East Lansing — When most defenses lose two of their four starting defensive backs to the NFL, there could be a bit of a setback the next season.
At Michigan State, there are no plans for any sort of step in the wrong direction and sophomore safety Xavier Henderson is a big reason.
While fifth-year senior Josh Butler will likely step in at cornerback for Justin Layne, a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Henderson slides into the strong safety spot held by Khari Willis, who was taken in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts.
It’s a big pair of shoes to fill. Willis started 30 of 46 career games and earned All-Big Ten honors in each of the last two seasons. However, Henderson said he’s up to the task because no one is expecting him to be Khari Willis.
“I wouldn’t say I feel pressure” Henderson said. “I approach it that the coaches tell me they don’t want me to be Khari. But I definitely learned a lot from Khari, and I talk to him all the time. It’s just kind of about attacking practice and attacking the game with the same mentality that Khari has. He’s trying to get better every day, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
“But I’m kind of playing my own way — not to play like Khari, but to be dominant like Khari was.”
Willis, a team captain last season, was the consummate quarterback in the secondary. He finished his career with 196 tackles and four interceptions and was always on top of where the defense needed to be.
That sort of attention to detail is something Henderson is focusing on. For example, everyone in the Big Ten knows the Spartans had the best rushing defense in the nation in 2018, and that means teams might try and go to the air to attack Michigan State. Understanding every nuance of defensive coordinator Mike Tressel’s approach will prepare Henderson for his new role.
“We have to understand our defense, and we all know at the back end that we’re gonna stop the run first,” Henderson said. “So teams aren’t gonna come down here and pound it down our throats, they’re gonna throw the ball around. That’s why we have to be mentally ready every game, mentally prepared, watch all the film we can, understand how they’re gonna attack us, where they’re gonna attack us and come in focused every game.”
While Michigan State ranked 62nd in the country in passing defense last season, giving up 225.2 yards a game, the Spartans feel they have the playmakers to improve significantly on that ranking.
Junior cornerback Josiah Scott has All-American potential after missing all but five games last season while fifth-year senior David Dowell has seven interceptions over the last two seasons from his free safety position. And even with a veteran like Butler at the other corner spot, the Spartans have a handful of young players looking to make a name for themselves like redshirt freshmen Kalon Gervin and Davion Williams as well as juniors Tre Person and Dominique Long.
Throw in a pass rush Michigan State is committed to improving and throwing the ball against the Spartans shouldn’t be an easy task.
Henderson figures to be a big part of the pass defense. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2018, seeing most of his action as the Spartans’ fifth defensive back. Henderson finished with 15 tackles and recovered a fumble against Rutgers.
Even that limited playing time will pay dividends in 2019.
“I think it helped a lot,” Henderson said. “I think it helped with chemistry, just being in there with (the starters) like Joe Bachie, Dave Dowell and Josiah and all those guys. It helped with just building chemistry with them on the field and it helped me understand the defense and the tempo of college football. And now I have a better mindset of what to expect going into this year.”
Henderson hopes to fill the leadership void left by Willis, as well. While there’s still a heavy veteran presence on the team, Henderson believes he’s in a unique position after playing all of last season.
“I’ve always been a leader my whole life,” Henderson said. “Watching Khari and David do such a good job communicating, Bachie, watching all of those guys talk about what the offenses are doing, trying to attack us. We always say that if you know something and you’re not telling someone else, that’s selfish defense.”
Henderson has no intention of being selfish. That’s not how Willis played. It’s not how the Spartans play.
Instead, he expects to make the transition from Willis a smooth one, and possibly one that results in a significant upgrade.
“Xavier has a lot of talent,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “He's put on another 10 pounds; he's 205 pounds-plus. He can run very well. He's got great range and vision. He's got great ball skills. So he should have a tremendous career here. I think he's one of those guys that could be a next level player at some point.”