EAST LANSING, Mich. – Remember when the MSU football team had a dominant defensive backfield? The “No Fly Zone” as they were once known. Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond, those guys led some of the best pass defenses in the nation from 2011-14.
Fast forward to today. The defense looks much different, but still holds that same dominance: this time in the secondary and the defensive line.
Despite losing NFL prospect Justin Layne and senior defensive backs Andrew Dowell and Khari Willis, the pass defense will return a lot of contributors to this year’s squad, some of which will be on display when MSU kicks off its annual Green and White spring game this Saturday.
“We got a lot of experience coming back, looking last year we had a lot of injuries, including myself,” cornerback Josiah Scott said. “It won’t be much of a drop off.”
The backfield will return several starters to this year’s roster, with some holding a lot of potential to step into big roles left vacant by those mentioned above. Underclassmen Xavier Henderson and Shakur Brown are expected to step up in big ways.
“Oh yeah Shakur? He’s always been a baller for us,” Scott said after spring practice Thursday. “There’s no doubt he can play each and every Saturday for us. Especially Xavier too, he played nickel for us last year… he’s gotten a bunch of experience as well.”
Brown may be able to step into the hole left open as Scott returns to his No. 1 corner spot with the departure of Layne, and a healthy season ahead of him, giving Brown high expectations to step up this season as the team is in need of another standout cornerback.
This team, if the younger guys fill their potential, could possess one of the most talented defensive backfields ever seen at MSU. Especially with the addition of four-star recruit Julian Barnett, who is listed as an “athlete” but is expected to possibly play in the secondary.
The defensive backs, along with the rest of the team, is anxious to get out in front of fans for the first time this year as they kickoff the first major step in showing what’s to come in 2019.
Spring game 2019 – what to watch
The Green and White game, as it’s been dubbed, will continue the traditional offense versus defense format that it’s used the previous two seasons. It’s a more typical approach after having seniors draft teams for a couple seasons before changing to the current format.
The biggest thing to watch is obviously going to be how the offense performs in a more serious setting against what was one of the most dominant defenses in the nation last year.
The performance of the offense will largely fall on the shoulders of Brian Lewerke, more specifically the shoulder he injured against Penn State last season, and the play-calling of new offensive coordinator Brad Salem.
Salem is replacing Dave Warner as the lead offensive coordinator. So fans who ripped the offense for its poor play will have a new face to celebrate, or ridicule, starting on Saturday.
“All of us on offense are just trying to get it down,” junior tailback Connor Heyward said. “You will obviously see what we did in spring ball and all the different changes and adjustments we made with the coach staff. Just getting used to all that.”
The play of the defense might be something to watch as well with star defensive end Kenny Willekes still recovering from a broken fibula suffered in the RedBox Bowl this past December.
Yet, the defense will not be the main question as the offense still looks to replace running back LJ Scott and wide receiver Felton Davis III.
Returnees Heyward and Cody White are expected to carry big loads offensively, Heyward especially, as the offense is going to put more of an emphasis on the run.
“I know I’m the oldest one in the running back room now,” Heyward said on Thursday. “I think I’m more forced into that leadership role and I’m fine with that.”
The reported choice to put more of an emphasis on the run may be surprising as more teams at the collegiate and pro level have begun to find more success through the air. That’s something that made the Spartan offense what it was in 2017, when Lewerke threw for 20 touchdowns.
This weekend will portray much of what is to come this impending season, and how an offense that was bland and anemic at times can succeed at a higher level.