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Dallas — When Michigan State was preparing to face TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl two years ago, it had to figure out who was going to start at cornerback opposite Darqueze Dennard.

Senior Johnny Adams was hurt. That meant it was time for redshirt freshman Trae Waynes to step up. And quite frankly, the Spartans didn't exactly know how that would go. In fact, they didn't even pull the trigger on starting Waynes, instead opting to go with fifth-year senior Mitchell White.

"We didn't know what we had out of Trae Waynes," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said as No. 8 Michigan State prepared to face No. 5 in Thursday's Cotton Bowl. "That was his first start — or he didn't even start, we let Mitchell White start. ... We thought he was pretty good, just like we think everybody on our roster is pretty good. It's just, when do you get your time to go? We found out a lot about Trae that day and he's been non-stop since then.

"We could have sat here three years ago and said, 'Who's Trae Waynes? Are you sure he's gonna play?' Look where he is now."

What they found out that day was a two-star recruit from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was probably on his way to being one in a growing list of Mark Dantonio recruits that made the rankings system look silly. He played the majority of snaps that night in a 17-16 victory over TCU, recording three tackles and a half sack.

Two years later, he happens to be a Thorpe Award finalist, second-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten recipient and likely a first-round NFL draft pick.

It's not exactly what was projected for the lightly recruited prospect who had played linebacker his first two years of high school before moving to safety and then cornerback. The real question is how did a player that has been able to shut down half the field this season for the Michigan State defense go virtually unnoticed.

"I don't know," secondary coach Harlon Barnett said. "No disrespect to those (recruiting) services, but you can't see EVERY kid in the country. That's basically impossible. Our job is to go out and scour the country and find players. Sometimes you fall on a guy and luck into it because of a prior relationship or hear from a friend of a friend. It happens sometimes."

It happened for quarterbacks coach Brad Salem, who is the primary recruiter in the state of Wisconsin for the Spartans.

And it didn't hurt Waynes was a high school teammate of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting this season. The Spartans took note of his blazing speed. Even a broken leg his senior year didn't change their opinion of the 6-foot-1, 182-pounder.

"Once they found out about my broken leg, (MSU) stuck with the offer," Waynes said.

It would prove to be a wise choice.

After getting his feet wet in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Waynes teamed with Dennard last season to form one of the most formidable cornerback tandems in the country for a defense that dominated all the way through the Rose Bowl.

While Dennard was winning the Thorpe Award and positioning himself to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, Waynes was quietly collecting 50 tackles and intercepting three passes while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

The duo was as good as Barnett has seen.

"Those guys were the two best I've coached as a tandem," said Barnett, who will become MSU's co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach next season. "I was fortunate enough to get two guys like that. I don't know … I might get two at the same time that are just as good but maybe not better."

Waynes has been outstanding again this season, something not reflected in his three interceptions, seven pass breakups and 43 tackles. A lot of that is because teams simply don't throw the ball his way most weeks.

But that hasn't hidden his ability, evidenced by his draft stock and the opinion of his coaches.

"Are you kidding me?" Narduzzi said when asked if Waynes is on his short list of best cornerbacks. "Like yeah, short, like two. Him and Queze."

Through it all, Waynes has remained extremely soft-spoken. His speed and physical play are hard to detect off the field. He doesn't love talking about himself, especially if he plans to leave early and enter the NFL Draft.

But it's just his nature, one he took from his parents and his position coach.

"Coach Barnett stresses be humble or be humbled," Waynes said. "Even when I was a little kid my dad always said 'Do your talking on the field.' I've never been one to talk trash. I feel like there's no point to it. As long as you do what you have to do, everything will take care of itself."

It certainly has for Waynes, who not only has a bright future ahead but has done his part to build Michigan State into a defensive power.

"I caught one of Queze's interviews," Waynes said of his former running mate. "We're trying to make Michigan State DB U, he said. With the players and coaches we have coming through, hopefully, that can happen."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Cotton Bowl

Matchup: No. 8 Michigan State Spartans (10-2) vs. No. 5 Baylor Bears (11-1)

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Line: Baylor by 2

Series: Michigan State leads 1-0 (MSU d. Baylor, 28-10, at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 28, 1968)

Did you know? Thursday's game marks Michigan State's sixth matchup of top-10 teams in a bowl game. The Spartans are 4-1 in those games

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