Michigan State Cleveland native Layne sets rivalry aside, elated with Steelers' pick in third round

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Justin Layne, at No. 83 overall, was the first Spartan taken off the board.

The wait lasted longer than some expected, but just past the midway point of the NFL Draft's third round, Michigan State had a player selected.

And when cornerback Justin Layne heard his name called Friday by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the No. 83 overall pick and the 20th selection of the third round, it mattered little that the Cleveland native was going to play for the rival of his boyhood team — the Browns.

“My dad threw away all his Browns stuff,” Layne said on a conference call Friday night. “He already has all of his Steelers stuff on him right now. We are ready, we are switching it up.

“We are taking all of the Browns stuff down right now. I’m ready.”

Rivalries aside, Layne was the player the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin had their eyes on for some time. They selected the former Spartan as defensive backs were coming off the board quickly. Seven cornerbacks were taken in the second round and three more went in the third.

But Layne had a feeling he’d end up in Pittsburgh.

“I felt that from the beginning,” Layne said. “I talked to the coaching staff, Coach Tomlin a lot at the Combine. Even at my pre-draft visits, I kind of had a feeling and knew they were going to get me.

“It was just a feeling I had. It was in my dream and just what I felt. I felt like I was going to go against our rivals and they are the rivals to the Browns.”

Layne’s selection means Michigan State remains one of five schools to have at least one player taken in every year of the draft since the AFL-NFL merger in 1967.

After recording 15 pass breakups in 2018 for one of the top defensive teams in the nation, Layne opted to sit out the Redbox Bowl against Oregon and forgo his final season at Michigan State.

The 6-foot-2 Layne came to Michigan State from Cleveland as a wide receiver and played his first game during his freshman season of 2016 as a receiver. However, he made the move to defense week where he stayed for the rest of his career, playing in 34 games with 26 starts at cornerback.

Layne, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds at the NFL Combine, has the size the Steelers were looking for.

“You look at some of the receivers being draft, and they are big men,” Steelers secondary coach Teryl Austin told reporters. “You have to be able to compete and win some 50-50 balls. You can’t lose all them balls because you are too small. Size, speed and ball skills are important because you’ve got to be able to turn the ball over in this league.”

Layne was Pittsburgh’s third pick of the draft. The Steelers selected Michigan linebacker Devin Bush in the first round and Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson earlier in the third round. Layne was asked if he looked forward to being a teammate of Bush, who tore up the middle of the field at Spartan Stadium before Michigan State and Michigan played in October.

“That’s what happens when you compete and have a dominant competitor,” Layne said. “I can’t wait to compete with him, that’s my boy. I have all respect for him.”

Layne is the eighth Spartan defensive back selected in the NFL Draft under coach Mark Dantonio.

“Justin is an outstanding athlete with great ball skills,” Dantonio said. “He’s an outstanding competitor and a great tackler. He was recruited here as a wide receiver but really developed and excelled as a corner. He should have an outstanding NFL career.”

Layne was the only Michigan State player selected through the first three rounds, though safety Khari Willis had been projected by some to go in the third round. The former captain will likely go early on Saturday when rounds 4-7 are conducted.

“As far as Willis is concerned, he’s a steadying force, he’s your leader, he’s kind of the quarterback of your defense,” ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He’s a guy that you look at physically, athletically, he’s field fast, he’s instinctive, he tests out well athletically with that 34 ½ (-inch) vertical.

Two more Spartans could go during rounds 4-7 as running back LJ Scott and wide receiver Felton Davis are hoping injury problems don’t keep them from being drafted. Scott was in and out of the lineup with an ankle problem while Davis ruptured his Achilles against Michigan on Oct. 20 and is just now getting back to full workouts.

Other Michigan State players hoping to get drafted but more likely to sign as free agents include offensive lineman David Beedle, tight end Matt Sokol, linebacker Andrew Dowell and linebacker Jon Reschke.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau