Several positions on defense at stake in Spartans' final scrimmage Saturday
East Lansing — Whatever depth chart currently exists at Michigan State, it is likely written in pencil.
By the time the Spartans have wrapped up their second scrimmage of preseason camp Saturday, there’s a better chance Mel Tucker and his staff will be using a pen.
Scrimmages are the best chance for the staff to evaluate the roster. And considering Michigan State has so many new faces, any chance to put them in a game-like situation is beneficial.
That’s especially true for defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. The Spartans return three of four starters up front, but the experience on the back end is limited. Safety Xavier Henderson is the most reliable and battle-tested member. The hope for Hazelton is the work accomplished through the first few weeks of camp will show in the second and final scrimmage and the position battles will start to sort themselves out.
“Sometimes in the first (scrimmage) you'll expect a guy to play really, really good or he's a guy that flashes and you're going, 'Hey, I'm so excited to see him play,’” Hazelton said. “But the first time that you say ‘live,’ sometimes guys’ minds go too high and they do stuff that they haven't been doing and they do some weird things. So you get a feel for other guys, the lights come on and they shine even brighter, and it's good to see. So you kind of have, like, if you were to say, yes, you got a penciled-in kind of idea what you're going to do.
“The second (scrimmage) is gonna be great because now they've been through it. They understand what the scrimmage is like. It's the same, man. Ball is ball, whether it's out there in spiders and no pads or whether it's live, it doesn't really matter. And so the guys are starting to get that, and that's what we hope that we can really see people play and see where everybody fits. Then it starts to get more inked out.”
Even with the returning starters up front, there are battles at nearly every position. Some are more about depth — defensive tackle, for instance, where redshirt freshman Simeon Barrow and freshman Derrick Harmon are pushing to get in the rotation. Others, like linebacker and cornerback, are for starting spots. In most cases, that means either transfers or incoming freshmen are in the mix.
At linebacker, Tennessee transfer Quavaris Crouch has been impressive while Minnesota transfer Itayvion Brown has been working as an edge rusher and freshman Ma’a Gaoteote has shown why he was rated so highly coming out of high school. They’ll all be battling with senior Noah Harvey and junior Chase Kline for playing time.
“He plays on the field with a lot of energy,” Hazelton said of Crouch. “He’s excited and he loves the game of ball. His energy is contagious to other guys and he'll make some plays. He still has got to clean up some things … but he's a guy that's going to be able to make some plays.
“(Brown) is playing that edge, man. He's got a good burst, a good bend, and we’ll see if he's got a chance to rush a little bit. We’re excited about him.”
And while Gaoteote lacks experience, he’s not shrinking from the challenge.
“Ma’a is a good, natural, instinctive linebacker,” Hazelton said. “When he first stepped on the field, like the very first day, the gravity of being out there with a whole bunch of guys who are better than he's played with or against in his whole life, it didn't hit him. He just lined up and he might have been lined up wrong, but he sees where the ball goes and he goes and gets the ball.”
The secondary, primarily the cornerback spot, is seeing similar competition. Junior Kalon Gervin has the most starting experience there, but transfers Ronald Williams (Alabama) and Chester Kimbrough (Florida) have been standing out in camp, while true freshman Charles Brantley has been drawing consistent praise.
“Chuck has done a phenomenal job,” Hazelton said. “He’s super light right now, but that dude will strike you. He’s got contact courage.”
Wide receiver Jayden Reed spends plenty of time going up against the corners, and he, too, has been impressed.
“I haven’t seen a long guy like Ron, and I think Chuck is going to surprise a lot of people because he’s a very good ballplayer,” Reed said. “He has very good feet. Chester Kimbrough is a very good ballplayer. He’s good with his hips, good at finding the ball and attacking the ball. Kalon Gervin. We’ve got a lot of strong DBs out there, and we’re going to shock a lot of people too.”
There’s a chance other names emerge from the scrimmage — transfer linebacker Ben VanSumeren, redshirt freshman safety Darius Snow, freshman cornerback Antoine Booth and freshman safety A.J. Kirk among them. Whoever does could find their name getting jotted down soon in ink.
“We don't get preseason games,” Hazelton said. “We get scrimmages, and that's the cool thing about having those scrimmages. You get a chance to evaluate these guys over and over, and at least say, ‘Hey, let's see where they fit in.’”