Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne talks about getting reps on offense at receiver. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing – Justin Layne might just put in a call to Tony Lippett at some point this week.
As the Michigan State junior cornerback pointed out, it might not be the worst idea considering he is likely headed down the same path Lippett did as a senior on 2014 by playing both sides of the ball, mixing in time at cornerback late in the season while also playing well enough to eventually be named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year.
In fact, after starting all 12 regular-season games at receiver, Lippett started the Cotton Bowl against Baylor at cornerback. Several months later, Lippett was taken in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins as a cornerback.
“I haven’t reached out to him,” Layne said of Lippett, “but that might be a good thing to consider.”
The only difference between Lippett and Layne is the fact Layne has primarily been a defensive player after starting on offense early in his career, while Lippett primarily played offense after a dip into defense in his redshirt freshman season.
Whether Layne ends up as a starter on the other side of the ball seems unlikely at this point, but after taking a handful of snaps at receiver last week against Michigan, his role in the offense appears to be growing as Michigan State (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) prepares to host Purdue (4-3, 3-1) at noon Saturday.
“He'll play on defense primarily, but he will play some offensive football, as well,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He has the background and the foundation to be able to go over there and play, and I think at this point in time, until we get our guys back, all of our guys back … I think he needs to play there some. But at the same time, we can't take him away from the defensive side of the ball.
“With (Purdue’s) no-huddle offense just depends on how long their drives are and what's going on, and if we can insert him in there, we will, but I think he has the background to do some specific things and help us.’
That background as a receiver is what first drew the Spartans to Layne, who was ranked the No. 42 receiver in the country by ESPN as a senior at Benedictine High in Cleveland, and chose Michigan State despite a late push from Ohio State.
In fact, Layne’s first game as a true freshman in 2016 came against Indiana as a receiver. By the next week against BYU, Layne was over at cornerback and started five of the final seven games while returning an interception 43 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about his team's injuries and gives his thoughts on Purdue's defense. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“He had the benefit of being a wide receiver for the entire month of August and really through the first month of September (his first season) as I remember back,” Dantonio said. “Then we sort of flipped him and played him a little bit both ways, and then gradually when we got into it, he became a defensive back.”
So there is some knowledge, but Layne admitted the added work on offense will take dusting off the memory banks.
“There’s a lot of spider webs,” Layne said with a laugh. “The route-running is kind of iffy, but I’m getting hang of it a little better. We’ll see. … For the most part, I recalled most of the plays, but they’ve changed a lot so I’ve kind of been learning the new stuff this past week.”
The move to get Layne involved in the offense is out of necessity as much as it is about anything else. Senior Felton Davis ruptured his Achilles last week, becoming just the latest receiver to suffer an injury. Sophomore Cody White has been out since the Central Michigan game with a broken hand while junior Darrell Stewart Jr. has missed a couple of games with a bad ankle. Sophomore Cam Chambers, freshman Jalen Nailor, fifth-year senior Brandon Sowards, sophomore Laress Nelson and redshirt freshman C.J. Hayes all have had injuries, as well, creating depth problems in the receiver corps.
Enter Layne, who was targeted twice last week against Michigan.
“I just think about it like I did it in high school, so why couldn’t I do it now?” Layne said of playing both sides of the ball. “I mean, I feel like I’m capable of doing it, so I’ll do what I do.”
How much offense he’ll be able to play is just as big a question. That’s because Layne happens to be Michigan State’s best cornerback and has regularly been tasked with covering the opponents’ top receiver. That will again be the case this week as he will spend plenty of time shadowing Purdue freshman Rondale Moore.
But that doesn’t mean Layne won’t get his share of work on offense.
“I’m 100 percent defense, so I’m not taking back anything from there,” Layne said. “But whenever Coach D calls, whenever my package is called, I’ll be ready.”