East Lansing — If you’re a highly rated defensive back coming out of high school, making the decision to play at Michigan State is one that would be hard to debate.
That’s exactly the position Kalon Gervin was in coming out of Detroit Cass Tech last season. He was the No. 1 player in the state of Michigan on The Detroit News Blue Chip list.
Most of the big programs were after Gervin — Michigan, Notre Dame, Auburn. In fact, Gervin first committed to Notre Dame before changing his mind in the spring of his junior year. The competition was intense for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback who played in the Under Armour All-American Game.
Gervin eventually picked the Spartans, committing to Michigan State in December 2017. A month later, he was enrolled and ready to go through his first semester in college and his first set of spring practices.
The speed, Gervin admitted at the time, was a big step up from high school, where Gervin was a state champion as a junior in 2016 and helped Cass Tech reach the semifinals his senior year. Not only was it a big jump in skill level, Gervin found himself in a position group loaded with talent.
Justin Layne and Josiah Scott were the starting cornerbacks — Layne a budding two-way standout while Scott was coming off a season as a freshman All-American. Add in depth from the likes of Josh Butler, Shakur Brown and Tre Person along with fellow freshman Davion Williams and the competition was intense.
Instead of making an impact as a freshman Gervin saw limited action in just three games, preserving his redshirt.
However, it was hardly seen as a disappointment. Instead, Gervin is putting himself in position to enter the 2019 season firmly in the playing rotation as a primary backup to Scott and Butler.
“Everything has slowed down,” Gervin explained this week as Michigan State went through its final week of preseason camp. “The game has slowed down way more. I’m not out there thinking too much, none of that. I’m just playing way faster, way faster than I was.”
That’s a pretty standard step most young players need to make, and when you’re a cornerback at Michigan State, it’s a step you’re expected to make quickly.
It’s understandable considering how the Spartans have produced NFL talent in the secondary, thanks in large part to head coach Mark Dantonio’s history teaching defensive backs and the years former Spartans player Harlon Barnett spent leading Michigan State’s defensive backfield.
And since Paul Haynes took over before last season when Barnett left for Florida State, there has been no noticeable drop-off. From first-round picks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes to Layne going in the third round last spring, cornerback play has always been a strength at Michigan State.
Gervin might be the next standout, but his immediate plan is to be on the field this season helping Michigan State’s defense remain among the best in the nation. To do so, the work started immediately after spring practice ended.
“Just working hard and working on my craft,” Gervin explained. “In the summer time when everyone is chillin', we come in here and just get extra work in, extra film, just working on the little things.”
The little things are what Gervin has focused on the most. Back in high school, sheer talent was enough to excel. In the Big Ten, you need a lot more than that.
“You don’t even know,” Gervin said of how far he’s come in a year. “When I was a freshman I didn’t know how much film played an important factor. I’m just watching film and breaking stuff down.”
The goal is to become a better player, one the coaching staff can count on, one that will live to his billing when he first arrived on campus.
“I think I’ve made a lot of progress,” Gervin said. “Just like I said, playing a lot faster. … (Increasing my) football knowledge. You can never go wrong with getting more football knowledge, just overall. That’s one thing Coach Haynes always preaches about, just having great football knowledge, so you know what’s going on on the field, knowing what’s going on and knowing the situation.”
Each day the knowledge grows for Gervin. He and Brown, a sophomore who appeared in 12 games last season, essentially have locked down the backup corner spots while Gervin is getting some work as the fifth defensive back in certain packages.
It might not mean any official starts, but in today’s college football world of up-tempo offenses it certainly means a significant role, one that’s just as important as being a starter.
“He needs to feel like a starter to me and he's playing like a starter,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “I'm excited about those guys, and you know Shakur Brown has made a lot of plays.
“Josiah and Josh are doing a great job, but let me tell you something, Shakur Brown is having a great fall camp so far, too, and he had a very good spring. I’m excited about him. Kalon Gervin keeps getting better. So you can’t just have two at corner, especially with the amount we press. You better have four.”