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Michigan State Positional Breakdown: Defensive Backs

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Our Michigan State football positional breakdowns marches on with the defensive backs.

With so many players in the secondary on the roster, let’s not waste time with a long introduction, and jump right into it:

Josiah Scott, cornerback, junior

With Justin Layne declaring for the NFL Draft a year early, it’s now up to Scott to be the No. 1 cornerback on the team. Scott missed the majority of the 2018 season with a knee injury, however, the team opted not to use a redshirt on him and had him play a fifth game in the Red Box Bowl. He finished the year with 13 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defended. Scott was a Freshman All-American, made the Big Ten All-Freshman team and was voted third team All-Big Ten by the media in 2017. Heading into his junior year, Scott has first team All-Big Ten potential, and he was also named to the Jim Thorpe Award Preseason Watch List.

2019 Outlook: Scott is going to need to take on a leadership role in the secondary. He’ll often draw opposing team’s No. 1 receivers throughout the season. Although he is small in stature, Scott has all of the tools to be successful, and now fully healthy, I expect a big year out of him.

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Josh Butler, cornerback, senior

A three-year letterwinner, Butler has plenty of experience with 30 game appearances and nine starts in his career, but he moves into a permanent starting role in 2019. The Mesquite, Texas product has recorded 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack and six passes defended during his time in East Lansing. He is yet to get an interception, but that should change this season. He’s already proven to be a reliable third cornerback, and has shown the ability to step up when needed, but without Layne in the defensive backfield, it will be important for Butler to take a major step forward in 2019. He’s also the proud owner of some extremely cute dogs.

2019 outlook: Butler has had to play through some truly tragic circumstances in his personal life and has never seemed to waver. Although he may not wow you, his play has been fairly consistent. Now expected to be a starter as an outside cornerback, he has a chance leave his mark on the MSU program and improve his draft stock, but he’ll need to make some big strides along the way.

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David Dowell, free safety, senior

Dowell made his presence felt against Michigan in 2017 and has been a key part of the defense ever since. He has appeared in 36 games for the Spartans, including 23 consecutive starts. Dowell often makes big plays, and has recorded seven interceptions, six pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in his career. Now, with Khari Willis and his twin brother, Andrew Dowell, off to the NFL, it’s up to David to step up as a leader on the defensive unit. Dowell is a member of the team’s Eagle leadership council, and has received first team All-Big Ten honors in 2017 and third team honors in 2018 .

2019 outlook: Dowell will continue to roam the field at free safety this season, but he is now playing with the inexperienced Xavier Henderson next to him, and will need to help Henderson along the way. Dowell is a ballhawk who will be in the running for All-Big Ten honors once again. He’ll also look to impress NFL Draft scouts.

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Xavier Henderson, strong safety, sophomore

Henderson earned playing time as a true freshman in 2018, and played in all 13 games. Defensively, he saw action on 141 snaps and was often trusted to be on the field on third down situations. He also made his presence felt on special teams. Now, Henderson — who was a four-star recruit and one of the top rated athletes of the 2018 class — gets a chance to be a full-time starter at strong safety. He should benefit from playing behind the incredible front seven that the Spartans boast, as well as Scott, Butler and Dowell, but there will be a learning curve.

2019 outlook: Henderson’s potential is highly regarded amongst the Michigan State faithful and he should be able to fill the strong safety role nicely. It’s not going to be an easy task for him, though, as Henderson has to replace a captain and one of the most technically sound safeties in recent memory in Willis. He flashed his potential last season, and he’s a player to watch in 2019.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Others expected to see the field:

  • Kalon Gervin, cornerback, redshirt freshman: The crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, Gervin played in three games last season and kept his redshirt alive. He should work as the No. 3 or No. 4 cornerback after a solid spring and summer. More on Gervin here.
  • Tre Person, cornerback, junior: Person is a two-year letterwinner who has appeared in 16 games with four starts. He’ll likely see an increased role in 2019, competing with Gervin and Shakur Brown to get on the field.
  • Shakur Brown, cornerback, junior: After appearing in 12 games last season, Brown looked strong in the spring game and has been praised in fall camp. He will compete with Person for playing time on nickel and dime packages.
  • Dominque Long, safety, junior: Long has won two letters and has gotten experience in 24 career games, playing primarily on special teams. He has a chance to be the primary backup at safety this season and see the field on certain packages.
  • Julian Barnett, wide receiver/cornerback, true freshman: Barnett, a four-star recruit from Belleville, is listed as both a cornerback and wide receiver on the team’s roster. He could see playing time as a true freshman, but it may be on the offensive side of the ball.

Others on the roster:

  • Michael Dowell, safety, redshirt freshman: Dowell redshirted in 2018 and did not see game action. The brother of David and Andrew, Michael looks to continue his family legacy at MSU and carve out his own role. He’ll compete for playing time. More on Dowell here.
  • Davion Williams, cornerback, redshirt freshman: Coming from the Belleville pipeline, Williams appeared in three games on special teams in 2018, preserving his redshirt. It’s not clear what his role will be in 2019, but he has an opportunity to earn playing time. More on Williams here.
  • Andre Welch, cornerback, junior: Former walk-on who makes the transition from wide receiver to cornerback in 2019. Appeared in five games in 2018. He may also return kicks and punts.
  • Chris Jackson, cornerback, redshirt freshman: Jackson did not see game action in 2018 and took a redshirt. I’m not sure whether or not he’ll play much outside of special teams this year, but he’s a name to watch in the future. More on Jackson here.
  • Tate Hallock, safety, true freshman: With so much depth in the secondary, a redshirt is likely for the true freshman out of Grand Rapids. His brother, Tanner, is on the team as a linebacker.
  • Emmanuel Flowers, cornerback, sophomore: After redshirting in 2017, Flowers appeared in one game against Central Michigan in 2018. Similar to Barnett, he could also get some looks at wide receiver. But Flowers may have a long road ahead of him for playing time on offense or defense.
  • Jack Mandryk, sophomore, safety: Mandryk walked on in 2017 and took a redshirt. He is yet to see game action as a Spartan, but was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree in 2018.
  • David Kruse, safety, redshirt freshman: A preferred walk-on in 2018 (and high school quarterback) out of Lowell, Kruse took a redshirt last season. He may get some looks on special teams, but isn’t likely to see the field on defense.
  • Corey Pryor, defensive back, junior: A third-year walk-on, Pryor is the only player on the roster listed strictly as “DB.” He’ll add depth primarily at safety, but can play cornerback if needed.

With so many defensive backs on the roster, it’s hard to determine who all sees playing time behind the starters, but I would expect guys like Gervin, Person and Brown to be on the field plenty.

As the season opener against Tulsa is just days away, keep up with our in-depth positional breakdowns to better understand the 2019 Michigan State football roster.