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If there is one position Mark Dantonio knows, it’s defensive backs.
A former cornerback himself at South Carolina, Dantonio has identified and developed defensive back talent in a way matched by few in the game. Unfortunately, a season ago, the unit Dantonio prides himself on let him down.
Early season injuries to starters Vayante Copeland and RJ Williamson threw the secondary into disarray, pushing Arjen Colquhoun and multiple true freshman up the depth chart where they didn’t belong.
Compounding the injury problem was the poor performance of veterans Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks, two of the few healthy players with any meaningful experience.
Hicks has always struggled against larger receivers but Nicholson’s decline was borderline shocking. He struggled so mightily that he was benched in favor of two true freshman for the Miracle at Michigan, making that game even more remarkable.
As the season progressed things stabilized a bit. Some of the younger DB’s were able to get a foothold, Nicholson bounced back with a very strong second half and Demetrious Cox shifted back to his natural position of safety.
Crazy what health and consistency can do for a team, isn’t it?
The silver lining of the unit’s rough year is the experience gained by the younger players. This season, it’s up to them to help regain the #NoFlyZone swagger of old.
Arjen Colquhoun (Signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys) Jermaine Edmondson (Transferred — also, slapped by Draymond Green)
You often hear the story about how a player buried below stars at his position finally gets playing time and blossoms into a superstar. For Arjen Colquhoun, 2015 was the opposite, at least in the beginning.
The 6’1” 202-pounder was forced into starting duty by Copeland’s injury and as soon as he hit the field, it was obvious why he had been surpassed by a redshirt freshman, despite being a fifth-year senior. The Canadian looked lost probably because, for all intents and purposes, he was essentially a freshman himself.
He was often picked on, giving up huge plays to opposing receivers. Normally, MSU would have turned to someone else but there was really nowhere else to go.
Both Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson — who transferred after seeing the writing on the wall (and getting slapped by Draymond Green) — played capably during the back half of the season once they got comfortable. Neither would be considered liabilities if they were returning to the program but it’s probably better for both sides that they are not.
In their stead are a batch of high upside underclassmen. Oh, and that Copeland fella.
LOST AND FOUND
Demetrious Cox (R-Sr) Darian Hicks (R-Sr) Montae Nicholson (Jr) Vayante Copeland (R-So)
An awful lot is being expected of Copeland but it’s not hard to see why. Last season, he hung with some damn good receivers including Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman and Oregon’s Devon Allen and Bralon Addison and will be called on to do so again this year.
That may seem crazy for a guy who is coming off a neck injury and has only two career starts to his name, but when you consider that he was scheduled to be a starter as a redshirt freshman last year, it’s clear the coaching staff thinks he could be special.
What Copeland lacks in experience the other starting corner, Hicks, has in spades. The redshirt senior has battled nagging injuries, including mono, throughout his career but has started 16 games over the past two seasons. He’ll have a lot of competition from the underclassmen and will need to put together his best season yet in order to keep his job.
In terms of physical specimens, it doesn’t get much better than the safety duo of Cox and Nicholson. Both former four-star recruits from Pennsylvania bring premium size (6’1” 197 and 6’2” 219, respectively) and more than enough speed for the position.
Cox, a captain, is a natural safety but has played both slot and outside corner in his career. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him play a little bit of everywhere but he will get the majority of his snaps in the back. His leadership will be critical for a still developing secondary.
Nicholson’s ceiling is as high as any player on the defense, save Malik McDowell. After bottoming out against Michigan, Montae made huge strides towards getting back to his freshman form. That just so happened to be the same time that Cox was shifted largely back to safety. Probably not a coincidence.
A full offseason together should do wonders for this talented tandem. If MSU consistently gets second half Montae they will have one of the better safety groups in the conference.
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF THE INJURY BUG
Cornerbacks — Tyson Smith (So) Kaleel Gaines (R-Fr) Josh Butler (R-Fr) David Dowell (R-Fr)
Safeties — Khari Willis (So) Grayson Miller (So) Matt Morrissey (R-So) Jalen Watts-Jackson (R-So) Kenney Lyke (Fr) Demetric Vance (Fr)
Rarely is it possible to compare offensive linemen and defensive backs but in 2015 those two groups shared a common theme — injuries.
Between the two, five of a possible nine starters were lost for significant portions of time. The good news is the 2016 Spartans get to reap the rewards of youngsters gaining invaluable experience.
There are question marks, but one thing is certain, there are a lot of talent underclassmen to choose from.
At safety, the most battle-tested of the group are Khari Willis and Grayson Miller, both of whom started in Ann Arbor last year. While neither would have been mistaken for a senior, they held their own and playing in that type of environment can only help maturation. They’ll have to hold off Matt Morrissey and Jalen Watts-Jackson for playing time, but have the leg up thanks to that experience.
The real star potential lies in true freshmen Kenney Lyke and Demetric Vance. The former four-star recruits had offers from all over the country — Lyke chose MSU over Notre Dame, Iowa, Pitt and Baylor while Vance chose the Spartans over Florida, Michigan, Ohio State and others — but decided to come to East Lansing. Both are tall, fast and can lay the lumber (just ask Darrell Stewart). Neither are going to play thanks to all the aforementioned depth but the other guys better make a good impression, because these two are going to force their way onto the field before too long.
At corner, true sophomore Tyson Smith figures to give Hicks all he can handle in the race to be the starting field corner. The plan was to redshirt Smith last year but, given the litany of injuries, he was forced into action midseason and played in seven games, finishing with five tackles, including two in the College Football Playoff. He’s backed up that experience with a strong offseason and appears ready to play a sizable role.
After Smith, there is a trio of redshirt freshman vying for time in Kaleel Gaines, Josh Butler and David Dowell. None of the three have separated themselves — Butler and Dowell are listed as co-backups and Gaines checks in behind Smith — but not everyone can play. Practice and special teams will go a long way towards determining who emerges from this crowd.
Competition tends to breed excellence so whoever does end up on the field on Saturdays will have earned it.
RETURN TO THE #NOFLYZONE?
The standard for MSU defensive backs is high. The head coach was a defensive back and two of the three first round picks MSU has produced during his tenure — Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes — were as well, which makes last years slip in production that much harder to swallow.
Injuries and inexperience played big roles, but no such excuses exist in 2016.
Cox and Nicholson should be a top safety tandem in the Big Ten and Copeland has all tools of a shut down corner. Miller and Willis provide great protection at safety and there are tons of underclassmen ready to cut their teeth.
The biggest concern is the second starting corner spot. Hicks has loads of experience but that doesn’t always mean success. Remember Johnny Adams’ senior year?
If Hicks can solidify that spot, the young guys can play significant snaps without being thrown to the wolves. That creates depth and depth leads to wins.
Yes, the standard is high, but there’s no reason this unit can’t approach the caliber of its forebears. If they can consistently play to their abilities, this group will go from #FrequentFlyZone back to #NoFlyZone in a jiffy.
That’s it for position previews. Thanks to everyone who followed along. Now it’s (finally) time to play the games and see how it all shakes out.