Spartans swap 'pajamas' for pads as defensive position battles take shape
For the first time since its victory over Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl last December, Michigan State strapped on the pads Wednesday and started hitting.
Just more than nine months and a changeover in coaches later, the Spartans enjoyed the first day of real football as they prepare for the season opener on Oct. 24 against Rutgers, and for defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, playtime is over — and that’s a good thing.
“As we move forward it's going to be about how the guys really play in pads,” Hazelton said. “When it's real ball, not pajamas and stuff like that.”
For Hazelton and the rest of the staff, that can mean taking a moment, rethinking some of the practice plans they’ve been homing in on for months, and being sure everyone is on the same page.
“We’ll see how far we can progress,” Hazelton said, “because when you start to see guys start to slow down, well then, we know that that's probably where we need to go back and redo (our practice plan) again, and that's kind of what we're doing now that we’ve got pads on.”
It’s important for everyone on the roster to get used to carrying their pads again. But for a defensive player, it’s critical. And for the Spartans, that means plenty of guys trying to prove themselves as only three starters are back from a season ago.
From up front on the line to the linebackers and in the back end, Hazelton is looking for the guys who will be the next to step up, and doing it with the pads on can tell a far different story than the one that had been playing out up until Wednesday.
“They did a good job competing up front and that’s when you see the backers actually have a chance,” Hazelton said. “To see Chase Kline or (Antjuan) Simmons or Noah Harvey come back and actually hit a guy and thud him and stop him. Those are things that you like to see because (before) you’re playing tag, it's like flag football. And to see guys be able to front guys up and put faces on them and stop contact, it starts to give you a feel of your personality.
“It’s like, hey, you know why has Michigan State always been good against the run? Well, because we get good, big, tough guys that can fall back, make tackles, you know, they stopped people, and that was wonderful to see.”
It’s why Hazelton left Kansas State to join Mel Tucker’s staff in East Lansing. Traditionally one of the top defenses in the nation during 13 seasons under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans are looking to regain some of that defensive swagger after a drop-off in 2019.
“It’s one of the things that drew me here,” Hazelton said.
And though there are plenty of holes to fill, Hazelton has already seen the benefit of having veterans who’ve played in a good defense.
“They understand concepts, they understand the basics, they understand the universal things,” Hazelton said. “And we have some great leaders out there. You’ve got Antjuan Simmons running around the field. He's a different cat when he starts talking and he's there. Or (safety) Xavier (Henderson). Those guys bring great leadership and they can bring the quality of your practice up.
“And the third thing I'll say about these guys, they work hard. They've been trained for a long time and there's times we try to fluster them, there's times we try to work them even harder than they’re going to be in a game, and they keep grinding through it. It’s a wonderful thing to have.”
Hazelton will be counting heavily on Simmons, who’s entering his senior season, and Henderson, a junior. He also has the luxury of getting senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk back after Panasiuk initially decided to opt out of the season before reconsidering when the Big Ten announced last month it would play a nine-game season.
There’s also players up front like tackles Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade, end Drew Beesley and linebacker Noah Harvey, among others, who have seen their share of snaps.
That’s crucial, Hazelton said. Finding out who can step in from there is crucial, and Hazelton already likes what he sees from defensive end Michael Fletcher and tackle Jalen Hunt, both redshirt freshmen.
At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Fletcher has the tools to be elite while Hunt is already flashing.
“He's gonna be a good one, man,” Hazelton said of Hunt. “He’s gonna be able to make some plays.”
There’s similar optimism in the back end, where Michigan State is sorting out both cornerback spots as well as a running mate for Henderson at safety.
Cornerback should be a fascinating battle as Shakur Brown is back for his junior season with the most experience while sophomores Kalon Gervin, Davion Williams and Chris Jackson continue to push for time. Sophomore Julian Barnett continues his transition from receiver and senior Dominique Long figures to be a factor, as well.
“Dom Long is playing pretty good,” Hazelton said, “and a guy I’m really impressed with is Kalon Gervin. He’s outside playing corner and doing some really good things. Julian Barnett has come on and we're excited about him. He makes progress every single day, and Davion is a guy that you can see it too, and Chris. I mean, all those corners.
“(Cornerbacks coach) Harlon (Barnett) has been doing a great job with those guys just making them better and better. And we’ve still got Shak, so there's some guys outside.”
Safety has plenty of action, too, as Hazelton talked about senior Tre Person, junior Emmanuel Flowers and sophomore Michael Dowell.
And getting in pads is helping sort things out, too, as the coaches determine where everyone fits.
“They've been mixing around positions too, so we're trying to find the right slot,” Hazelton said. “Now that we have pads on and you're banging around a little bit and you're getting around big guys and you're doing all that, it’s good to see because I think the slots become clear.
“You might have an idea, ‘Hey, this guy's really a corner. This guy's gonna be a really good safety doing these things. This guy can be a box player a little bit.’ Now it’s how do we fit our pieces and now that we’ve got the pads on it is starting to clear up a little bit.”
On Thursday, Long was named a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's top scholar-athlete.
A mechanical engineering major, Long has compiled a 3.61 grade-point average entering his senior year. The two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and three-year letterwinner has played in 37 games during his career with 38 tackles, one pass breakup and one blocked punt.
Michigan State has had three Campbell Trophy finalists in the past 10 seasons (Kirk Cousins, Max Bullough and Mike Sadler) along with nine semifinalists (Cousins, Bullough, Sadler, Jack Allen, Josiah Price, Brian Allen, Khari Willis, Cole Chewins and Long).