Spartan Red Zone: Secondary Assessment

This is the eighth in a series of assessments on each position for Michigan State football. To read about the Spartan linebackers, click here.

Andy Chmura: @andy_chmura    

If Michigan State had any glaring holes in their 2015 roster, it was in the secondary. It did not take long for opponents such as Nebraska and Alabama to realize that scoring on the Spartans was as simple as throwing it over their heads. Luckily for Sparty, the secondary has almost nowhere to go except forward in 2016.

The defensive backfield starts with fifth year senior Demetrius Cox. The free safety had his moments in 2015, but often got beat deep by the likes of Jordan Westerkamp, Calvin Ridley or another talented wide out. Still, Cox has one more year in the Dantonio system. He had an excellent offseason where he was named captain due to his vocality and emphasis on accountability.

If there is one man the Spartans cannot wait to see back on the field, it has to be cornerback Vayante Copeland. After being primed for what looked to be a breakout year, the redshirt freshman suffered a season ending neck injury. Watch for Copland’s triumphant return to result in domination, particularly with his ability to blitz and make open field tackles.

After starting in 10 of 14 games as a safety, Montae Nicholson will return for what promises to be an outstanding junior year. After making the third-most tackles on the 2015 team, Nicholson will showcase his ability to make open-field plays. In this sense, his talents parallel that of Copeland’s. Like Cox, however, Nicholson still needs to improve his ability to read the quarterback and anticipate where a route is going to go before it is too late. If Nicholson makes these revisions, then we can expect great things from him.

Lastly, there is Darian Hicks. At 5-foot-11 inches and 184 pounds, Hicks is not the ideal size for a cornerback. Still, he is a perfect example of how much one can improve in Dantonio’s camp. Hicks has come a long way since his 2014 sophomore season. He is an incredibly explosive and spirited player. He gets few interceptions but breaks up many passes. If Hicks can stay healthy, he will have a solid year.

After the season opener, MSU’s secondary was not great, but decent. They avoided giving up the deep ball, which is a massive step up from last year. They also displayed their athletic ability to make tackles in every corner of the field. Demetrius Cox finished the game with seven tackles, while Copeland and Nicholson had six each.

The Spartans’ defensive backs, however, do need to work on turning at the right times. Hicks and Cox were hit with a few penalties due to their inability to look for the ball after it was thrown in their direction. With this, they found themselves interfering with receivers as opposed to making plays on the ball.

Grade: B

Brendan Wilner: @b_wilner16

Last season wasn’t the best for MSU’s secondary as many fans saw deep plays being run against them. The secondary definitely struggled last year, but this season there seems to be improvement.

Starting with the seniors Darien Hicks and Demetrious Cox, both of whom played last season for the defense and gained plenty of valuable experience. Hicks got his experience playing in big games against big time wide receivers. He isn’t the biggest cornerback, but his speed and heart make up for it.

Cox has been awarded captain this season. He will be the leader of the back four guys on the defense and that will be one of the most important positions for this team. He will need to be on point this season if the Spartans want to be successful against some high power offenses.

Now we go into the underclassmen, Montae Nicholson and Vayante Copeland. The hype is the refor Copeland even though he hasn’t played much. This season he will try and be one of the top corners for MSU. I think that he can achieve this with the talent that he has. Many fans are excited to see a full season out of Copeland, and they should be.

Nicholson is another athlete who will be joining Cox at the safety position. His ability to read the quarterback and get a jump on plays makes him a great defender. He has the chance to make a name for himself this year.

2016 is a new season and the secondary knows that. They have the players and experience necessary to be lockdown on defense, but they will need to stay healthy in order to do so.

The secondary did its job on Friday against Furman. They didn’t give up any big scoring plays and were fun to watch. Hicks and company had lots of energy, which went a long way for the team. There were some question marks in the second half of the game where they seemed to lose their energy and gave up some key conversions. It will be important for them to be in the game for all four quarters all season long.

Grade: B-

David Manion: @The_Manion1

The “No Fly Zone” regressed to the “Free Fly Zone” in 2015, as Michigan State finished 92nd nationally in pass defense. The biggest reason was the deep ball.

Despite last year’s disappointment, Co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett recently labeled this secondary as the deepest unit from top to bottom that he has ever seen at Michigan State.

Senior Demetrious Cox anchors the broad secondary and the captain is not afraid to lay the lumber. Cox will be accompanied by the upswing safety Montae Nicholson. The junior is Johnny on the spot, often being in the right place at the right time, as he hauled in three picks last season.

When it comes to cornerbacks, sophomore Vayante Copeland is the star of the show. Based on his small, but impressive sample size last season, Copeland is seeking to fulfill the Spartan’s best cover corner role after suffering a season-ending injury in week two of 2015. He followed his man stride for stride on a consistent basis.

Senior Darian Hicks will try to patrol his side of the field. The Ohioan needs to improve his timing when disrupting a pass play and make more accurate reads when watching the quarterback.

Reviving the No Fly Zone starts with coach Mark Dantonio implementing deep zone coverage. There were also signs of complacency from the defensive backs when they got beat deep.

The defensive backfield had an overall great performance against Furman. They only surrendered 139 passing yards and no touchdowns through the air. Cox and Nicholson showed flashes of the No Fly Zone, as they yielded no big plays downfield.

Copeland did his thing by consistently being glued to his receiver throughout the game. Hicks had quite the turnaround story, as the aggressive swatting machine rose to the occasion. It wasn’t all good news, however, as Hicks drew a few penalties for pass interference. He needs to focus on turning around to locate the football and delivering punctual contact.

The biggest key for this unit for their showdown against Notre Dame will be their ability to keep track of their receiver while watching the opposing quarterback’s eyes. This will ensure better anticipation and less penalties. Forcing takeaways will prove to be crucial as well.

Grade: B

Matt Mika: @themattmika

The Michigan State secondary was exposed last year. Key injuries and inexperience hindered the Spartans pass defense. This year, MSU fans might be looking at the new No Fly Zone. Senior Demetrious Cox, who was recently elected captain, leads a secondary looking to bounce back in 2016..

Cox has great instincts on the field and can play safety as well as cornerback. His versatility allows him to matchup against bigger tight ends and quicker wide receivers.

Joining Cox at the other safety spot is Montae Nicholson. Nicholson has outstanding athletic ability and can show range covering a lot of ground. In addition, he is able to tackle in open space which is always critical when facing explosive perimeter players.

Last season superstar Vayante Copeland suffered a season ending injury. The cornerback is going to be relied upon to shut down the best receiver on the field. Even though he is one of the quietest individuals off the field, the sophomore is tough as nails on the girdiron and brings energy, passion and a certain level of nastiness that the secondary lacked a year ago.

On the opposite island is Darian Hicks. Hicks is now entering his senior campaign and the cornerback has improved every year since he has been in East Lansing. Nonetheless, Hicks has to improve on deflecting passes because opposing offenses are going to attack him on the edge.

In week one against Furman, the secondary had a certain confidence. Cox and others in the unit describe that confidence as a level of swagger. A little trash talking never hurt anyone as long as you can back it up. Establishing your presence from the first drive is key when being a defensive back.

Nicholson was flying all over the field making plays. Receivers who think twice about going across the middle to catch a pass is a win for the defense since dropped passes, miscommunication and turnovers can result from it.

During the second half against Furman, the pass defense did allow third and fourth down conversions, but the Spartans did not break.

The level of tenacity needs to continue especially in South Bend. Notre Dame has skill players who can make plays. Playing tough, smashmouth defense over the middle will give the Spartans a chance to knock off the Irish at home.

Grade: B-