Michigan State finished sixth nationally in total defense last season and returns nine starters. Just as importantly, the Spartans return defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was wooed by Texas A&M over the winter but chose to stay in East Lansing. Narduzzi's defense figures to once again be one of the very best in the country. I recently caught up with him to chat about the state of the defense this spring:
When you have so many starters back, how does that affect what you do in spring practice?
Pat Narduzzi: One thing it does for us is it gives us the opportunity to know that hopefully there's a lot of carryover from last season. We don't try to install any more defenses. We try to keep it at the same pace. You know, kids forget. Coaches can sit in the office 24/7 and talk about it, but for them, as soon as that bowl game against Georgia is over, those guys go on with their lives, with their girlfriends and studying English. But it allows you to come in and not make as many mistakes as you would with a young defense.
Yet you have to be excited about the potential for this defense with the players you have back, right?
PN: Yeah, it's exciting, but we still have to go out and make plays. We do have a lot of players back, so hopefully we can go out and be as productive as we were a year ago. But you can't get complacent, because what you did last year or the last game or even last week doesn't really matter. It's what you do right now. So every day we're building the 2012 defense.
You used the word complacent. How do you make sure the starters don't get too comfortable and that there's still a lot of competition?
PN: There are certain positions you can look at and say, "There's no way he's getting beat out." And there's probably, of the 11 positions out there, you've got to say there's six or seven of them. But we're starting to do such a good job recruiting that there are some battles out there at different spots, particularly at the defensive tackle spot, the safety spot and even the linebacker spot. There's a lot of spots that are really wide open. If a guy makes a mistake with the 1's, you pull him down to the 2's and really keep him on edge, in a positive way. With the starters, you expect perfection. When you make mistakes, that's not helping you. Another guy can get in and make mistakes, too.
The one big hole is at defensive tackle, where you lost All-American Jerel Worthy. It's early still, but how do you see that position shaping up this spring?
PN: Anthony Rashad White is a returning starter inside that hopefully you can hang your hat on and keep him healthy and hopefully continue to get him better. Moving Tyler Hoover there, it's a new position for him, but he's 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, who can run a 4.9 or 5.0 flat, so he's got all the athletic ability to be able to be a great player there. But there are new things that happen to you when you get hit from both sides at that defensive tackle position. After those two guys, we've got a lot of guys with a lot of ability. Some have athletic ability, some have size and strength. So we've got a lot of combinations of guys, and we're just going to shake them up, and every day there might be a new group with the 2's. We're going to find out who's making the plays and who's being productive, while we try to build some depth at that position.
How good is that depth there, do you think?
PN: James Kittredge is playing good for us. I feel like he'll be a guy who plays for us. Now how much is he going to play? That's going to depend on how he does in the spring. But he's got every tool you need. We've got Damon Knox, who redshirted a year ago and we feel like he has a ton of athletic ability and gets better every day. Brandon Clemons, Mark Scarpinato, Matt Ramondo -- so we've got some depth there. It's probably one of our deepest positions, and we have a lot of numbers. If we could come out of spring saying we have five guys who can play, I'd be happy with that.
William Gholston showed in the Georgia game what he's capable of doing. What are your expectations for him this spring and this season?
PN: William is a very talented individual. He's physical, he's very intense. Fundamentally, he's still got a ways to go because he's only played that position for two years. He was a linebacker in high school. What we're looking for William is for him to be a lot sounder fundamentally. If we get him sound, with everything he's doing, when he turns it loose he can be a destructive defensive end in this conference. He can still get a lot better, put it that way. He's just touching the surface.
All three starting linebackers return, though Chris Norman is injured this spring. Do you feel like you can add even more depth there?
PN: We really do. Darien Harris is a kid from Dematha in Maryland, and he redshirted a year ago. He was young and all confused, didn't know how to get lined up. We knew he had athletic ability -- I think he ran a 4.5 on pro day -- so he's got a ton of speed and he's physical. He's come out like a totally new person. He's starting to play with confidence, and I think he's going to be a very good player for us. He's going to push Chris Norman at that outside 'backer spot, as well as Tawian Jones. Kyler Elsworth is doing a great job, then you've got Steve Gardiner. We'll be deeper at the linebacker position than we were a year ago.
And what does that depth allow you to maybe do differently?
PN: It's that competition, so the competition is going to make everyone better. The starters are going to get better because guys will be pushing for their jobs. It gives you the ability that, if you get a guy hurt, you feel like you're not going to lose a whole bunch. Whereas in years past, if someone went down we were like, "Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?" You had to do a complete juggling act and try to cover up somebody. Now, I feel like we have enough depth that maybe there won't be too much dropoff when we put that next guy in.
The other spot where you have to replace a starter is at safety, where Trenton Robinson graduated. How is the competition for that job going?
PN: There are two guys, really, who are fighting for it: Kurtis Drummond -- a kid out of Ohio who played a lot for us in nickel situations, so he's got the upper hand as far as knowing what to do -- and RJ Williamson. And we're looking forward to getting some true freshmen in there to give us more depth. Demetrious Cox out of Pittsburgh, we think he can come in and play for us immediately. But we've got some good competition with those two this spring.
Isaiah Lewis is your other starting safety, and you and Mark Dantonio raved about him last year. What can you tell us about his development?
PN: Isaiah had a heck of a year for us last year. He just played great football. He was so sound in everything he did. He probably played the best of anybody at any position as far as being consistent the whole year. So we're just looking for him to continue to get better and keep making plays, and really he's got to start to be that leader back there and take over for Trenton as the leader at the safety spots. Last year he was the puppy safety, listening to what Trenton said. Now he's got to be that leader.
Do you have leadership starting to emerge yet on the defense?
PN: At every position, I think we do. Johnny Adams will probably be the first leader in the secondary, and Isaiah will fall right behind that. We've got three of the four starters back there who can all lead. Middle linebacker is probably our biggest leader of the whole defense, in my opinion, Max Bullough. He's probably the key to our whole defense. He gets everybody lined up, and I would say he's our leader. And the guys on the defensive line, Marcus Rush and Gholston can take over leadership, and those are things I think will happen as the spring moves on.
You had some opportunities to go other places in the offseason, most notably Texas A&M. What led to your decision to stay at Michigan State?
PN: Kevin Sumlin would have been a great guy to work for, and it was a hard decision. I now know what those recruits go through when they're trying to choose between Michigan State and Alabama. I've never had to make a decision that was that tough, because there's not a better guy in the country to work for than Mark Dantonio, and I think Kevin Sumlin is the same type of guy.
But with all the unknowns of going into a new conference [at A&M], and I've got four kids and to try to move my family across the country, and for what reason? And it's not all about the money. Sometimes coaches are moving all around the country because they're getting paid a little bit more dimes at one place rather than the other. Michigan State definitely stepped up financially to help me and my family out, which was huge. But it didn't come down to that. It came down to just being comfortable with Mark Dantonio and Michigan State, comfortable knowing we've got a lot of good players here, that we've done a great job recruiting. Those are things that I know. I've been with coach Dantonio now going on our ninth season, which doesn't happen very often. There's not a better coach in the country than Mark Dantonio.
You guys have redshirted a lot of players and seem to know how to find the right players for your system. Do you think you have the defense at a place now where you can just reload every year?
PN: I really do. With our defense, there's things that we know. Sometimes when you go take a different job, you're thinking, "I wonder what they've got. I wonder what their players look like. I wonder how their recruiting went." You want to go to another rebuilding job for more money, but it's not worth the headaches.
One thing I do believe is that we've got good talent, and just based on the depth we've talked about, we've done a great job recruiting here. We know what we're dealing with, we know what the players are and the last two seasons I don't think we've made a mistake on defense in recruiting. I don't think everybody in the country can admit to that. I believe the guys we have in position can make us better and take us to newer heights.