Freshmen likely to hit field again against Michigan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Justin Layne

East Lansing — When Michigan State traveled to Ann Arbor last year, it did so with a pair of true freshmen starting at safety.

With injuries piling up in the secondary and then-sophomore Montae Nicholson struggling, coach Mark Dantonio decided to go with Khari Willis and Grayson Miller against Michigan. Each earned his first career start in what was the biggest game in his career at that point.

It might not be quite the same this year, but Michigan State is heading into Saturday’s home matchup against No. 2 Michigan again counting on youth in the defensive backfield.

Nicholson and safety Demetrious Cox missed most of the second half last week against Maryland, as did cornerback Vayante Copeland. Dantonio said it was because of injuries the Spartans had to rely on a young secondary.

For the majority of that half, Willis and redshirt freshman David Dowell were at safety while sophomore Tyson Smith was at one cornerback and freshman Justin Layne was at the other. In the nickel package, freshman Kenney Lyke played for the first time.

With Michigan State releasing no information on the status of Nicholson, Cox and Copeland, there’s a good chance that group sees plenty of time against Michigan.

“The best players are gonna play is always our thing,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “So whoever is playing the best this week in practice is who we’ll play and that’s how we roll.”

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Facing the top scoring offense in the Big Ten certainly will be a challenge considering Michigan State has struggled to get pressure on the quarterback all season, which has put pressure on the secondary.

It could be more of the same Saturday.

“I do think guys got to maintain their confidence level,” Dantonio said. “They’ve got to be able to do that. We’ve had some guys get injured back there. This past week — as crazy as it sounds, not one of our captains, elected captains on our football team, was playing after midway through the second quarter, so that’s very uncommon.

“But you’ve got other guys playing. You’ve got young guys getting opportunities, and we’ve got some very good young players, but they’re young. They’ve got to just grow up fast.”

Seven swipes

Barnett has the unique perspective of having played and coached in the series.

His favorite memory was in 1987 when the Spartans won 17-11 at home.

“We had seven INTs and I was fortunate enough to get one of them,” Barnett said. “It was good. John Miller had four picks.”

Getting seven interceptions this season might be a stretch for Michigan State, but the Spartans will take whatever they can get. Michigan State is 12th in the Big Ten in turnover margin.

Changing that will not be easy, but the formula is simple.

“By playing with good technique, understanding where their guys are and what they like to do,” Barnett said. “And when it comes time to make play and you’re in position to make a play — make a play.”

‘Steadily improving’

Redshirt freshman Tyler Higby started his third straight game at left tackle last week and freshman Thiyo Lukusa played most of the second half at right tackle.

They helped the Spartans run for 270 yards.

“I think those guys are working and steadily improving,” co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. “They are guys that are gonna be major contributors.”