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Depth and versatility make linebackers a strength at MSU

Riley Bullough, who led the Spartans with 106 tackles in 2015, is back to anchor Michigan State's linebackers. Andrew Hancock for ESPN

Michigan State linebacker Jon Reschke is taking his game to new heights this spring by aiming just a couple feet higher.

Three times during a team scrimmage last week, according to co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, Reschke planted his facemask into the chest of an oncoming ball carrier and sent him careening in the other direction.

“A lot of times he does a great job of taking out legs,” Tressel said. “But not very often do you see him put his face right between the numbers and knock people backwards. You saw that over and over in this most recent scrimmage. At some point he decided last year wasn’t good enough, ‘I’m going to be even better,’ and tackling in particular has really improved.”

Reschke started 14 games last season at Michigan State’s “money” linebacker position. He moved to the outside from the inside to replace senior Ed Davis, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. The injury was a big blow at the time, but in hindsight has been the catalyst for creating the deepest and most flexible group of linebackers the Spartans have fielded in a while.

Reschke and fellow junior Chris Frey tag-teamed Davis’ vacant spot and gained valuable experience as underclassmen. Reschke made 75 tackles and two sacks last season. Frey added 23 more stops and 2.5 sacks. Now, they have the experience and confidence to learn both outside linebacker positions (the “money” and the “star”) and flip between them this spring.

Tressel has four outside linebackers who he expects to be regulars in 2016. Davis, when he returns to full health, will be a mainstay at the money position. He started there before the injury and was projected as an all-conference linebacker heading into fall camp. Sophomore Andrew Dowell is locked in as a support player at the star position. Reschke and Frey can rotate into either spot.

Most of Reschke’s spring has been spent working with the starters at the star, where despite his improved tackling prowess, he’ll be asked to operate in space more often and cover some receivers in spread formations.

“You’ve got to make quicker decisions,” Reschke told the Detroit Free Press. “Some reads are a little bit different because you’re out of the box, reading into it — where you’re fitting into the run game from out of the box coming into the box. That’s a lot different. That’s the biggest thing, I think. I’ve been able to do the star naturally pretty well.”

In the middle of all these rising and returning outside backers, veteran leader Riley Bullough will once again serve as the anchor of the group. Bullough led the team with 106 tackles last fall and has improved his ability to recognize what opponents are doing and put his teammates into the right place to make plays. This spring he is serving as the defense’s pilot and its pilot light.

“He brings energy that not many people have brought,” Tressel said. “We’ve had a lot of good leaders around here [and], he’s one of those guys, but his energy level is off the charts, and it’s contagious. When he runs around like a madman, which he is, other people catch on.”

Tressel will serve as one of two head coaches at Saturday’s spring game. The team divided its roster into two squads with a senior-led draft earlier this week. Tressel said he didn’t even care to look at which linebackers his team landed. There and enough players, he figured, that he’d get at least three good ones. And they’re versatile enough to squeeze whoever he gets into positions in which they will all be comfortable.

Michigan State’s toolbox is well-loaded at linebacker, which should be one of the team’s strongest points during the 2016 season.