EAST LANSING – Last season Michigan State needed to replace a trio of starters on the defensive line in Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams, and Mike Panasiuk.
Now, with spring ball underway, the outlook is a bit different for the Spartans.
MSU returns every player up front except starting tackle Naquan Jones.
Defensive line coach Ron Burton says the expectation is to be "the best defensive line we can be, to be the best in the country, the best in the Big Ten."
Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley are using the additional season of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to COVID-19.
Panasiuk, a three-year starter, didn't have the 2020 season he wanted after testing positive for the coronavirus. He lost 25-pounds and was never quite the same.
In 44 career games, he has 105 tackles, 21 for a loss, nine sacks, four forced fumbles, and 30 starts.
"The expectation is for him to be a leader ... to understand the process and being able to help other guys around him, the experience that we've shared by example and by being able to coach those guys up," Burton said about Panasiuk. "That's what we expect, and we expect him to be there to have some things that at the end of the year, that means that he had a great year."
At 6-foot-2, Beesley became a starter last year, posting 27 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, and three sacks – all career-highs.
"Being able to play both inside and out and being a positive guy in the room," Burton said of Beesley. "He is a true leader up front in what we're asking him to do. Coming back for a sixth year allows him to improve his pass rush inside and out."
The Spartans added Drew Jordan in January, a graduate transfer from Duke. He recorded 102 tackles, 15 for a loss, and 10 sacks in 48 contests for the Blue Devils.
"Number one, with the experience of him having been a starter, coming here, it's a plus for us," Burton said, referencing Jordan. "He's a student of the game, has great pass rush ability, and also plays with great power, and just being a great example to the young guys up front in what he's done and how he's been coached at other places."
MSU also returns many reserves featuring Jack Camper, Michael Fletcher, and Jeff Pietrowski. Brandon Wright, a former running back, has also been added to the room and is listed as a defensive end.
Although Michigan State lost Jones, the Spartans return top defensive tackles in Dashaun Mallory, Jacob Slade, Jalen Hunt, and Maverick Hansen.
Slade started all seven games in 2020, finishing with 13 tackles, 0.5 TFL, one pass break-up, and three quarterback hurries.
Mallory and Hunt combined for three starts while Hansen played in six contests, logging 53 snaps and two tackles.
Additionally, the Spartans have three guys who didn't play as true freshmen, including Kyle King, Simeon Barrow (opted out), and Chris Mayfield.
"They are developing that second move now, and that's going to allow us to gain in more sacks and the ability to carry it over by having a spring ball," said Burton. "And then having a summer prior to going into the fall. So no doubt about that, we expect (the pass rush) to improve, and it starts with the great fundamentals in our pass rush ability."
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