In 2021 the Michigan State Spartans gave up a lot of yards through the air. In total, Michigan State’s defense gave up a total of 4,222 passing yards, which works out to 324.8 yards per game. Those numbers were good enough to be ranked No. 130 in the FBS in total pass defense out of a total of 130 teams.
In other words, specifically the words of Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker at Big Ten Media Days:
“We were last in the country last year,” Tucker said. “Dead-ass last. Now that’s going to change.”
As for the prospects for improvement in 2022, I am reminded of the sage words of former Michigan State men’s basketball head coach and Spartan legend, Jud Heathcote. “There’s good news and bad news,” Heathcote once said to open the season. “The good news is we have everyone back from last year. The bad news is we have everyone back from last year.”
With not a lot of turnover from 2021, can MSU fans expect to see much improvement?
Returning fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson discussed the issue at length at Big Ten Media Days and he is optimistic. Henderson believes that the combination of more experience, more familiarity with the coaching staff, a better pass rush, some schematic tweaks, and some increased motivation will translate into much better performance in 2022. In addition, there are a few notable new faces who just might provide a boost to the secondary.
Of course, Michigan State runs a 4-2-5 base set under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, so five defensive backs are often present on the field (two outside cornerbacks, two safeties and a nickelback).
Let’s now take a closer look at these new and returning players in the secondary.
- No. 12 Chester Kimbrough (senior, started 11 games in 2021)
- No. 9 Ronald Williams (senior, started nine games in 2021)
- No. 29 Marqui Lowery (sophomore, started two games and played in seven games in 2021)
- No. 0 Charles Brantley (sophomore, started one game and played in eight games in 2021)
- No. 30 Justin White (junior, played in all 13 games in 2021)
- No. 33 Kendell Brooks (senior, played in 13 games in 2021 as a safety and primarily on special teams)
- No. 14 Khary Crump (sophomore, played in two games on special teams in 2021)
- No. 18 Ameer Speed (graduate transfer, started three games for Georgia in 2021)
- No. 37 Caleb Coley (freshman, three-star recruit and early enrollee)
- No. 20 Ade Willie (freshman, three-star recruit and early enrollee)
- No. 24 Malcolm Jones (freshman, three-star recruit)
- No. 39 Joey Silveri (freshman walk-on, listed on roster as “DB”)
Last year’s primary starters, Ronald Williams and Chester Kimbrough, return to East Lansing this fall, and it might be natural to expect both to take most of the snaps in 2022. However, based on some observations at the Michigan State spring game, this pairing seems unlikely on the outside this fall.
While Kimbrough did take a lot of snaps during the spring game, he was almost exclusively lined up at the linebacker level as a nickelback. It seems most likely that Kimbrough will split time with now linebacker Darius Snow at this position. It should also be noted that Justin White and freshman Caleb Coley also both took snaps as the nickelback in the spring game, and others could end up playing there as well.
The first-string cornerbacks in the spring appeared to be Georgia transfer Ameer Speed and rising sophomore Marqui Lowery. However, due to injuries, Ronald Willams did not participate in the spring game, while Charles Brantley wore a red no-contact jersey. In any event, Williams, Speed, Lowery and Brantley are the most likely top-four corners in the program right now.
It seems likely that all four will see playing time this fall, barring significant injuries. I expect to see Williams and Speed get the starting nod on the outside on Sept. 2 against Western Michigan.
That said, watch out for Brantley. He played very well as a true freshman until suffering a season-ending injury against Purdue. Interestingly, Pro Football Focus graded Brantley as the Spartans’ second-best cornerback overall in 2021 (with a total grade of 68.1 out of 100) behind only Williams (69.6) and as the Spartans’ best corner in coverage (with a grade of 72.3).
Brantley’s PFF grades were also better than those posted by Speed at Georgia last year (69.0 in coverage and 66.3 overall). If Brantley can stay healthy in 2022, it would not be shocking to see him earn significant playing time this season.
Pro Football Focus’ grades also seem to support Kimbrough’s move from cornerback to nickelback. Kimbrough had the lowest overall grade of all of Michigan State’s cornerbacks last year (62.1), including the second to lowest grade in coverage (59.2). Only Lowery’s grade was lower at 57.6. To this point, White is also a dark-horse candidate to pass Lowery on the depth chart at cornerback.
- No. 3 Xavier Henderson (graduate student, started 13 games in 2021)
- No. 15 Angelo Grose (junior, started 13 games in 2021)
- No. 28 Tate Hallock (junior, played in eight games in 2021)
- No. 40 A.J. Kirk (redshirt freshman)
- No. 34 Khalil Majeed (redshirt freshman, walked on in 2021 and did not see game action)
- No. 1 Jaden Mangham (freshman, four-star recruit and early enrollee)
- No. 21 Dillon Tatum (freshman, four-star recruit and early enrollee)
- No. 43 Malik Spencer (freshman, three-star recruit)
- No. 25 Isaiah Henderson (freshman walk-on, Xavier Henderson’s younger brother)
In 2021, Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose started all 13 games and took almost 2,000 snaps combined. Henderson is a fifth-year senior, a clear leader of the defense, and has solid Pro Football Focus grades at the safety position (69.2 overall and 61.5 in coverage). Barring injury, Henderson is going to play a lot in 2022.
But the other safety position is a little more uncertain. Grose certainly has the advantage in experience, but his Pro Football Focus grades are among the lowest in the Big Ten at his position (56.4 overall and 57.1 in coverage). While it seems likely that Grose will be the starter on opening night, it is possible that another, younger player may emerge to take some of his snaps if his performance does not improve this fall.
In the spring game, Jaden Mangham and Kendell Brooks appeared to be the first pair of safeties off the bench. But, Brooks has a lot of positional versatility and is now listed as a cornerback on Michigan State’s roster. Therefore, the most likely pool of candidates to replace Grose (if needed) would include Mangham as well as redshirt freshman A.J. Kirk, true freshman Dillon Tatum and true freshman Malik Spencer.
Based on the spring game, expect Mangham to see the field early as the third safety in the rotation. I would also not rule out Tatum to at least make a push for significant playing time this fall, perhaps even at nickelback
In any event, Tucker and his staff have done well on the recruiting trail for players in the secondary. Furthermore, Tucker is a former defensive back himself as well as a former defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator. In addition, assistant coach Harlon Barnett is in charge of the secondary. Barnett has a proven track-record of developing NFL talent. The pieces are all there for significant improvement.
Some combination of the talented underclassmen on the roster are likely to provide quality depth at the position in 2022 and beyond. Despite the problems in the secondary in 2021, the future does look bright.