EAST LANSING - After watching film of the defense's 34-point victory over the offense in Sunday's scrimmage, four second-year defensive players seemed to catch the head coach's eye the most.
"I thought Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard played very well; and Marcus Rush," said head coach Mark Dantonio, who also gave favorable reviews of cornerback Tony Lippett.
Rush, a defensive end, and Lippett, a cornerback, are redshirt freshmen. They are competing for roles in the two-deep.
Bullough and Dennard, a pair of true sophomores, are slated to start at Mike linebacker and boundary cornerback.
Bullough had a team-high 11 tackles in the scrimmage.
"I thought they (the defense) played very well, played very quick, tackled well in space, those type of things," Dantonio said prior to Monday's practice.
Coaches say Bullough has gone from being a guy that will at very least be in position, correct and forceful to now a player who can come out of that base and make some ball plays. That's what he did during Sunday's scrimmage, more so than in the past.
"I'm excited about Max making plays," said Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel. "I always knew without a doubt he would be able to run the defense, everyone would feel confident about what they're supposed to do when he is running the show, that he would fill his gap physically, do his job. Now he is making a lot more plays, too. That's what I'm excited to see. This year, compared to his freshman year, he is finding the football more. So that's really good."
"He is 245 or 250 pounds, so he is very firm," Dantonio said. "He has a knack of getting off blocks, and he runs well."
Bullough is also more swift and athletic than he was a year ago when he had 23 tackles as Greg Jones's back-up at Mike linebacker.
"You come to our winter workouts and you walk around and you're going to notice him running and moving," Dantonio said. "The thing that he can do is he can take that movement and build that into playing within a system. Bullough was all over the place."
As for Lippett, the fast, rangy cornerback registered his second pick-six in five days, this time stepping in front of an Andrew Maxwell pass and making the theft.
"It was a slant," Dantonio said. "Great throw. Just a great interception and Lippett took it back for a touchdown. He did it because he did exactly what he was supposed to do, and he has great hands and it was a tough catch and he made it, pulled it out and then raced down the sidelines."
Lippett is competing with fellow redshirt freshman Jeremy Langford for the right to win the fourth cornerback job in the two-deep. Dennard and junior Johnny Adams are the starting corners. Junior Mitchell White has nailed down the No. 2 field corner job, with Lippett and Langford auditioning at boundary corner.
On Nick Hill's role as a running back, presumably behind Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.
"That's a tough one to call. It will probably depend on injuries. I think all four of those guys are playing very well but Nick Hill continues to play very well. They are quick and powerful. Statistically, all four of them got reps and ran for yardage, but they didn't run for significant yardage against our defense; it was here and there."
Any injuries of note?
"No, not of long-term," Dantonio said. "We have remained pretty healthy. We have guys nicked up after scrimmages and things like that, whether it's a slight head thing or an ankle, but we get those back, so we should be good, so far. Travis might have a little bit of an ankle right now but he will be okay. Travis has played pretty well and I thought Blake Treadwell came in there and played well yesterday."
More on the linebacker picture:
"Max Bullough played very well. Chris Norman is back in the mix. Steve Gardinerr has had a good fall camp. Denicos Allen had a good scrimmage. Those four guys are on the field right now. You see Taiwan Jones starting to become involved a little bit in the two-deep. TyQuan Hammock played well, had an interception. Thus far, they look pretty good."
On the Gardiner-Allen competition at Sam linebacker:
"I'm not going to sit and say where people are at. What I can tell you is we have another week to go before we start and guys have to play through and practice right, and have to be able to do what we're going to do in the games and function, to be the guy. But I would imagine they are both playing."
Which true freshmen are looking like they have a chance to get on the field and contribute this year?
"(Safety) R.J. Williamson is sort of in and out of it a little bit. At linebacker, Ed Davis has played well; whether he plays in the two-deep or not remains to be seen, but he will run and hit you, much like Greg Jones did as a freshman. We are just maybe a little farther along as a program now. But you can see those type of things: getting off of blocks, running and hitting people.
"On the defensive line, Shilique Calhoun would probably be the only one. Offensive line and tight end, no. We have depth at wide receiver. At quarterback, Connor Cook is very good but he is behind two good quarterbacks."
On the health of true freshman inside linebacker Lawrence Thomas, who has been out for more than a week with a shoulder bruise.
"LT remains out for probably another week. We have to get out of the sling and then he has to work back into it, so it might be Sept. 1 or something like that. He has missed a lot of practice."
How difficult will it be for Thomas to get back into the mix as a candidate in the playing group?
"I imagine it's going to be difficult because he has to rehab his shoulder first and then he has to be able to hit with it," Dantonio said. "Difficult, but he showed a lot of promise when he was able to practice. But he (only) had one day of shells. He has learned it on the walk-throughs, but he has lost a lot of time.
"You don't want to play a guy just to put him in a game and say, 'Hey you played.' He's too good of a player and too valuable of a commodity to waste. So when he is ready to play, if that's the third game, he'll play. If it's not until next year, then that's what we'll do, but it really depends on how well he is able to grasp what we're doing and then get the reps to be able to move in that direction."