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Position Preview: Defensive backs

The MSU secondary has already taken a hit, but the No Fly Zone could be back.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Throughout Mark Dantonio’s tenure with the Michigan State Spartans, the best teams have been highlighted by absolute dominance in the defensive secondary. After a bounce-back in 2017, the Spartans defensive backs have a chance to return to that elite level of play.

But there is still a lot to prove before fans can celebrate the return of the “No Fly Zone.”

Key Losses: Tyson Smith, Jalen Watts-Jackson

There weren’t many college football stories from last season better than Tyson Smith’s. After suffering a stroke in 2016, Smith returned to the team in 2017 ready to play. In one of the most amazing moments of the year, Smith jumped a route in the Spartans season opener against Bowling Green, intercepting the pass and returning it for a touchdown.

Smith and Dantonio announced in early August that he would be out for the entire 2018 season, citing unspecified health issues. Smith will remain with the team as a student-assistant coach. Dantonio fell short of officially ending Smith’s playing career, but did say this year would allow him the opportunity to start a career in coaching.

Fans will also have to say goodbye to Jalen Watts-Jackson, who will forever live in Spartans lore. The safety didn’t play a down last season, and hasn’t played a meaningful down since 2015.

But man was that a meaningful down.

Watts-Jackson decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to instead specialize in cyber systems operation and security in the Air Force. It’s somehow poetic that a former member of the MSU secondary will now work to keep planes in the air.

Losing both Watts-Jackson and Smith in the same offseason will undoubtedly hurt the most sentimental of the fan base. Both players returned from devastating health issues and won’t be soon forgotten by Spartan Nation.

Returning Starters: Justin Layne, Khari Willis, David Dowell, Josiah Scott

The Spartans return every member of the starting group that finished 2017. Layne and Willis started from the beginning of last season while Dowell and Scott took over starting spots mid-season. They replaced Matt Morrissey and Josh Butler, who are also returning, just for good measure.

Layne is the unquestioned star of this group. He has lived up to high praise from Dantonio already and is on track to become the next star corner from MSU to reach the NFL.

Dowell and Willis combine to be among the best safety groups in the country. Dowell led the team last season with five interceptions, while Willis recorded the most solo tackles in the secondary. The MSU defense doesn’t rely as heavily on safeties as it does corners, but having these two in place will relieve plenty of secondary stress and has the potential to turn opposing teams into one-dimension offenses.

The wild card in all of this, however, is the injury to Scott. The sophomore corner exploded onto the scene last year, leading the team in pass deflections with offenses trying to attack his side of the field. Dantonio announced in early August that Scott would be out roughly two months with an unspecified non-contact injury.

Using Dantonio’s rough timeline, that would keep Scott out for the first four games of the season, and in question for the homecoming game against Northwestern. While it’s never comfortable to lose someone like Scott for any amount of time, they will need him most later in the year against the more high-powered Big Ten offenses like Ohio State and Penn State.

Other Returning Players: Josh Butler, Tre Person, Matt Morrissey, Dominique Long

The biggest question surrounding the MSU defense right now is who will replace Scott as the boundary corner. While he may not have the upside of other options, Butler definitely has the most experience. The Spartans may rely heavily on the junior, especially in the first few weeks.

Person, who was listed as a safety, is seeing time in practice as a corner and could be a potential replacement for Scott as well. The redshirt sophomore has seen limited playing time in his career thus far, but was specifically mentioned by Dantonio as an option behind Scott.

Morrissey and Long add depth to the safety positions. Morrissey, one of the few seniors in the group, and Long are both strong special teams players.

Possible Impact Freshman: Shakur Brown, Kalon Gervin

A four-star recruit out of Cass Tech, Kalon Gervin had fans excited as soon as he committed to MSU. According to reports, the freshman is already showing signs of living up to those expectations.

There was a strong possibility that Gervin would have found time on the field before the Scott injury. But now, there is more than a chance that he could earn the starting job. Gervin was an early-enrollee for the Spartans and has been taking second-team reps. He’s also been working closely with Layne. It seems safe that Gervin will make an impact for the Spartans, at this point it just seems a matter of when.

Shakur Brown, a redshirt freshman, is another corner that has been singled-out by Dantonio as a possible Scott replacement. One of the best cornerbacks coming out of Georgia, Brown has the skill to be a dependable corner at an early stage for MSU.


There is a lot to be excited for with the MSU secondary. Last year, with almost no experience, the group was slightly above average. This year the expectations have been set much higher, and deservedly so.

The Spartans once again have high-end corners to anchor their defensive scheme. National eyes will be on Layne throughout the season as potentially one of the best corners in the country.

No one can question the talent in the MSU defensive back depth chart. There is more than a few players who have plans to play on Sunday.


Despite returning every starter from last season, experience is undoubtedly an issue. Willis may be the only senior in the starting group and there are a lot of high expectations for players who have never seen a down of college football.

The biggest issue facing the team right now is Scott’s health. Last year, he was nothing short of a beast on the field. But as only a sophomore, he still had plenty to prove. Now, needing to recover from an injury that could keep him out four games or even more, that is a glaring opportunity for opposing offenses.

Scott’s replacement will get tested early and often. But even after the standout corner returns, no one knows how long it will take him to return to form.