This is the sixth of eight positional previews from WDBM Sports during our 2018 college football preview. For a look at the MSU defensive line, click here.
While Michigan State needs to find a consistent rotation on the offensive line, depth behind LJ Scott and another edge-rusher opposite of Kenny Willekes, one thing is clear about this year’s Spartan group: the secondary should be the team’s deepest and most talented unit.
In Mark Dantonio’s 12-year tenure in East Lansing, he’s prided himself on stingy defenses, usually ranking up near the top-10 nationally in almost every statistical category. Dantonio had the “No Fly Zone” in the 2013-14 Rose Bowl season, a unit which ranked in the top-10 in nearly every passing statistic.
That defense sent two first-round draft picks to the NFL in Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard. Dennard went on to win the Jim Thorpe Award that season, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back.
Now, fast-forward four years, and a defense coming off a 2017 season ranked seventh nationally in total defense, that same unit returns all four starters in its secondary and could blaze its own path as the next great Spartan secondary.
Redshirt junior David Dowell returns after garnering first-team All-Big Ten honors last year after he picked off opposing quarterbacks five times, which ranked 11th in the FBS. Dowell was also named to the Jim Thorpe Award Preseason Watch List.
It took Dowell a couple of games last year to earn the starting nod over senior Matt Morrissey, but once there, his athleticism and ball-hawking skills quickly impressed observers around the conference.
Senior and probable captain Khari Willis returns opposite of Dowell after tallying 75 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four sacks and one forced fumble last year. While Willis is an exceptional playmaker on the field, finishing fourth on the team in tackles, it’s his leadership ability that’ll go a long way bringing the younger guys along to an exceptional level.
“As a leader, your job is to communicate whatever the coaches tell you as a defense and to make sure that those things come to life in a situation,” Willis said of his role as the leader of the secondary. “Sometimes you get the plan and you know you have to look at the down and distance and formation and all those things.”
There are a number of young safeties with a shot at playing time in addition to Morrissey, who returns for his final year. Sophomore Dominique Long made 10 tackles on special teams last year and has speed to burn. True freshman Xavier Henderson is also in contention for snaps and may see time in more than the four games allotted by the NCAA in order to keep a redshirt.
At the cornerback spot, the Spartans may be even better than at safety with junior Justin Layne and sophomore Josiah Scott returning. Layne finished seventh on the team with 40 tackles, eight pass breakups and one interception. In a minimum 144 snaps in coverage, Layne tied for 15th in yards allowed per coverage snap at just .62, according to college football’s Pro Football Focus numbers.
Scott came onto campus last year with big expectations as a true freshman and he lived up to them in his debut season. Starting in 12 games, Scott logged 30 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Scott, who was named to the 2017 ESPN All-Freshman team, suffered a non-contact injury in the earlier stages of fall camp but is set to return about a month into the start of the 2018 season, potentially around the start of Big Ten play against Indiana or Northwestern.
Like in years past, considering how well Scott played last year, the loss will hurt, but the Spartans should have more than enough depth at the cornerback position.
“Josh Butler is a guy that can play there. We have confidence in Josh Butler. Kalon Gervin, a true freshman, he’s looked good throughout the spring, and Shakur Brown, he’s balling out there,” standout defensive end Willekes said, speaking to the depth of the secondary. “We have guys who can step up, someone goes down, and I have confidence in Josiah that he will take his rehab seriously, and he’ll be back with us real shortly.”
Unless Scott’s injury becomes worse than first thought, there’ll be a slight positional battle at that cornerback spot, with plenty of talent to choose from. Butler is a guy who played in all 13 games last season and has started four times and has appeared in 23 career games. Because of his experience, he’s a guy who’s quickly won over coaches and players as a possible replacement for Scott. Brown, sophomore Tre Person and four-star true freshman Gervin also impressed Dantonio and could see significant time.
Considering what the Spartan secondary was able to do last season, with little to no experience, that unit far exceeded expectations. Now, with a year under most of their belts, this group’s expectations have significantly raised.
Heading into the 2018 season, if all the young guys come along nicely, this unit has the chance to be the top group in the conference, if not the entire country. The Spartans will depend heavily on this group if they plan on capturing their second Big Ten title in the last four seasons.