East Lansing — The competition at cornerback will be one of the most hotly contested battles of preseason camp for Michigan State, and one player is already falling behind.
Junior Darian Hicks, who has started 13 games, was diagnosed with mononucleosis on Friday morning, one day after completing his fitness test as Michigan State began preparation for its season-opener at Western Michigan on Sept. 4.
"Darian's got mono right now so he's out for a time … we're gonna miss him for a time," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Saturday as the Spartans wrapped up their first practice of camp.
It was an unexpected curve thrown into a competition that is expected to last all camp long. How much of that Hicks will miss remains to be seen.
"You know it could be three weeks, four weeks, five weeks," Dantonio said. "The main focus has got to be what's best for him and his health. He ran the (fitness) test and made the test and then the next day, yesterday morning he came down sick. Just got to deal with it."
Hicks, who saw action in all 14 games as a freshman in 2013, started 10 of 13 games last season but struggled at times, especially in the 49-37 loss to Ohio State. He entered spring practice in a fight to hold on to the starting spot and was listed as the co-starter at field corner with fifth-year senior Arjen Colquhoun entering preseason camp.
The absence of Hicks will likely mean more opportunity for another player. Junior Demetrious Cox, who has primarily been a safety, is listed as the starter at boundary corner and will play a large role in the secondary.
After that, the battle is up for grabs with junior Jermaine Edmondson and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland coming off solid springs. Several freshmen could also get a look early in camp, including Josh Butler, David Dowell, Kaleel Gaines and Tyson Smith.
Gaines is playing catchup after just arriving on campus this week and Dowell has the ability to player other positions, as well.
"He's a corner right now," Dantonio said of Dowell. "Probably could play front field safety, maybe could play wide out as well. He looks very skillful. But first day for the freshmen, so they're just figuring out. So are we."
Saturday was just an early glimpse from the younger players.
"You see great ball skills, you see burst, you see great athletic ability but you also need to see, I guess you'd say longevity and consistency," Dantonio said. "They gotta know what they're doing and you gotta be able to tackle in space out there. So you don't really know where we're at as a football team probably until a week in and start to figure it out because practices are long and there is a lot of film work. There is a lot of work to do with younger players but we can also see them move rapidly, if they have the skill, you can see them move forward pretty rapidly."
Several players were back on the field for the first time after missing some time in spring with injuries.
Senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge was at the top of that list but looked 100 percent as he attempts to ascend into the No. 1 receiver position after the departure of Tony Lippett.
"I thought he ran well," Dantonio said. "He hadn't run much through the summer but I thought … he was one of the guys that didn't pass the conditioning test because he hadn't been running much. But he did pass it on the second shot going around and he's got to run himself into shape. But he looked pretty good for a guy who'd been off for a while."
Right tackle Kodi Kieler, linebacker Jon Reschke (shoulder) and kicker Michael Geiger (hip) are all back full-go.
Other players to keep an eye on over the next few weeks include linebacker Drake Martinez, who Dantonio is starting out at STAR linebacker but could move, and punter Jake Hartbarger. He is a redshirt freshman that takes over after four years from Mike Sadler, who succeeded four-year starter Aaron Bates.
"Jake punted very well today," Dantonio said. "Times were excellent and booming punts."