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Xavier Henderson will lead the way, but youngsters add intrigue to Michigan State secondary

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been a while since Mike Tressel has coached any position other than linebacker, but that doesn’t mean Michigan State’s safeties coach isn’t prepared.

As the Spartans’ defensive coordinator the last two seasons under Mark Dantonio – and three years as co-coordinator before that with Harlon Barnett – he had started to put more of his overall focus into what was happening in the secondary.

Xavier Henderson

“I’ve really transitioned my focus over the last few years to pay a little bit more of attention and have a little bit more game-plan thoughts, a little bit more adjustments, a little more technique in the back end, knowing that’s where the explosives happen,” Tressel said. “I’m excited to be able to grow a little bit myself working with the safeties.”

Now, as a part of Mel Tucker’s staff, the longtime linebackers coach is back to a position he last coached as a graduate assistant at Ohio State – the same time Tucker was coaching defensive backs and Dantonio was the defensive coordinator.

He won’t be on his own in the secondary, though, as Barnett is back to coach the cornerbacks for the Spartans. The duo flourished together in the past, following Dantonio to MSU from Cincinnati and coaching under coordinator Pat Narduzzi before taking over the defense together.

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That cohesion and strong working relationship will now be counted on in the secondary.

“We are one unit, so the biggest thing is going to be the strategy of when we’re together, when we’re apart, making sure our guys still communicate,” Tressel said. “I know the ‘No Fly Zone’ wants to still put themselves as one position group, and that’s how Harlon and I want them to look at themselves too. They’re still one position group, but we have the opportunity for them to focus on their craft a little bit more.”

The first focus for Tressel will be finding a new starter after free safety David Dowell departed after a solid career. Junior Xavier Henderson has the strong safety spot locked down after starting all 13 games last season, finishing second on the team in tackles with 83 while intercepting two passes and breaking up five.

That leaves the free safety spot open and Tressel likes what he’s seen out of fifth-year senior Tre Person, a player who has seen action at both safety and cornerback.

“He’s got a lot of experience and you can see a renewed excitement and a renewed sense of urgency out of him,” Tressel said of Person. “He’s played some good ball for us, and we’re hoping he can really step into David’s spot without missing a beat. Xavier has come a long way in terms of confidence, I think if you watch our season last year in order, you’d see the last four or five games, he really started to pick up his play, and that came with his confidence and with his leadership.

Tre Person

“So between Tre and Xavier, there’s really a lot of leadership in that group that’s pointing everybody in the right direction.”

The Spartans will certainly be looking to build some depth, and Tressel singled out third-year sophomore Michael Dowell as well as redshirt freshman Tate Hallock and fourth-year junior Emmanuel Flowers, who has also played cornerback and wide receiver. Senior Dominique Long has also played both safety and cornerback but Tressel said Long, a special teams standout, is focusing on cornerback.

“He’s not feeling himself out anymore, he’s not feeling out Big Ten ball anymore, he’s come to conclusion on how good he can be and he’s attacking it,” Tressel said of Dowell, the younger brother of David Dowell and former MSU linebacker Andrew Dowell. “But I’m excited about the steps that I think Michael Dowell is taking. I’m excited about the steps that I think Emmanuel Flowers is taking. Tate Hallock’s a guy that redshirted, a guy that played four games at special teams, but all of a sudden he went from being a skinny little dude a year ago to, man he’s over 200 pounds now and he’s running, and I’ll be anxious to see what he can do.”

There will also be some new faces in the mix, too. True freshman Darius Snow, the nephew of former MSU All-American linebacker Percy Snow, enrolled early, as did cornerback Angelo Grose.

While it was a short time on campus for both, Tressel believes each is in better position to see significant playing time when the season gets rolling.

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“I was excited about both those guys in terms of their work,” Tressel said. “And I think that even though this is a little bit of an abnormal situation right here, they have got a huge jump on the learning.

“Darius knows his ball and he wants to talk ball. I think his football IQ could be through the roof. You just hope through experience he can think at the college-level game speed as soon as possible. I know he will be able to do it, it’s how fast can he do it, because he seems to really have a high football IQ.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau