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Michigan State Football 2021 Positional Preview: Defensive Backs

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Western Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021 college football regular season is near, as the Michigan State Spartans officially kick off the campaign in eight days against the Northwestern Wildcats on Friday, Sept. 3. With that said, The Only Colors continues to break down each positional group on MSU’s roster, which leads us to the defensive backs.

The personnel in the secondary is quite intriguing. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s 4-2-5 base defense means that there usually will be more defensive backs on the field than any other position, depending on the exact package Hazelton calls, obviously. That will allow for a lot of different individuals to see the field.

The Spartans return several of last year’s contributors in Kalon Gervin, Xavier Henderson, Angelo Grose and Michael Dowell, but the depth behind them looked thin in the spring. Mel Tucker and his coaching staff have since added several transfer players to the roster, and now the group looks very competitive and deep. The question is how the new pieces will fit in with the program. Let’s break it down.

Projected Starters/Contributors:

Kalon Gervin, cornerback, redshirt junior

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Gervin, now as a redshirt junior and one of the more experienced players in the secondary, should step up as a leader in the defensive backfield in 2021. The cornerback — who came out of Detroit Cass Tech as a four-star recruit in 2018 — has played in 19 career games with seven starts, and has recorded 30 total tackles, four passes defended and a fumble recovery throughout his career. In 2020, he started all six games he played in (missing the Indiana game) and played a total of 420 snaps.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Gervin, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, played 222 coverage snaps in 2020 (the number of plays a player was in coverage against the pass). He allowed 18 catches on 31 targets for 258 yards and two touchdowns. He was called for pass interference just once.

Gervin should start at one of the outside cornerback spots, perhaps as the boundary cornerback (short side of the field), but competition from the transfers (namely Ronald Williams and Chester Kimbrough) and others makes it a little more intriguing to call it a lock. With that said, I would be surprised if Gervin (assuming he stays healthy) doesn’t either start or at least play meaningful snaps against Northwestern on Sept. 3.

Xavier Henderson, safety, senior

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Henderson is the unquestioned leader of the defensive backfield, and one of the top leaders of the team as a whole, as evidenced by his appearance representing Michigan State at Big Ten Media Days. On the field, the senior is the most experienced member of the secondary, playing in 33 career games with 20 starts and earning a letter in all three years on campus so far.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Henderson leads all active Spartans with 139 career tackles. He has also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, six pass breakups and one forced fumble. He started all seven games in 2020 and played 511 total snaps, which led the MSU defense. Sports Info Solutions says Henderson played 255 coverage snaps (second most on the team behind Shakur Brown’s 259), allowing 11 catches on 19 targets for 110 yards, one pass defended and one defensive pass interference penalty.

Henderson is a lock to start at one of the safety spots (he tends to play more of a strong safety role) and will likely be the heart and soul of the defensive unit.

Angelo Grose, safety, sophomore

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Grose had a breakout true freshman campaign in 2020 as a cornerback/nickelback. He appeared in all seven games and started four games against Penn State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Indiana, playing a total of 274 snaps. He caught the attention of both his coaching staff — Mel Tucker now endearingly refers to him as the “sugar weasel” — and MSU fans alike.

Grose, who was named runner-up for Ohio Mr. Football in 2020, recorded 23 tackles, including 0.5 tackle for loss, two passes defended, one forced fumble and a quarterback hurry. Sports Info Solutions tallied 148 coverage snaps for Grose last year, where he allowed 14 catches on 23 targets for 212 yards and two touchdowns.

The sophomore will switch over to safety for the 2021 campaign, where he also played in the spring, and is expected to start at free safety. How Grose can build on a promising true freshman season will be something to watch.

Michael Dowell, safety/nickelback, redshirt junior

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Dowell — who of course is the younger brother of former Spartan standouts Andrew Dowell and David Dowell — also brings experience and past production, and is now entering his redshirt junior season.

Sports Info Solutions shows Dowell having played 144 coverage snaps in 2020, where he was targeted 12 times and allowed six catches for 85 yards and one touchdown. In 20 career games, Dowell has compiled 42 career tackles, 0.5 sack, 0.5 tackle for loss, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery. He is also a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection.

Dowell often played in the nickelback spot for the Spartans last season, and should start there again in the 4-2-5 defense in 2021. With that said, although Williams and Kimbrough project more as outside cornerbacks, it is possible one or both of them could push Dowell in the slot role as well, in order to get the best combination of defensive backs on the field. Look out for Darius Snow to play some snaps at nickelback as well. Either way, it’s Dowell job to lose right now, and we will see plenty of snaps this season.

Ronald Williams, cornerback, senior, transfer from Alabama

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Reports out of fall camp have been that Williams has impressed since arriving on campus. His size and length at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, could be a real asset for the Spartans’ defensive backfield. He also transfers in from arguably college football’s best program, the Alabama Crimson Tide, so the potential with Williams is exciting. Prior to his time at Alabama, he played for Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.

Unfortunately for Williams, he broke his arm playing with the Crimson Tide in 2020, and was limited to just three games in Alabama’s national title-winning season, recording a single tackle. At Hutchinson Community College, Williams had 49 tackles, eight pass breakups, and four interceptions in two seasons. According to SIS, Williams played just 14 coverage snaps last season, allowing one catch for nine yards on three targets.

Tucker coached at Alabama with Nick Saban in 2015, and also previously worked for Saban during his first stint at MSU in 1997 and 1998, as well as at LSU in 2000. Tucker’s common philosophies with Saban could make the transition for Williams much easier. Williams is battling Gervin, Kimbrough and possibly even true freshman Charles Brantley for a starting spot as an outside cornerback, but will see the field often for the Spartans regardless of if he “starts” or not.

Chester Kimbrough, cornerback, junior, transfer from Florida

Towson v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Similarly to Williams, Kimbrough has made a quick impression in East Lansing since he transferred in from Florida. The 6-foot, 180-pound cornerback played 17 games for the Gators, including nine appearances in 2020, and recorded 15 tackles and three pass breakups.

Kimbrough played 53 coverage snaps for Florida last year, according to SIS. He was targeted only five times, but gave up three catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.

Kimbrough will battle with Gervin, Williams and Brantley for a starting spot on the outside. He was seen playing primarily on the outside at the “Meet the Spartans” event on Monday night, but as mentioned, could potentially see some playing time in the slot as well (he has cross-trained at nickelback) — while that seems less likely at this point, Kimbrough could certainly see snaps there in more passing down looks. Kimbrough should be a major contributor regardless of being considered a “starter” or not.

Other Transfers:

In addition to Williams and Kimbrough, MSU added the following players through the transfer portal:

  • Marqui Lowery, Jr., cornerback, redshirt freshman, 6-foot, 175 pounds, transfer from Louisville.
  • Khary Crump, cornerback, redshirt freshman, 6-foot, 175 pounds, transfer from Arizona.
  • Kendell Brooks, cornerback/safety, junior, 6-foot, 200 pounds, transfer from North Greenville University (Division II), enrolled in January.
  • Spencer Rowland, cornerback, graduate student, 6-foot, 195 pounds, transfer from Wheaton College (Division III), enrolled in January.

True freshmen:

  • Antoine Booth, cornerback, 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, DeMantha Catholic High School (Maryland).
  • Charles Brantley, cornerback, 6-foot, 165 pounds, Venice High School (Florida).
  • Michael Gravely, safety/defensive back, 6-foot, 210 pounds, Glenville High School (Ohio), enrolled in January.
  • A.J. Kirk, safety, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Archbishop Hoban High School (Ohio).
  • Khalil Majeed, 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Suffield Academy (Connecticut), walk-on.

Notes on the true freshmen:

Of the names above, expect Brantley to earn immediate playing time. While he has a small frame at just 165 pounds, he has impressed his coaching staff, including both Tucker and Hazelton, and was seen working with the first-team defense at “Meet the Spartans” earlier this week.

Here is what Hazelton had to say about Brantley at a recent media availability session (via the Detroit News).

“Chuck has done a phenomenal job,” Hazelton said. “He’s super light right now, but that dude will strike you. He’s got contact courage.”

Also watch out for Kirk to try to earn a role. Earlier this summer, Henderson praised Kirk’s work ethic at Big Ten Media Days.

“He can go and he is going to work as hard as me,” Henderson said about Kirk.

Gravely enrolled in January, but was not seen at “Meet the Spartans” (nor was wide receiver Ricky White). Both are listed on the roster, but away from the team for unknown reasons, as Tucker said neither player is currently participating in team activities as of Aug. 24.

Others on roster:

  • Emmanuel Flowers, cornerback, graduate student, has played in 19 career games (primarily on special teams).
  • Justin White, cornerback, redshirt sophomore, sat out 2020 after transferring Division II Colorado Mesa University.
  • Zach Denha, defensive back, redshirt freshman, walk-on in 2020 who redshirted and didn’t see game action.
  • Torrell Williams, defensive back, redshirt sophomore, third-year walk-on, has not see game action.
  • Darius Snow, sophomore, safety/nickelback, played in six games (primarily on special teams) as a true freshman in 2020, will push for playing time on defense and special teams in 2021 (Snow is also a talented graphic designer).
  • Tate Hallock, redshirt sophomore, has a big frame at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and has played in six career games.
  • Kobe Myers, redshirt freshman, second-year walk-on who did not see game action in 2020 after redshirting.

Of this group, Flowers, Snow and Hallock are the names to watch as potential contributors either on defense or special teams.

Note: C.J. Hayes appears to be switching from wide receiver to defensive back, as Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press notes. Hayes was also seen lining up as a defensive back at the “Meet the Spartans” event this week, as seen by The Only Colors’ Paul Fanson.