EAST LANSING, Mich. – It was fitting that the Michigan State spring game began with an interception on the first play from scrimmage.
Yes, the Spartans have lost a few big names off their sensational defense from a season ago, but coach Mark Dantonio isn't planning on a major drop-off.
"We'll come up with turnovers and we'll compete," Dantonio said. "Our defensive staff will have the guys ready to compete. We'll run at the ball. We'll play hard."
Michigan State won the Rose Bowl last season behind one of the best defenses in the country, but the Spartans must now move on without linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is back, and it will be up to him to build around lineman Shilique Calhoun and safety Kurtis Drummond.
"Our defensive goals are just executing, making no mental mistakes, flying around, and making plays," Drummond said. "We look at each day as another day to get better. We are not exactly where we want to be as a complete team, so we use every day as a chance to get better. We just need to know what we're doing."
Michigan State finished second in the nation in total defense and against the run in 2013.
For a while, the Spartans were winning in spite of an offense that struggled to find its footing, but by the end of the season, they were able to move the ball more consistently, and the result was a team that finished ranked No. 3 in the AP poll after beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
The Spartans may not have to lean on their defense quite as much this year. Quarterback Connor Cook returns, and so does Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,422 yards last season.
"I think now when you look at our football team, our offense is measuring up. The defense is measuring up as well," Dantonio said. "Maybe the defense isn't as dominant right now, but maybe that's because the offense is a better offense."
Calhoun returns at defensive end after leading the team with 7½ sacks. Marcus Rush, another defensive end, had five sacks and is also back.
"We've got a lot of guys. We've got (Lawrence Thomas) who can play. He's very versatile, so he knows multiple positions, but he's very strong at defensive end and so is Demetrius Cooper," Calhoun said.
"Marcus Rush ... it just shows that we've got guys on this team who can play. We have a lot of depth at the defensive end position."
The secondary, meanwhile, may have been the strongest part of the Michigan State defense at the end of last season.
The Spartans will miss Dennard and Lewis, but cornerback Jermaine Edmondson had the interception at the start of the spring game, and Drummond gives Michigan State plenty of experience.
"We just need to know what we're doing," Drummond said. "We've got a lot of guys who can make plays, who can make plays consecutively. Guys in the spring are just trying to learn more, to take steps forward, and be consistent in tackling."
The Spartans may not need their defense to be as dominant this season, but good luck convincing Calhoun, Drummond and the rest of this group that expectations have dipped.
"We've got a lot of great competitors on offense and a lot of great competitors on defense. It's time for them to show their stuff," Calhoun said. "We've got high flyers, people who can come downhill and fill the gap and I would finally say it's at a point where offense is clicking early and so is our defense. It's going to be nice to see how the season starts out for us."