Cornerback Justin Layne talks about leaving Michigan State early for the NFL Draft. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Indianapolis — Justin Layne played at Michigan State, so it’s probably fitting he has a chip on his shoulder.
That’s how Michigan State and coach Mark Dantonio became a perennial contender in the Big Ten and it’s the same approach Layne is using this week at the NFL Combine as he tries to prove to teams he’s a cornerback worth taking in the first round of April’s draft.
“I’ve talked to a lot of teams,” Layne said on Sunday. “(They say) I’ve got good size, good upside, I use my length to my advantage and they just want to see how fast I am. I’m ready to show them that.”
The cornerbacks are set to run on Monday, and Layne has one thing on his mind.
“(Show them) that I’m fast,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could.”
Where the numbers will stack up for Layne (6-foot-2, 192 pounds) remains to be seen, but speed was never an issue with the Spartans. Layne came to Michigan State in 2016 as a wide receiver out of Cleveland, a four-star recruit with plenty of size and athleticism.
His first game his freshman season was at receiver, but a week later he was out on defense where he played eight games and started five. In his first career start against Northwestern, Layne intercepted a pass and raced 43 yards for the touchdown and any thought of not being a cornerback full-time was dashed.
By his sophomore season, Layne was a full-time starter and established himself as one of the top corners in the Big Ten. By his junior season, Layne started to cement his status as a shutdown corner. He finished with a career-high 15 pass break-ups, which was tied for the most in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation. He also had an interception and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors while being named first team by Pro Football Focus.
It’s clear the numbers show what Layne is capable of and he’s spent the last few months preparing to impress the scouts in the days leading up to the draft.
“Been getting my body healthy, staying polished,” Layne said. “I kind of find it disrespectful because I’ve always been fast, but I mean I would say I’ve just been working on my speed, just been polishing up my starts and just getting ready.”
Layne is getting ready a year ahead of schedule, something that is bittersweet for Michigan State fans. Another year with Layne at one corner would have provided one of the best corner tandems in the nation with Josiah Scott preparing for his decision.
However, Layne realized fairly soon he was projecting in the first couple of rounds of the draft and felt it was time for him to think about his future.
“It was tough to leave my teammates, my coaches, my family at Michigan State,” Layne said. “But at same time I feel like I had to make a business decision and I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the next jump and I just had to make a decision at the end of the day.”
That decision included skipping Michigan State’s matchup with Oregon in the Redbox Bowl, a choice he said that didn’t come immediately. When he did decide to sit out the game, he said the coaches were disappointed, but his teammates were on board.
“Of course (the coaches) wanted me to play in the bowl game, but it is what it is,” Layne said. “My teammates, they were behind me. When I was kind of going back and forth thinking about the decision, they kind of were the ones to push me. They were like, ‘OK, go get paid. Go do what you got to do.’ That kind of made my decision easier.”
Former Michigan State safety Khari Willis talks about his experience at the NFL Combine. The Detroit News
Layne will run on Monday at the Combine and said he’ll be at Michigan State’s Pro Day on March 18. He’ll be joined there by safety Khari Willis, who had 22 reps on the bench press on Sunday, the most for the defensive backs.
Willis is projecting as a late-round pick after his four-year career at Michigan State. He was a captain as a senior in 2018 and started 30 of 46 career games. Willis earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus last season and has graded high on leadership and his knowledge of the game.
Those were on display at the Senior Bowl, where Willis (5-11, 213) stood out. It’s an experience that has helped him in meetings with NFL executives.
“They say they like what they see,” Willis said. “They’re giving me pretty positive feedback. Some of the things I thought were my strengths they thought they were as well. Some of the things I thought I needed to work on they thought the same. So far, so good.”
Not surprisingly, Willis’ leadership was one of the strengths that stood out. A three-time academic All-Big Ten performer, Willis’ speech at last year’s Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon has been a topic among NFL personnel.
But that’s not the only thing they’ve noticed about Willis.
“I think obviously my leadership,” Willis said of what he does well, “my versatility, tackling ability in space, range and covering some ground and making plays on the ball.”