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East Lansing — Entering this season, much was expected of safety Montae Nicholson.

The Michigan State sophomore showed plenty of promise as a true freshman, appearing in all 13 games and starting three.

But during the second half of last weekend’s victory over Central Michigan, Nicholson found himself on the sidelines as Demetrious Cox moved from cornerback to take over for Nicholson at safety.

Mark Dantonio said Nicholson simply needed to play better.

That point was expanded Wednesday by co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel.

“Attention to detail (and) discipline,” Tressel said of things Nicholson needs to improve. “Things in the back end, a lot of times, it’s about eye control. Making sure you are looking where you are supposed to be looking, which isn’t always the guy that’s holding the football.

“Our entire defense is working on leveraging the football, which plays into open-field tackling. He is such a talent that he needs to hold himself to a very high standard. We are trying to help him hold himself to that high standard.”

Nicholson is fourth on the team with 23 tackles and has two interceptions. He admitted, however, he’s been trying to take a big step this week as No. 2 Michigan State opens Big Ten at home against Purdue.

“I’ve had to step back and re-evaluate myself,” Nicholson said. “I’ve watched myself on film a lot and I know what I need to do better.”

Nicholson has been playing the field safety, which covers a larger area. Last season he played the boundary corner, and coaches believe there is something to playing with a comfort level.

They, however, expect him to be versatile.

“There’s a comfort level there just because of experience,” Tressel said. “Sometimes, you can’t just let a guy go with his comfort level, you have to try to develop a comfort level somewhere else. We would like for him to be able to be a guy that can do both.”

Nicholson is still the starter on the depth chart and likely will be on the field when the game kicks off Saturday. But that guarantees nothing.

“When you’re trying to get the best 11 on the field, it’s do you leave a guy where he is experienced or is it better if the best backup is in that same spot, do you move someone who is experienced?” Tressel said. “You’re always trying to balance the comfort level with getting your best 11 on the field and what the talents are.”

By the numbers

A glance at the numbers says Michigan State’s defense has taken a significant drop from last season. It ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total defense (395.8 yards) and ninth in scoring defense (20.8 points). The Spartans are also 12th in third-down conversions (40.7 percent).

But Tressel is careful not to worry too much about statistics. Michigan State is third in red-zone defense and is tied for first in turnover margin.

“You need to look at wins and losses,” he said. “You need to look at the areas we’ve done well and the areas we need to improve.”

Purdue pride

Defensive line coach Ron Burton had an interesting week when Michigan State played Air Force, the same place Burton coached for 10 years before joining the Spartans in 2013.

Now it’s Terrence Samuel’s turn. Michigan State’s wide receivers coach played at Purdue from 1991-94.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “For me it was the first time going away from home, so you truly grow up. The people there were great to me. My opportunities there put me here.”

Madaris nears return

Dantonio mentioned Tuesday junior wide receiver Monty Madaris is close to returning from an undisclosed injury.

After a solid spring, Samuel is confident Madaris can step in at this point and contribute.

“There’s still opportunity,” he said. “He’s really got the whole package, it’s just a matter of he needs to come out there and play and I just hope we don’t have any more setbacks with injuries.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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