Under the John L. Smith Spartans, the No Fly Zone was more like the WHHHYYYYYYY??? Zone. Defensive backs were routinely burned for large gains, epitomized by the UM game in 2004, where Chad Henne completed passes to Braylon Edwards for an approximate distance of Ann Arbor to East Lansing.
Under the Dantonio era Spartans however, Pat Narduzzi's defense started to slowly mold the back four into a strong pass-stopping unit. There were misfires along the way (MSU-PSU in 2010 highlights the inability of the defense to stop a wheel route), but in the past few years the Spartans have fielded one of the best secondaries in the nation.
Possible first-round pick Trae Waynes looks to help foster a stingy pass defense once again at the back. Sophomore Darian Hicks is listed currently as the other starter, but can someone take his starting spot away from him? Let's take a look at the Spartan cornerbacks for the 2014 season.
The Sure Starter
Trae Waynes - Jr. - 6'1", 182 lbs.
Waynes started all 14 games last season at field corner across from Darqueze Dennard. Waynes did an admirable job at the position, notching 50 tackles and 8 passes defended (three interceptions, five pass breakups). Now Waynes moves to Dennard's position, boundary, corner, and had to adjust a bit:
At boundary cornerback, where Dennard played last season, Waynes will be targeted more often, as it’s a shorter throw for the quarterback than the opposite field side. Waynes will also be tasked with participating more in stopping the run and blitzing. The position switch took Waynes a little bit of time to get used to. "During spring ball, he did a great job," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi told SI.com. "But he was like, ‘Man this is a lot different over here.’"
Some have Waynes projected as a top three cornerback in the NFL Draft next season should he choose to come out. If he continues to make plays like this, it'll be an easy decision whether to stay or go:
The New Starter
Darian Hicks - Soph. - 5'10", 180 lbs.
Hicks played most of last season on special teams. He emerged during this year's spring game, when he came up with the game-ending interception that secured victory for the White team. Said Hicks at the time:
"I think I showed the coaches what I can do out there," said Hicks, who came back from an injury that sidelined him for the first three weeks of spring practice to lead the White with six tackles. "I think today was a productive day for me. The coaches put me there because they think I'm a guy who can fill that spot. But you've always got to make sure you don't have any drop-offs and stay consistent.
One would think that Hicks's seizing of the starting field corner position in the spring is one factor in former MSU cornerback Ezra Robinson's decision to transfer. With Robinson's transfer, MSU's corner depth got a bit thinner. Here's who will step in for Hicks and Waynes to give them a breather or join them on the field in three cornerback defensive sets.
Arjen Colquhoun - Jr. - 6'1", 193 lbs.
From just across the Detroit river in Windsor, Ontario, Colquhoun continues the long line of Canadian Spartans such as Mike Labinjo and other players I'm sure I'm forgetting right now. He had five tackles last season in ten games played. He'll be backing up Hicks at field corner.
Jermaine Edmondson - Soph. - 6'0", 182 lbs.
Another player who saw time almost exclusively on special teams last season, Edmondson tallied six tackles last year, good for third among all special teams players. He'll be backing up Waynes at boundary corner.
The Wild Card
Montae Nicholson - Fr. - 6'2", 209 lbs.
Nicholson's first practices with the Spartans had him alternating between safety and cornerback. It appears that Dantonio wants to keep him at safety, based on his performances in scrimmages so far:
Coach Mark Dantonio hasn't ruled out Nicholson moving back to cornerback.
"I think he could go back in there and play, we've moved him into safety,'' Dantonio said on Monday. "He's a big-bodied guy. He was one of the more productive players in the scrimmage (seven tackles, pass break-up on Friday) at safety, so we moved him back in there, (and) we had a couple guys nicked up and I think that's his position, that's where he'll stay at this point in time.''
So while it appears Nicholson will stay at safety, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he sees some time at cornerback if there's an emergency situation during the season.
Those look to be your MSU cornerbacks during the season. Waynes should be solid again, and a good portion of MSU's defense will depend on how well Hicks can cover one-on-one. If he's great, the Spartans' defense will likely once again be great. If he has trouble, MSU's Achilles heel will be apparent.