East Lansing — With so much focus on Michigan State’s lack of a pass rush last season, the secondary almost has gotten a free pass.
For a unit that has become accustomed to sending players to the NFL, the Spartans struggled in 2016 with just eight interceptions while ranking 12th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. Yes, some of that was because Michigan State failed to put pressure on the quarterback, but subpar play in the back end didn’t help.
Heading into 2017, the Spartans believe, however, they’re primed to take a jump in the back end thanks to valuable experience gained by the likes of safeties Grayson Miller and Khari Willis, as well as cornerback Justin Layne.
Many, like Miller and Willis, are now in their third year in the program and that can be a huge benefit, the coaching staff believes.
“Guys going into year three, whether you redshirted or didn't redshirt, is when you see guys take off,” co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said. “I always say look at my own personal situation here at Michigan State. It wasn't until year three, and then you start looking at some other guys there were in their third year playing. That's when they really start to take off."
“The thing about a year-three guy is that now they understand the university, there’s no more, ‘Where is my class, what time do I need to be there, when is practice?’ That all goes out the window and they’ve been through a lot of things and understand the defense and they're comfortable and their natural ability starts to come out.”
Benefiting from the third year in the program is exactly what Michigan State is hoping for at safety. With Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox off to the NFL, the Spartans have the benefit of turning to juniors Miller and Willis, who each got their first start as true freshmen in 2015 against Michigan and have been part of the playing rotation since.
Both have seen the good and the bad, including both team ups and downs as well as personal challenges. A broken foot kept Willis out of the Big Ten title game and the Cotton Bowl in 2015 while Miller, who was in the middle of the final play when MSU won in the final seconds at Michigan in 2015, has also been in and out as a starter.
It’s created a bond between the pair that is likely to start the opener Sept. 2 against Bowling Green.
“For a lot of players, you don't get that one guy who knows exactly what you've gone through but he does, and vice versa,” Miller said. “From being benched to back in the starting role to a leadership position, we both know it.
“ We definitely talk about that stuff all the time and it helps us play together on the field. We have very good chemistry.”
Not only do they have the chemistry, but they also have the confidence that might have been tougher to maintain in the past
“The longer you’re here the more the game slows down,” Willis said. “So you play faster. I feel like I’m playing faster. It’s probably the best camp I’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s the third year and you know what to do and now it’s about going out and making plays. I’m real confident, not only in myself but in the defense.”
But Miller and Willis aren’t the only ones the Spartans are counting on to take a big step.
Matt Morrissey is a fourth-year junior while David Dowell is a redshirt sophomore. Both will be in the mix at safety while cornerback is a bit more uncertain.
However, one third-year player is pushing expected starters Layne, a sophomore, and true freshman Josiah Scott.
“Josh Butler has come a long way,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “I don’t want to throw out names (in comparison), but from spring to now he’s improved as anybody there is. … I’m really proud of him.”
Add in the fact junior Tyson Smith continues to show no ill effects from the stroke he suffered last year and the Spartans could be on the verge of a big year in the secondary.
“They’re starting to take off,” Barnett said, “and you can really see it.”