Michigan State defense driven to dominate

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't want to nag any more.

Narduzzi always had told his defenders exactly what they needed to do to become an elite unit. He shaped the identity of the unit, rather than the players themselves.

"It's like your mother telling you to make your bed before 8 o'clock, 'Don't come down and eat breakfast, do this and do this,' " Narduzzi told ESPN.com. "And you're going, 'C'mon, Mom, can't I eat breakfast first and then make my bed?' Well, me coming in there and telling them all those things is the same."

Several years ago, Narduzzi put the players' identity in their own hands. He no longer would outline the traits that would make them a great unit. The defenders met as a group and brainstormed the core values they wanted to display on the field.

"When people watch you on tape, when people watch you on Saturday afternoons on ESPN, what are they saying about you?" Narduzzi told the players. "Are they saying, 'Look at these guys. They look confused.' Or are they saying, 'They're playing fast.' "

They chose a nickname -- Spartan Dawgs -- and a list of terms that best reflected their goals. The final product is a blueprint for a defense that has come to define the Michigan State program in recent years.

It can be found in meeting rooms, players' binders and in the locker room before games.

"We all come up with some things we can go by, stuff we need to do during the game, which is dominate, which is create turnovers, which is making plays," senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "Stuff like that can motivate us and give us a guideline for how we come into each game.

"We've got a nice poster with the Spartan Dawgs, the goals and a little mean dog. It's kinda cool."

Defensive lineman Tyler Hoover, a studio art major, designed last year's poster, which features a dog wearing a Spartans logo on a chain. The dog's bowl includes a Big Ten championship ring and the words "Everybody eats."

The poster defines Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." Below are words like relentless, nasty, swarming, devastating, turnovers and dominating. The poster ends with the words: TURN UP.

The 2011 poster was similar, and included the statement: We will set the standard nationally for the most reckless, disruptive force unleashed on any team. It's not exactly Shakespeare, who in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" wrote about the "hounds of Sparta" -- So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung/With ears that sweep away the morning dew;/Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls -- but it works for the players.

"We run out of synonyms, to be honest," senior linebacker Max Bullough said. "We have a good idea of what we want to do, where we want to be. It's just adding little flakes here and there, having different guys on the team and who's going to step up and say, 'This is what we should have on it.'

"It's pretty similar each year."

So are the results of the Spartans' defense. Michigan State finished fourth nationally in total defense last season (274.4 ypg) after placing sixth in 2011 (277.4 ypg). The unit also has ranked in the top 10 nationally in both points allowed and rushing yards allowed in each of the past two seasons. Last year, Michigan State finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense.

A high standard has been set, but the Spartans expect to reach it again this season. Seven defensive starters return, including two 2012 first-team All-Big Ten selections in Bullough and Dennard, along with honorable-mention selections in safety Isaiah Lewis, linebacker Denicos Allen and end Marcus Rush. The Spartans boast one of the deepest secondaries in the country, a veteran linebacking corps and several potential stars up front like Shilique Calhoun, who locked up a starting end spot opposite rush this spring.

"We have an experienced secondary coming back, an experienced defense coming back," Lewis said. "I'm just expecting what everybody else is expecting, to come out and dominate other teams."

The defense has areas that can be improved, such as generating more sacks (tied for 93rd nationally last season, 1.54 per game) and takeaways (tied for 73rd with 20). But asked what the next phase is for the defense, Narduzzi replied, "Keep doing what we're doing."

The Spartans have evolved into an elite defense under Narduzzi and coach Mark Dantonio, a former defensive assistant at four FBS schools, including Michigan State (defensive backs, 1995-2000) and Ohio State (defensive coordinator, 2001-03). But they weren't always that way.

Michigan State finished 31st, 58th, 73rd and 43rd in defense during Dantonio's first four seasons as coach. The Narduzzi/Dantonio-led defenses at Cincinnati from 2004 to 2006 were decent but not special, finishing no higher than 31st nationally.

Dantonio identifies three factors that have helped the Spartans' defense reach nationally elite status: stronger recruiting/player development, staff continuity, and players who have experienced success and know the standard.

"We've got players who have excelled in the past, and success breeds success," Dantonio said. "When they have the same teacher, and that same base concept stays the same, over a period of time you begin to handle it more efficiently. I think that's happened to our football team. It doesn't mean we don't have breakdowns. We do. But we're able to overcome those, and we’re able to play with a lot of confidence and we're able to play fast.

"Any time you can do those two things ... you can be successful."

The same teacher is Narduzzi, who has served as Dantonio's defensive coordinator throughout his head-coaching career. Despite being courted by Texas A&M after the 2011 season and being mentioned for several head-coaching vacancies, he'll remain with the Spartans for a seventh season this fall.

Assistants Harlon Barnett (secondary) and Mike Tressel (linebackers) also came with Dantonio and Narduzzi from Cincinnati. The defensive staff had its first change this past offseason, when line coach Ron Burton replaced Ted Gill.

"There's something to be said about that," Bullough said. "You can play fast, you know the defense, you don't have to worry about the little things and the big things will take care of themselves."

Michigan State's defense wasn't the reason the team backslid from 11 wins in 2011 to seven last season. The unit made strides in most major statistical categories and played arguably at a championship level. But it wasn't perfect, and with Michigan State's offense sputtering -- the Spartans finished 108th in scoring and 95th in total yards -- it cost the team. They dropped five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points.

There's a concern that the gap between the defense and the offense will create splintering, but Dennard says the Spartans "never got divided." Still, the offensive players know they must make up some ground this offseason.

"Each day, going to practice is a challenge for us," offensive tackle Fou Fonoti said. "Seeing them play with the amount of emotion, and you see Coach Narduzzi, it puts that fire for us. We've got to execute better, so we're trying to feed off of that."

This year's Spartan Dawgs blueprint should be finalized soon. One word likely to appear, if Lewis has a say, is nastiness.

Barnett has a picture of The Incredible Hulk on the wall of the defensive backs' meeting room and encourages his players to "bring the other guy out."

"I'm a nice guy off the field, but when you step on that field, you aren't that nice guy any more," Lewis said. "You've got to bring out that other side. ... Just a nasty guy, somebody mean, somebody angry."

Somebody striving to be the best.

"We want to be the No. 1 defense, we want to be the talk of the nation," Dennard said. "We take so much pride in that. None of us forget the blueprint."