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The Breakdown: Talented trio of linebackers lead MSU defense

(Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of positional previews.

Previous: The Breakdown: Quarterbacks; The Breakdown: Running Backs; The Breakdown: Wide Receivers; The Breakdown: Offensive Line; The Breakdown: Defensive Line)

Big Man on Campus: Denicos AllenDenicos Allen and Max Bullough celebrate a sack against Central Michigan. (AP Photo)

Thsi spot easily could go to Max Bullough — but the role that Allen plays in the defense is of infinite importance. When you look at the transition from 2010 to 2011, the loss of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon was daunting, but Bullough and Allen stepped in and even were BETTER than the previous pair. While Bullough filled the role of Jones as the staple at the center of the defense, Allen took on a little bit of his own role — that of constantly blitzing and pressuring the quarterback. (Check out the highlight video put together by Pietrang5 for a refresher.)

Allen, listed as the No. 20 player in the Big Ten headed into this season, had 11 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 2011. He also was named to the Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi award watch lists for 2012.

Essentially, Allen is like a speeding bullet off the edge as he blitzes and blows plays up constantly. He is an exciting player to watch, and a big reason why the MSU defense is so ferocious in its pursuit of the ball — and why the Spartans have the top-ranked group of linebackers in the Big Ten.

Next best thing: Max Bullough, Chris Norman

Bullough could be the big man on campus and it would make perfect sense, but this corps is so talented that he fell into the next best thing.

The junior middle linebacker was named second team All-Big Ten in 2011 by the coaches, after leading the Spartans with 89 tackles. Heading into 2012 was named to four award watch lists (Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski). He is the brains in the middle of MSU defense — and keeps the Spartans a step ahead, as the Big Ten Blog explains.

The impact Norman has on the MSU program cannot be emphasized enough because it goes under the radar. He was the first recruit from the stellar 2009 recruiting class to commit to MSU, which included the likes of four-star running backs Edwin Baker and Larry Caper. He also is known as a solid leader on the team.

He is the least-visible of the three starting linebackers, but make no mistake, Norman’s presence is felt in coverage and also roaming sideline to sideline as the strongside linebacker. His play is what frees Allen and Bullough up to make the plays.

**More after the jump**

Best of the rest: Taiwan Jones, Darien Harris, Ed Davis

These three were the top three tacklers in the first preseason jersey scrimmage. Jones was the lone player from the 2011 class who saw the field as a true freshman. His classmates, Harris and Davis, bring plenty of talent to the second string.

Harris drew praise in the spring game and looks to be a tailor-made backup to Allen, as both are similar sizes and Harris fits the role well from all reports. On the MSU depth chart, however, he is listed as a backup at the strongside/Star position — backing up Norman with Jones.

Davis is listed as a backup to Allen at the weakside/Sam linebacker spot.

(Note: Lawrence Thomas was moved to defensive end between the defensive line preview and the linebacker preview.)

Incoming: Riley Bullough, Jamal Lyles

Max’s younger brother, Riley, is yet another Bullough to join the MSU family. Is he the same exact player? No, not exactly, but he likely will take over at the middle linebacker spot in the future. As his highlights show, he does a great job stopping the run up the middle — a role Max often fills in the A-gap blitz — and reads plays very well.

Lyles, who could grow into a defensive end as his 6-foot-4 frame fills out, is a scary athletic linebacker. He is exactly what the MSU staff loves to recruit on defense — a combination of size, speed and athleticism, particularly where he can grow into a role.

Storyline: Can the starters somehow be better than last year?

Really, last year the MSU linebacking corps was solid and consistent. So, can they do it again?

Norman missed a couple of games with injury, but Allen and Bullough were in every game. Allen burst onto the scene and lived in the backfield, but now teams know that very well — can he be as successful with teams paying attention to him specifically?

If there is one position that fans can be supremely confident in — it is the linebackers. After all, Allen, Bullough and Norman were all named among the top 10 linebackers in the conference by the Big Ten Network.