Mark Dantonio deserves all the credit in the world for the great success Michigan State has had over the past several seasons. But he didn’t do it alone.
The Spartans established themselves as an elite defensive team in recent seasons thanks to the efforts of former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With Dantonio and Narduzzi at the helm, Michigan State’s defense was perhaps the nation’s best in 2013, when the team won a Big Ten championship and claimed victory in the Rose Bowl. Last season, the numbers dipped a bit, but the Spartans defense was still a fear-inspiring one for many opponents.
Narduzzi left this offseason to become the head coach at Pitt. And now the Spartans have to move on without one of the best coordinators in the country.
“We’ll still be the same Spartan Dawgs. That’s who we are,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said last month during Big Ten Media Days, illustrating that apparently the “next man up” mentality applies to when coaches leave, too. “Our coaching staff does a great job. It was never a point where we thought coach Narduzzi was handling everything. Everyone had a hand in everything that we did, so there’s going to be no need for picking up the slack.
“He’s irreplaceable because he’s coach Narduzzi, but at the same time, he would never have left us in terrible condition. He understands what we have, and he understands the potential we have as players and coaches. So I know we’re going to have a great year. We’re still going to have that same swarming-to-the-ball defense, all green helmets on everything and that live sideline. He’s not going to be coming down this year in the fourth quarter, but somebody will.”
Calhoun is one of the reasons that it’s pretty clear the Michigan State defense is still in good hands, even though Narduzzi is no longer running the show. The senior defensive lineman is back for his senior season and a terrific team leader. But as the talent has slowly departed on that side of the ball, can the Spartans still be an elite defense?
Two seasons ago, it was Calhoun alongside superstar cornerback Darqueze Dennard and a leader of a linebacker in Max Bullough. Those two guys left after the Rose Bowl, yielding to another superstar corner in Trae Waynes, as well as an All-Big Ten safety in Kurtis Drummond. Calhoun — who was always in the class of the rest of those stud defenders — now seems a little more alone. An injury to linebacker Ed Davis will loom large for the Spartans, and the secondary, while still capable, might no longer be the “No Fly Zone” it was a couple seasons back. Even last season, with two excellent players in Waynes and Drummond, the Spartans’ pass defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
Narduzzi was viewed by many as one of the top coordinators in college football, a head coach in waiting, and now he has that opportunity at Pitt.
That creates new opportunities for a pair of Michigan State assistants, who Dantonio named Narduzzi’s replacements in December. Secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel were each given co-defensive coordinator duties, and Dantonio has all the faith that they’ll keep the tradition going, even though Narduzzi will certainly be missed.
“We really stayed the course with our defense,” Dantonio said. “I feel like we have a lot of experience there. We've got a lot of players coming back. We had some bell cows at every single position. So that's exciting to watch as well. But we're always going to critique everything that we do. Regardless of whatever year it's been, we critique it. We add some things. We subtract some things. And we try to rebuild a little bit differently or keep a lot of things structurally the same. But we're always trying to look to improve and critique what we've done, and that's been the norm.
“As far as those two guys, they have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them, the job that they've done. They've both had opportunities to leave and become coordinators or co-coordinators or go into the NFL and those type of things, and they've stayed the course. I think they deserve this opportunity. This is an opportunity for growth, much like from a defensive coordinator becoming a head coach. There's a lot of growth that has to take place. So the same thing happens when you go from position coach to a coordinator position. I think they've done an outstanding job at that thus far. And the proof is in what the players say. When I have my player meetings with our players throughout May and June, about a half hour each with 100 plus players, you know, that question gets asked. So they have a great deal of respect for both those coaches, and we're going to be fine, and we're going to pick up exactly where we left off.”