When a team loses two of the most productive linebackers in its history, it hopes the other defensive units can pick up the slack.
Michigan State could have such a luxury in 2011.
To be clear, the Spartans aren't scrambling at linebacker. They like their young players such as Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock and Denicos Allen. But it's unrealistic to think they won't miss Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, four-year starters who combined for 796 tackles in their careers.
Now here's the good news: when asked to identify the position groups that made the most strides this spring, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio started off with the secondary. Then he brought up the defensive line.
Cornerback Johnny Adams was among the team's top spring standouts, a fact not lost on his teammates, who selected him with the first pick in the spring draft. Dantonio also singled out sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis for his performance this spring. Lewis is in the mix to replace Marcus Hyde at strong safety.
"He played a lot on special teams [in 2010], but he can be a phenomenal player for us," Dantonio said. "Our secondary has a chance to be very, very good. If you really watched our spring game, I thought we've got more depth than we've had across the board. Our guys have a very good handle on what they're doing because they know it so well."
The defensive front might be an even bigger key to the Spartans' season. Jones not only made a ton of tackles at middle linebacker, but he was Michigan State's top blitzer the past few seasons.
The Spartans want more pass-rushing production from a line that had only three players record more than three sacks in 2010 (Jerel Worthy, Tyler Hoover and Johnathan Strayhorn). Michigan State loses three of its top four leaders in tackles for loss (Jones, Gordon and Colin Neely). Worthy is the only returning player with more than 3.5 tackles for loss in 2010.
While Worthy is already generating attention as a potential top 10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the coaches liked what they saw from other linemen like William Gholston, Anthony Rashad White, Hoover and Marcus Rush.
"We've got depth," Dantonio said. "We've probably got six, seven, eight guys who are going to be playing."