EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio cares more about how No. 8 Michigan State plays than how many plays Jacksonville State can run with its fast-tempo offense in Friday's season opener for both teams.
The Spartans' coach said Tuesday he likes what he sees in a retooled defense after a 13-1 season that included Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships. But he stressed the importance of playing a sound game against a Football Championship Subdivision title hopeful.
"We had one of the top defenses in America last year with the rules as they are," Dantonio said. "I do think people tend to get hurt when they're tired. But you've got to sub them out and figure out some way to do that."
With six new starters on defense — seven with the move of Taiwan Jones from outside linebacker to the middle — the Spartans will have to pay attention against the Ohio Valley Conference favorite. The Gamecocks return 18 starters from an 11-4 team that set 49 school records.
"We've got certain guys playing new positions," Dantonio said. "You basically want to see guys bend their knees and play in space and tackle and play the ball in the deep part of the field. There are certain things you can do schematically. Then, it comes down to making plays."
Michigan State will try to do that with one of the nation's top pass rushers, Shilique Calhoun, back at defensive end and with veterans Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes leading a revamped secondary. The linebacking corps also looks different, though seven players are capable of filling three spots, Dantonio said.
Though Calhoun's bookend, Marcus Rush has started 40 games in the past three years, the Spartans are still young on defense, with six true freshmen, four redshirt freshmen, eight sophomores and just five seniors on that side of the depth chart.
Michigan State proved to be more than opposing offenses could handle again last season, holding every team below its season average for points and total offense. The Spartans led the Bowl Subdivision in total defense for 13 straight weeks and was the only school to rank among the top three in four major statistical categories.
That could change with the loss of linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds, safety Isaiah Lewis and especially cornerback Darquese Dennard, winner of the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
But Michigan State has more depth, especially on defense, than it has had in nearly a half-century. It also has its highest preseason ranking since 1967 as it tries for its 16th straight win in a home opener.
"I know all three of those (starting linebackers) are fourth-year players," Dantonio said of Jones, Ed Davis and Darien Harris. "They've played a lot of football for us, Ed probably as much as anyone. He's a big-play guy. And Darien started or played a lot in the Rose Bowl."
That comeback win over Stanford on Jan. 1 is filed in every player's memory. But it won't show up on the scoreboard this season when Michigan State is one of the hunted.
"It's a statement game," Dantonio said of the opener. "If can't get excited about playing in Spartan Stadium the first game of your senior year, junior year, sophomore year or freshman year, maybe it just isn't happening for you. But If things don't go right for us, it won't be because we overlooked Jacksonville State."