EAST LANSING – Darius Snow dropped back about 10 yards deep in coverage, diagnosed the play and made a break on the ball.
After quarterback Hamp Fay threw a short pass to tight end Jackson Morse, Snow delivered a hit that knocked the ball loose and Jacoby Windmon returned the fumble 33 yards for a touchdown.
It was just one play in a live team portion of Michigan State’s spring game – really just an open practice – on Saturday but a glimpse of what could be to come for the defense in the fall.
Snow, who started at both nickelback and safety last year, spent the spring learning to play linebacker. He lined up at both nickelback and linebacker on Saturday and broke up a pass to end the scrimmage portion at the end.
“I’m just going to call myself a football player,” Snow said, “because I play everything.”
Snow adding linebacker to a skillset that now spans five positions is one tweak to a position group that is deeper than a year ago. The Spartans return starting linebackers Cal Haladay and Quavaris Crouch, along with reserves Ben VanSumeren and Ma’a Gaoteote. They also added a pair of veteran linebackers in Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Mississippi State) from the transfer portal.
“Those guys add depth to the room, which is something we didn’t have and then that depth … it adds competition,” said Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, who is coaching linebackers this season. “When they see someone else make a play, it’s a good thing. And the cool thing about the room is they all help each other out and they all bring each other along and they hold each other accountable and that’s starting to grow and starting to be better.”
Michigan State defense shows ‘promise’ in spring, working to fix deficiencies
Michigan State’s outlook at linebacker in its 4-2-5 scheme is different than last year when the team was thin at the position in the spring. Crouch, a transfer from Tennessee who didn’t join the program until last summer, and Cal Haladay, who played solely on special teams as a true freshman in 2020, emerged as the starters. Crouch missed three of the final four games last year due to an apparent knee injury and was out this spring. Haladay was a surprise starter to begin the season and went on to be named a Freshman All-American but has room to grow.
“He’s a really good football player,” Hazelton said of Haladay. “He’s like a slippery dude that doesn’t do things technically right hardly ever but he just kind of finds a way to make a play. We went back and said, OK, when you’re on this drop, this is something you need to work on and he’ll see it. Even down to like basic stuff like his stance from him. … We just broke him down to the beginning again. … He’s getting better.”
VanSumeren and Gaoteote return to the team after both spent time in the portal this year. VanSumeren, who transferred from Michigan last year and played 122 defensive snaps, entered the portal on March 14 but practiced with the team in the spring and pulled his name out on Monday with spring practice over. That was after Gaoteote, who logged 65 defensive snaps as a true freshman last season, entered the portal on Jan. 19 and withdrew his name from him on Feb. 1.
“It wasn’t a lot of convincing that I had to take place,” Tucker said of Gaoteote. “He knows that we want him here and he knows that he can get better here. It’s very competitive and that’s how you get good, when you compete every day. He’s made tremendous strides and I like him, I like the way he works.”
Although Noah Harvey didn’t return take the additional year of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to COVID-19, Haladay, Crouch, VanSumeren and Gaoteote give the Spartans four returners with experience at linebacker while Carson Casteel didn’t play as a true freshman last year. They added three more to the room in December by signing three-star prospect Quavian Carter to their 2022 recruiting class while also landing Brule and Windmon.
Brule, a graduate transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining, had 141 tackles, including 17.5 for a loss, 7.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in 40 career games over four years at Mississippi State. He had a solid showing on Saturday, including nearly making an interception while breaking up a pass in coverage down the sideline.
“Brule’s a good player and he’s had a really good spring,” Tucker said. “He’s played a lot of football. He has a high motor, he’s very consistent, he plays hard. He can rush, he can cover, he packs a punch on contact and he loves the game of football. He’s got maturity because he’s an older guy and with that he brings leadership. He’s a team guy.”
Michigan State’s Darius Snow adding linebacker to his versatile skillset
Windmon, who also has two seasons of eligibility left, posted 169 tackles, including 18.5 for a loss, 12 sacks and three forced fumbles in 30 games over three seasons at UNLV. In addition to the fumble return for a touchdown on Saturday, he also had a sack.
“He understands and reads in the box,” Hazelton said. “He’s a natural, instinctive guy. He does not miss holes, he does not miss things in the core, he’s under control in his movements. He he’ll strike you, he’ll run through you. He’s good at those things. … The second piece of Jacoby is he’s been a good leader to our room also. He’s a guy that walks in and says ‘listen, I know I’m from somewhere else, doesn’t matter. We’re all here together to do the same thing.’”
Hazelton said they are attempting to crosstrain the linebackers for both spots, except for Windmon (middle) and Brule (weak-side). He’s also not looking to create pairings and that showed on Saturday as they mixed up combinations while also using three linebackers at times with one lined up as an edge rusher.
“We try to mix them up as much as we can because that’s how it’s going to be in a game,” Hazelton said. “You might be playing with this guy this series and then two plays later he might be tired. Well, if you’ve got a fresh dude next to you and you can play with anybody next to you it doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the same page communicating, using the same language. That’s what we’ve been working on.”
Given his versatility, Snow is somewhat of a wild card in how he fits with the defense. Depending on the offensive personnel, he could line up at nickelback to provide additional size at the position or linebacker for more speed at that spot.
“He’s a natural, instinctual guy,” Hazelton said. “(Linebacker is) probably the best fit for him right there. … He understands a lot of the skills anyway because of that nickel spot. … There’s a lot of those same fundamentals that they use so he hasn’t missed a beat moving in there.”
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