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Senior College Football Columnist

Speed, swarming, swagger the trademarks of Narduzzi's ferocious 'Spartan Dawgs'

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Narduzzi's fired-up defense stuffed Michigan to make it four in a row over the hated Wolverines.  
Narduzzi's fired-up defense stuffed Michigan to make it four in a row over the hated Wolverines.    

This is the first of a three-part series on The New Defenders, profiling defensive coaches fighting back in this age of record-setting offense.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Warren Sapp would have loved this. Russell Maryland and Bennie Blades too. Any of those vintage Miami Hurricane defenders who had "swag" before the word was invented.

This is Pat Narduzzi's defense. Michigan State's unit was sixth nationally in total defense while leading the Big Ten in total defense, rush defense and interceptions. And if, at the end of any particular tackle, pick, sack or humiliation, the Spartans let you know about it, well, we told you Sapp would have loved this.

"It's really the same style of defense," said Narduzzi, the Spartans' high-motor defensive coordinator, "back when Tommy Tuberville was defensive coordinator with Sapp and all those guys.

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"It's funny you should say that ..."

That was 20 years ago when a 20-something Narduzzi was inspired by those great Miami defenses while at ... Miami. That would be the Miami bunch from Oxford, Ohio, in the early 1990s. Back then the young MAC grad assistant couldn't help being impressed by the dynasty developing in South Florida.

"Miami of Ohio visited Miami," Narduzzi said of a long ago coaching retreat. "That's really where we got the defense from. I've been running the same defense since then -- 4-3."

The scheme is not complicated, but as creative and intimidating as they come in this age of exploding offenses. In fact, this outpost is an outlier in the modern game. There are very few places nationally where they still play defense like this -- quick, rugged, right on the edge, if not over it. Most of the others are concentrated in the SEC.

Last season, national records were set in average yards per play, average touchdowns per game and average yards per pass. The numbers were second-best all-time in scoring, total offense and passing yards per game. To counter that, Narduzzi recruits speed, turns safeties into linebackers and linebackers into agile linemen, just the way Miami did back in the day.

This is also Narduzzi's office. Its walls are plastered with references to Spartan Dawgs. It's what the defense called itself in 2011. Narduzzi gives the squad that naming option each season. "In 2011," a poster reads, "we will set the standard nationally for the most reckless, disruptive force unleashed on any team."

The poster also contains keywords: Dominate, Turnovers, Swarming, Toughness and, yes, Swag. Swagger, baby. Somewhere Sapp is shedding a tear -- or perhaps drooling.

Like Miami of old, these Spartan Dawgs are scary good. Last season, five opponents were held to seven points or less. Narduzzi's unit had two players drafted (lineman Jerel Worthy, safety Trenton Robinson). There are more to come in the future, starting with junior defensive end William Gholston.

But the Miami comparison? Best keep it on the down low for now. As much as Narduzzi wants his guys to seek and destroy on the field, there are times when the similarities to the Hurricanes of old might be too much.

"I blame it on the uniforms," Narduzzi said. "The uniforms got them cranked up."

He is referring to the Oct. 15 dismantling of Michigan that will be best remembered for its ferocity. If they needed any more incentive, that day the Spartans were doubly jacked up, debuting their much-hyped new unis. They also committed six personal fouls in beating the Wolverines for the fourth consecutive year. Gholston was suspended for a game after retaliating against a Michigan lineman. Narduzzi was admonished by AD Mark Hollis for labeling his defense "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness."

Yeah -- wink, wink -- it had to be the uniforms.

"We're trying to intimidate you but between the whistles," Narduzzi explained.

Yes, but it's also clear the 46-year-old rising coaching star doesn't back off. He played one year for his father Bill at Youngstown State. Dad was fired and replaced by some guy named Jim Tressel.

"I think it was too much for Pat to handle," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio.

After blowing out his knee, Narduzzi transferred to Rhode Island to finish his playing career. That turned out to be a life-changing move. It allowed him to be nearer to his father who was dying of cancer in a New York City hospital.

"The day he died, the [Rhode Island] head coach put me on a plane to LaGuardia," Narduzzi said. "My dad was alive for about 15 minutes. That decision to leave Youngstown was well worth it. I would have missed it. He waited for me. If I'd have missed that ... whoa!"

Narduzzi and Dantonio have been together as coaches since 2004, defensive extensions of each other. Michigan State runs "dozens" of blitzes per game according to its coordinator. One blitz, Narduzzi said, was used more than 100 times in 2011. Sometimes the formation looks like a 2-5 instead of a 4-3. Opponents have a hard time figuring out who is coming or from where.

Mostly, it works putting Michigan State at the tip of the cutting edge of the national defensive comeback. Included in that Michigan annihilation was a pick six and 10 tackles for loss including seven sacks. Only Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl held the Wolverines to fewer rushing yards. Florida Atlantic was held to one (1) first down and 48 total yards. That was a week after Florida ripped the Owls 41-3.

"One of the greatest compliments," Narduzzi recalled, "Their quarterback was asked, 'What's the difference between Florida and Michigan State?' He said, 'Florida is more athletic and runs a little better. Michigan State is sound and doesn't give you a thing.' "

In a raw, Rust Belt region a version of old-school Miami is back. Tired of being slapped around by Michigan for years, these Spartan Dawgs are fighting back. In Narduzzi's first three years as coordinator, his unit never finished higher than 32nd in total defense. This year, eight starters return from a defense that sent notice to the nation.

"I guess it would be fun to be the bully sometimes growing up," said Gholston. "None of us are really bullies, but that's why you play defense -- to hit somebody."

NFL scouts are drooling themselves about Gholston, a sculpted 280-pound specimen whose story gets better by the day. Narduzzi doesn't recruit anyone more than 290 pounds for defensive end, preferring speed. A Detroit native, Gholston went from being a 240-pound linebacker to a national talking point after the Michigan game.

"He became [perceived as] a bad person," Dantonio said. "That's not him. They portrayed him like that. It took the shine off the win. The reality is, here's a newsflash for everybody: We've beaten them four years in a row."

Gholston wears his emotions on his tatted-up torso. That includes on his chest a large "Zita," a reference to his grandmother who died of a heart attack in 2010.

"She's my heart," he said. "I saw her the second she passed. I was in the hospital. I was there."

It's this kind of raw ardor that makes Narduzzi and his defense so intriguing going forward. They're not apologizing for the aggressiveness of the defense, but please don't go there with Miami. That's a bit too much in the buttoned-down Big Ten.

They'd be satisfied just to keep Narduzzi for a few years longer. Akron was interested in him for a head coaching job that eventually went to Terry Bowden. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin took a big run at him to be his first defensive coordinator. That resulted in a big raise for Narduzzi.

"Yes, I think his next move is as a head coach," Dantonio said. "Why take another job to get to the next job? But, you know, you have to pay the going rate."

For now, opponents are paying the Spartan Dawgs' price -- pain, punishment and -- sorry Nards -- even personal fouls. Warren Sapp really would have loved this.

Part II, Wednesday: Kansas defensive coordinator (and ex-NFL coach) Dave Campo
Part III, Friday: New UCLA coach (and ex-NFL coach) Jim Mora Jr.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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