East Lansing — Montae Nicholson says there's nothing to worry about.
Michigan State's secondary will be just fine when the Spartans kick off the 2015 season in a few months at Western Michigan.
"The No-Fly Zone will be in effect once more," the rising sophomore said after Michigan State's spring game Saturday.
It's a legitimate concern — as good as Michigan State's defensive backfield has been — since replacing departed players can be difficult. And the Spartans aren't replacing just anyone.
Last season, the Spartans lost first-round pick and Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard as well as safety Isaiah Lewis. This year they'll have to find replacements for cornerback Trae Waynes, who will likely be a No. 1 pick this week, and safety Kurtis Drummond, who was the Big Ten's defensive back of the year and an All-American, according to the Football Writers Association of America.
However, the players battling to become the next stars in the Michigan State secondary were on display Saturday. The competition during spring practice has been fierce.
There aren't many sure things except that three safeties will almost certainly play large roles.
Senior RJ Williamson is the likely starter at free safety and Nicholson, who had a solid freshman season and is a dynamic athlete who might also see some snaps on offense, should start at strong safety. And junior Demetrious Cox, who has played primarily safety, will have the inside track at one of the cornerback spots.
However that threesome shakes out, there is little doubt they'll all play, as coach Mark Dantonio has often pointed out.
The big battle will be for the other starting corner spot as well as which players will be key backups.
Junior Jermaine Edmondson is making the most of his opportunity and has drawn praise all spring. He was solid in the spring game Saturday and is in good position heading into the off-season. Fifth-year senior Arjen Colquhoun has also been playing well while junior Darian Hicks, who had his ups and downs as a sophomore, had a big pass breakup Saturday on a deep ball to Macgarrett Kings.
Redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland has also had a good spring and played extensively Saturday.
"I saw Demetrious Cox make a nice tackle on big (Lawrence Thomas), nice tackle in there," said co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett. "I saw RJ Williamson make some nice plays as well and Arjen Colquhoun make some plays, as well. Some guys did a nice job out there today. Gotta watch the film before you can really say who did what and how they did it, but overall they did a pretty decent job."
Williamson has always been solid and Cox looks to be playing his way into the same type of performer, but the next star might end up being Nicholson.
He played all 13 games last year as a true freshman and started three times. He had five tackles in the spring game, but he flashed his athletic ability by getting a few reps on offense as a receiver.
Nicholson is a dynamic athlete who finished sixth in the long jump at the 2015 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships, and he's prepared to play wherever the Spartans need him.
"They ask, I do," Nicholson said. "It's not a big deal to me. Anyway I can help the team, but I'm not sure if it was just a spring thing because we split the receivers or if they're going to give me a shot at it. But whatever happens I'm gonna help the team out and make the best of my opportunity."
As exciting as it was for Nicholson to play offense, he spent the entire spring focusing on becoming the best defensive back he can be.
"My thing this spring was gaining knowledge and becoming more comfortable," he said. "I felt like I've done that. I feel like my teammates and fellow defensive backs have become more comfortable with me, and that is what I want. I feel like chemistry is a big part of this game and we've built good chemistry, we play off each other and I feel like we trust each other.
"As far as knowledge and just ability out there on the field, our coaches take experience over talent and I understand why. Somebody has been there making those plays. Once I get the knowledge and everything down, and the experience (I gained) from last year, I feel that will make me a better player."
And Nicholson believes that puts he and the rest of the secondary in position to continue the "No-Fly Zone" reputation.
"We have enormous shoes to fill," he said. "But it feels like the defensive backs this year will be able to fill those shoes and carry out what they set in place."