Michigan State has quietly turned out a slew of All-American linebackers in its storied history. Carl Banks, Julian Peterson, Ike Reese, Jim Morrissey, and Percy Snow all suited up for the Green and White before going on to successful NFL careers.
Now, thanks to the work of linebackers coach Mike Tressel, MSU has become a linebackers hotbed in the Big Ten. Greg Jones, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen have all become stars under Tressel’s guidance.
Bullough and Allen have graduated, leaving gaping holes in the linebacker core, yet Tressel has successfully recruited the next generation of Spartan linebackers. A promising bunch full of potential, the unit includes Taiwan Jones, Darien Harris, Jon Reschke, Shane Jones, Mylan Hicks, Riley Bullough, and many others.
Tressel recently spoke at length with Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr. on Spartan Nation Radio, discussing the next crop of MSU linebackers and the potential the unit has for this season and beyond.
Perhaps one of the biggest storylines of the offseason is the competition at middle linebacker.
Max Bullough leaves a void in the middle of the defense. The three-year starter helped to take the MSU defense to new heights, as the savvy middle linebacker provided a steadying presence during his time in East Lansing.
Others could upstage the competition, but as of right now, two candidates will be jostling for the starting role: Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris. As highlighted in an article last week on Spartan Nation, neither player holds a lead in the “wide-open” race.
“It’s real close. There are a lot of guys that are in the battle,” Tressel said. “Taiwan did a good job in the spring, but he doesn’t study football quite like Max does, so he’s stepping up his game there. Darien Harris has a great understanding of the defense. But Taiwan’s body size gives him the advantage in there a little bit.”
Tressel, Narduzzi, and Dantonio had more to say about the competition between Jones and Harris WHEN YOU CLICK RIGHT HERE!
Several other youngsters could also fight for playing time at the mike linebacker spot.
Of the up-and-comers, redshirt freshman Jon Reschke has received the most attention after he was listed as the backup middle linebacker in MSU’s spring depth chart.
Tressel acknowledges that Reschke has a learning curve, but could see playing time with determination and hard work.
“He’s coming along really well: I’ve been impressed by him,” Tressel said. “Most high school guys coming in need to learn there’s a whole ‘nother step that they can take in terms of consistent effort. In high school, you can just step it up, turn on the switch periodically, and be a difference maker. You have to have that switch on all the time. Jon is just learning that and that part of his game stepped up.
“The other thing Jon is learning is that when Max Bullough came into this program, even as an early grad, the seniors could look at him and say, ‘Wow, Spartan football is important to that kid.’ They knew it right off the bat from his demeanor and his study. Jon probably walked in saying, ‘Wait a second now, how come I don’t get that immediate respect like I’m a fifth-year senior as a freshman like Max did?’ That’s the exception, not the rule. He’s been putting in the time, and he’s starting to recognize how important football is to him.”
The Spartans must also fill Denicos Allen’s spot at strongside linebacker. The Spartan coaching staff already has a player in mind: junior Ed Davis.
“[Davis] has huge shoes to fill from Denicos. He was an absolute stud linebacker for us for three years,” Tressel said. “Ed Davis, much like Denicos, is a very natural blitzer. I can step back and let him do that part of the game, which with our money linebacker, is important as any skill. He’s slippery like Greg Jones in the run game, where he’s able to slip blocks and get to the football, which is obviously a big comparison too. As soon as he steps up how important this is for him, I expect him to go flying. I think he did that when he started to get the role in our nickel package and blitzing more, the importance of preparation stepped up one notch, and we’re looking for another notch.”
Davis will have plenty of competition behind him on the depth chart. Shane Jones and Riley Bullough, both tough competitors, are tentatively slotted behind Davis at the moment. Each is looking for a home, and playing time.
Jones has spent time at several linebacker positions, and is hoping to settle down at one of the spots this fall.
“Is he a boundary [star] linebacker or is he a mike backer who’s going to run the show? He’s in there competing with Jon Recshke and some of those other guys,” Tressel said. “The big thing is that he comes from a big high school program as a leader of that program, and his football savvy and knowledge is at a very high level. The more guys we have like that, the more we can do on defense, the more we stay one step ahead and the more we can force the offense to react to us rather than to it. His IQ is high, we just have to find him a home.”
Riley Bullough has also spent time changing positions. The sophomore moved to running back last season before coming back to defense this spring.
“He didn’t have as many reps in the spring, so that will probably make it a little more difficult for him. His problem was that he was starting all over after a year on the offensive side of the ball,” Tressel said. “We thought it would be easy for him to get his feet wet as an outside linebacker spot, but I do think his demeanor is that of a mike. Once he feels comfortable at backer, it could be a possibility.”
Bullough has all the desire and work ethic in the world. But that can’t catch him up completely with where he needs to be.
“With linebacker, there’s a lot to be said for experience. There’s so much going on, you’re involved in the run game and the pass game, different guys climbing up the line to block you from different angles,” Tressel explained. “As a defensive lineman, you’re in a world between two guys. As a defensive back, you’re back a little further and you have a little more time to react. But it is just chaos at linebacker. [Riley] did not have much linebacker experience in high school. And then, it was a great move for our team to move him to tailback. [Jeremy] Langford turned on the afterburners to compete. It was a great move for the football team, but it did stunt his growth a little bit. It’s that experience factor. The other thing is that when he stays at the same position for a while, his leadership abilities are starting to come out a little bit too. It’s hard to lead when you bounce around. Now that he has a home, he’s starting to show leadership ability.”
Riley’s younger brother, Byron, will also be jockeying for position at linebacker in August, as Byron will be arriving as a true freshman. Since he did not graduate early and attend spring camp, Byron might have a tough time catching up in time to earn reps in the fall.
“When you don’t know a guy’s instincts, it’s hard. Being straightforward, history has shown that not many of our backers over the past three or four years, because of our depth, have gotten on the field as true freshmen,” Tressel said. “That just makes it an uphill battle. But you know what, look at T.J. Harrell, a guy who has shown football IQ and intelligence and he can really run. So right there, that gives you a chance. Byron has heard us talking about this Spartan defense for I don’t know how long now. He was here early. He’s heard us talk about what we do over and over again, sat in meetings and done that type of stuff for years. He has a head start. All these guys have different circumstances, but history has shown that it’s awfully hard to do for freshmen.”
On the other hand, fellow incoming freshman Chris Frey might stand to benefit from attending spring camp. Frey has impressed the coaches so far and might see time at the star linebacker position.
“It probably would have been impossible if he didn’t come in early. He came in early and learned the defense and showed a level of toughness that I thought was awesome,” Tressel said. “Coming from high school, he hadn’t been at one practice like [ours], let alone 15 in a row. He’s pounding 15 practices in a row, and he fought through that — that was impressive for us to see. He also made some plays. There’s something about having a nose for the ball and having instincts about how to get to the ball and instincts as a blitzer. He showed that he has some of those as well. I’m excited about him, I know he’s a ballplayer, but he impressed me with his toughness more than anything.”
Frey will have his fair share of challenges, though. Standing in his way is Mylan Hicks, a fifth-year senior with incredible speed.
“I think Mylan will be playing linebacker against what’s called 10 and 11 personnel, against three and four wide receiver sets. He plays football fast, that’s what I love about Mylan,” Tressel said. “If you’re a little undersized, but you’re bringing all the 4.4 [speed] at 100 miles per hour and you’re not stuttering down, that acceleration will allow you to bring more of a pop than the normal 200 pound guy… As long as he keeps playing as fast as he has and keeps improving, we’re going to have to find him a role.”
The question lingering on the minds of many members of Spartan Nation is this: “Will this year’s linebacker unit be as good as last year’s?”
“It has the potential, but there’s a big difference between having potential and surpassing that potential on the football field,” Tressel answered. I’m excited about the potential, but we have a lot of work to do.
“As coaches, our goal is always to be better. But there’s no doubt, if you start comparing stats and percentages of the time that teams are able to achieve those types of numbers, it’s rare. But that’s the bar we’ve set, so here we come.”
Replacing two all-star linebackers and replicating a dominant defense is never easy. But with Tressel and the Spartan coaching staff leading the way, don’t be surprised if this year’s linebackers turn some heads this season.