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Monday, July 16, 2012
Spartans master own domain on defense

By Adam Rittenberg

When All-America linebacker Greg Jones departed Michigan State after the 2010 season, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi put together two-page wristbands full of plays for his players to run during the summer months.

"I was worried about what they'd do without Greg," Narduzzi said.

Turns out, they did just fine. Despite a lot of youth at spots like linebacker and defensive end, Michigan State ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense (277.4 ypg), rushing defense (100.5 ypg) and scoring defense (18.4 ppg) in 2011. The defense boosted the Spartans to a Legends division title, their second consecutive 11-win season and a Outback Bowl championship.

Pat Narduzzi
Michigan State's defense was among the best in the country last season under Pat Narduzzi.
When Narduzzi approached starting middle linebacker Max Bullough about the wristbands this summer, he was rebuffed.

"He said, 'Coach, we don't need those wristbands,'" Narduzzi told ESPN.com. "Our players know our defense. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of it. When your kids know the weakness of it, they can fix it themselves during the game. They don't need the coaches.

"Coaches are overrated."

Some Michigan State fans would dispute the last point, especially after school retained Narduzzi as its defensive coordinator despite a strong push from Texas A&M. There's little doubt Narduzzi is among the nation's rising assistant coaches -- a guy soon to be running his own shop -- and his success at Michigan State derives from an attacking, 4-3 defensive scheme that hasn't changed much over the years.

Narduzzi recently talked with CBSsports.com about being a graduate assistant at Miami (Ohio) and visiting the other Miami (the "U") on a scouting trip. The Hurricanes' defense left an impression on the young coach, and he used parts of it to craft a scheme he has used as a defensive coordinator -- first at Rhode Island, his alma mater, followed by stops at Miami (Ohio) and at Cincinnati.

Narduzzi's defenses have been a mixture of good (2006 at Cincinnati, 2010 at Michigan State) to not so good (2007 at Cincinnati, 2009 at Michigan State), but his group surged last year, claiming a place among the nation's elite. The secret: sticking with the structure and not panicking when problems arise.

"I’ve been around coaches that, every year, have trouble doing this and [decide], 'We have to change our defense,'" Narduzzi said. "And all of a sudden we're running a different defense. Every year they'd [visit another school] and they'd say, 'We’re running Florida State. We're playing man-free.' It's like, why'd you do that? And they'd say, 'We're doing it because of this problem.'

"I'm thinking, why didn't you fix the problem out of your base defense already instead of changing the total defense? When you do that, you're the master of none."

As a defensive coordinator, Narduzzi no longer asks such questions. Michigan State is sticking to its structure, plain and simple. Narduzzi and his staff tweak the scheme for different opposing offenses, but the base is the base.

As for the players? "They love it," Narduzzi said. It also makes it easier to avoid a backslide when stars like Jones and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy depart the program.

"Too often as coaches, we try to make it too complicated," he said. "If you have a base defense, run your base defense and try to fix the problems you have. That's what we try to do."