Last week, Impact Sports released the first of an eight-part series, previewing Michigan State’s safety unit for the 2014 football season.
This week, the focus is on the other part of the “No Fly Zone,” the cornerbacks. Last season, this unit, along with the safeties, helped give the Spartans the third-best pass defense in the nation, allowing just over 165 yards per game.
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Key Departure: Darqueze Dennard
Dennard is the clear and obvious choice here. His career accomplishments at Michigan State include, but are not limited to, two consecutive first-team All-Big Ten selections (2012, 2013), a unanimous first-team All-American selection (2013), the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (2013), one of five Bronko Nagurski Trophy finalists (2013), and was Michigan State’s first ever Jim Thorpe Award winner (2013).
It will be difficult to replace the nation’s best cornerback, but it may be more difficult to replace his knowledge of the defense. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is one of the best defensive tacticians in the nation, and that generally goes hand-in-hand with running a complex defensive scheme. Dennard was a three-year starter under Narduzzi, a stat which the 2014 cornerbacks, as talented as they may be, cannot boast.
Key Returner: Trae Waynes
Those unfamiliar with Michigan State football would say the secondary will not be half as good without Dennard. But Spartan fans know Waynes is ready to step into the lead role after playing opposite of the best corner in the nation last season.
He showed game-to-game improvement in his first year as a starter in 2013, starting in all 14 games. The Wisconsin native recorded his first of two career interceptions against Minnesota in the last game of the regular season. He built off that momentum by recording a crucial second half interception in the Rose Bowl Game against Stanford.
With a full year of starting under his belt, Waynes is the most experienced returning cornerback. Although his experience will not be able to match Dennard’s, he does have something Dennard never had — elite size and speed. Waynes is 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. And on top of that, he has been clocked in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash.
Other Contributors: Darian Hicks, Ezra Robinson, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson
Hicks looks to be the the front-runner to play opposite Waynes in 2014, as he has drawn a lot of praise from coaches during spring ball. He, along with Robinson and Edmondson all recorded interceptions in the spring game, as Colquhoun sat out due to injury. All of these guys have seen limited action, mainly on special teams, but show promising potential. Though experience may come at a premium with these four guys, there will be no lack of depth or talent at the corner position.
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Preseason Grade: B
This unit is very similar to the safeties. Both return a starter who looks to lead the conference in their respective positions, both have a player lined up to fill an empty position slot, and both have a group of talented, yet inexperienced players ready to provide good depth.
Waynes is ready to emerge as one of the premier corners in the conference. Hicks will be a good pick to fill the empty corner slot with Dennard’s ascension to the NFL, provided that he continues to improve as he has through the spring.
The overall inexperience of the group is the reason this group did not receive a higher grade. Though the players behind Waynes have shown this spring that they are ready to keep up the legacy of strong cornerback units at Michigan State, it is difficult to judge a group who has not had much real game time at the position. Just like with the safety unit, do not be surprised if their grade is higher at the end of the season.
Dan Tyler is the host of Spartan Red Zone for Impact Sports.
Photo: David Defever/Impact Sports