. With Michigan State returning all four starters in the secondary, it was logistically the best spot for Miller to be in. The transition into his new position was easier than expected.
“Grayson is one of those guys that is real team player,” said Dowell. “You know, he does whatever the coaches ask of him even if it inconveniences him a little bit. He is stepping up for us at linebacker. He’s got the size for it, speed for it, so he is a good ball player.”
His production in spring practices and the start of fall camp has him in a spot to be a consistent contributor. He also adds to the plethora of upperclassmen leadership on Michigan State’s defense. And that speaks to the depth of this year’s linebacker corps for Michigan State.
“Our linebacker room has got guys,” Bachie said. “If you go through it, we got me, Byron Bullough, Grayson Miller, Andrew Dowell. We got guys who can step up and lead. We got eight-nine guys in there who can lead this team.”
Contact Justin Frommer: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jbf3498.