Spartans’ young defensive backs learning the ropes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Xavier Henderson can remember the exact moment he realized he wasn’t in high school anymore.

All freshmen have that moment, especially those who enroll early. Henderson falls in that category at Michigan State, a four-star defensive back from Pickerington Central in Ohio who came to East Lansing in January looking to get a head start on his college career.

Henderson realized quickly he could run with the rest of the defensive backs, but that first time he was asked to rush the passer, that’s when it hit him. Or, to be more accurate, that’s when LJ Scott hit him.

“The first day when I was going in on a pass blitz and LJ Scott it waiting to pass block me,” Henderson said after practice Tuesday. “They didn’t tell me what to do so I’m just running, and I never really pass blitzed before and LJ Scott is there to meet me. I’m like, ‘Oh,’ and I got knocked back. I’m like, ‘I better get on my horse because now I have to actually pass blitz.’”

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Scott, who is headed into his senior season as not only Michigan State’s No. 1 running back but a potential All-Big Ten performer, has experience on his side. And, of course, after three years in the program, he’s no longer built like a freshman.

So, it’s not surprising he got the best of Henderson. However, it hasn’t taken long for Henderson and fellow freshman defensive back Kalon Gervin to already make a name for themselves.

“Kalon Gervin from Cass Tech has been doing awesome,” defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said. “And when you look at him and Xavier Henderson that are here and still should be in high school, we are throwing them in the fire going against guys like Felton Davis and everything. It’s fun to watch, but those guys getting better every day.”

Gervin and Henderson are among seven early enrollees this spring for the Spartans, but even in a deep secondary, they’re already standing out.

Coach Mark Dantonio singled out both last week and after some early adjustments to the college level, both are starting to take advantage of their opportunities.

“Yeah, Day 1 I learned that (this wasn’t high school anymore),” Gervin said. “But I’m playing a lot faster now. Day 1 I was kinda confused and my mind was everywhere. But I’m picking up the playbook and the coaches tell me there’s a big difference from Day 1, so I feel like I’m getting better.”

How much better both get over the remainder of spring practice and into preseason camp remains to be seen. But finding playing time won’t exactly be easy.

The Spartans return all four starters from last season and didn’t lose a single defensive back out of the two-deep roster. But, as Dantonio has shown in the past, he’s not about to sit someone who deserves to be on the field, and when it comes to the secondary, three more defensive backs will be on campus in the fall.

“We have two of those guys here on campus in Kalon and X right now with the three other guys coming in, they’ll have opportunities,” Dantonio said. “We’re going to play the best players and they are good athletes. When you have competition, it breeds success.”

Josiah Scott knows all about that. He enrolled early last season and by the fall had earned a starting cornerback spot. He had two interceptions and was named a freshman All-American by ESPN and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.

He thinks Gervin and Henderson are already ahead of where he was and he’s making sure to help them every step of the way.

“I basically tell them all the time, ‘I’ve done this before,’ and I show them the ropes, how to go about things,” Scott said. “I feel like they are really taking what I’ve told them and the older guys tell them and apply it. They’ve been working hard in film, the weight room and on the field.

“So I feel like they’ll have great success here on the field early, even this year. They might go out and play this year because they’re showing things early and doing better than me when I was here.”

Both say they’ll do whatever it takes to get on the field this fall and they’re taking every tip they can get. Scott has been helpful, as has senior Khari Wills and Justin Layne, who is entering his junior season.

“Josiah came in early and Justin Layne, he didn’t even play DB, he was a wideout,” Henderson said. “So he had a big transition and he helps me out with my transition from high school to college. It’s been great. All of them I think can play in the NFL.”

Henderson and Gervin will push to get to that level, too. Whether that includes playing as true freshmen will still play out.

Until then, they’ll take the time getting used to being at the college level, something that’s not simply about hitting bigger guys on the field.

“The classroom is hard, too,” Henderson admitted. “I didn’t do too well on my first math test but it’s just getting the schedule down and the college life, that was difficult. But now I’m getting my academics straight and my schedule right. It’s not too bad. I just stay in my dorm and play video games all weekend.”