Jalen Watts-Jackson of Orchard Lake St. Mary's is among the group of talented young MSU defensive backs. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Chicago — Michigan State’s defense has been among the best in the nation the last three seasons, finishing second overall last year.
And while the Spartans must replace six starters on defense, there is a belief there will be little to no drop-off headed into this season.
To achieve that, it seems at least a true freshman or two might get a shot to play. Much of that speculation has surrounded the interior of the line, a position the Spartans restocked through what coach Mark Dantonio has called likely one of his best recruiting classes.
But during the Big Ten’s Media Days in Chicago this week, Dantonio highlighted another position that could see some new blood — the secondary.
Gone are safety Isaiah Lewis and cornerback Darqueze Dennard, the Jim Thorpe Award winner. Heading into practice, which begins Friday, there is plenty of experience ready to jump into those voids — RJ Williamson, Demetrious Cox and Jalyn Powell have been solid at safety while Darian Hicks leads a group of good corners that includes Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun.
But that hardly means a first-year player seeing the field is out of the question.
“I think there’s three or four guys, especially at corner, that have an opportunity,” Dantonio said. “You start with Vayante Copeland, you move from there to Jalen (Watts-Jackson) and then also I think Montae Nicholson has the ability to go out there.”
At 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds, Nicholson is the most heralded of the group, ranking as a four-star recruit in most services.
“He can play three positions as a big-bodied guy,” Dantonio said. “But he can really run and move his feet. ... He’s got great ball skills, he runs extremely well, (runs a) 4.4. Has got great balance.”
Copeland is 6-0 and 184 pounds, while Watts-Jackson is listed at 5-11 and 182 pounds.
“Those three guys are gonna flop in there a little bit,” Dantonio said.
Locker room amenities
Michigan State made $24 million in improvements to Spartan Stadium during the summer, and the highlight is the new locker room Dantonio tweeted pictures of last week.
“Me and some other guys went over there after working out the other day to see if we could get a tour,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “That thing is amazing. Compared to what we had for the past 70 years or however old those locker rooms were, we’re so lucky, we’re so fortunate to have the facilities we have.
“We actually have room to stretch and not be worried about someone stepping on our face with their cleats as we’re laying on the ground stretching.”
The new facilities also include visitor and official locker rooms, a recruiting room and media room.
“It truly has everything,” Dantonio said. “It makes a statement when you walk in there. But I’ll go back to this: It’s just a locker room. And I’ve said over and over to the recruits and to our coaches and to our players, it’s who you put in the locker room that’s important.”
Heading into camp, Cook is the starting quarterback while sophomore Tyler O’Connor is the backup and redshirt freshman Damion Terry is No. 3.
Terry is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and will likely be limited early in camp.
“That (competition) will be something as we move forward,” Dantonio said. “But at the end of the day, a quarterback is a game management position and you’ve got to be able to do that.”
Man in the middle
Taiwan Jones enters camp as the No. 1 middle linebacker with the best shot at replacing Max Bullough. But junior Darien Harris, the starter at STAR linebacker who filled in for Bullough in the Rose Bowl, could end up there when the season starts.
“No,” Dantonio said when asked if he would be surprised if Harris was starting in the middle. “We’ve got good players and our players have game experience. (Redshirt freshman) Jon Reschke has done some good things and he is in the mix. I think a lot of those guys are in the mix.”