Michigan State goes to fall camp with converted secondary school after high turnover
Note: This is the eighth installment in a series that will review Michigan state position groups and prepare for the 2021 season. The current position: defensive back
Mel Tucker was a defensive back in Wisconsin and his foundation is as a second coach.
Now entering his sophomore season as Michigan state head coach, he faces a secondary rebuilding project, particularly cornerback.
Shakur Brown, the Spartans’ top cornerback last season, made an early entry into the NFL while four others moved in position. Michigan State was reloaded through recruitment and the portal, bringing in six transfers on the defensive back.
With all of the sales, there is uncertainty about the revamped Michigan state secondary school. It will stay that way until the games start and we see the newcomers fit in.
New defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton shifted the Spartans from a 4-3 base to a 4-2-5 with a nickel back. Here Brown started the first two games of the season before returning to cornerback for the final five games. He had all five of the team’s interceptions, plus four pass break-ups and 25 tackles. Brown led the nation in per-game interceptions, was selected by the coaches as the first team All-Big Ten, selected by the media as the second team, and named as the second team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation. He signed up for the NFL draft in December and signed as a free agent with the Steelers after not being selected.
Cornerback Kalon Gervin started all six games he appeared in, making four pass breaks and 22 tackles. Chris Jackson had one pass break-up and nine tackles in four games with two starts. He wasn’t on the team late in the season for reasons unknown and entered the portal in December. Dominique Long had 13 tackles and one pass break-up while appearing in seven games with one start.
When Brown returned to cornerback, Julian Barnett made his first career start at Nickelback. That only lasted a week as real freshman Angelo Grose took the place in the last four games. He had 23 tackles and two pass break-ups with some outstanding games.
Xavier Henderson had 41 tackles and a break with a pass while starting all seven games safely and logging 511 snaps at team level. At the other safety spot, Tre Person had 27 tackles and one sack in six games with five starts. Michael Dowell made two safe starts and also lined up at Nickelback while showing 27 tackles and a break with a pass.
Michigan State ranked 72nd in the nation in per-game pass yards with 239.4 and 31st in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 124.7. The Spartans only allowed eight touchdown passes, but gave up 20 scores on the ground.
Barnett entered the portal in November before moving to Memphis and leaving three other cornerbacks in Jackson, Washington State, Long (Duke) and Davion Williams (Western Kentucky).
Return: CB: Kalon Gervin (Redshirt Junior), Angelo Grose (Second), Justin White (Redshirt Second) and Torrell Williams (Redshirt Second). S: Xavier Henderson (Senior), Michael Dowell (Redshirt Junior), Emmanuel Flowers (Fifth Year Senior), Darius Snow (Second), Tate Hallock (Redshirt Second) and David Kruse (Redshirt Junior). DB: Zach Denha (Redshirt Newbie)
2021 Signatory: CB: Antoine Booth and Chuck Brantley. S: Michael Gravely and AJ Kirk
Transfer access: CB: Kendell Brooks, Chester Kimbrough, Marqui Lowery, Khary Crump, Ronald Williams and Spencer Rowland
Way: CB: Shakur Brown, Julian Barnett, Davion Williams, Chris Jackson, Dominique Long and Joe Stevens. S: Tre Person and Jack Mandryk
Outlook for 2021:
When Tucker replaced Mark Dantonio, he kept defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Mike Tressel, but moved him to safety coach while he brought Harlon Barnett back to coach cornerbacks. That was going on for a season when Tressel left in January to become defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Tucker promoted Senior Defensive Assistant Travares Tillman to cornerbacks coach, with Harlon Barnett overseeing the entire secondary school. Tillman was a stellar defensive back at Georgia Tech who played in the NFL for seven seasons.
Tillman will have a revised group that needs to be supervised after the high turnover with eight newcomers in the cornerback. Kendell Brooks of Division II North Greenville, South Carolina joined the team in January, as did Spencer Rowland, a walk-on from Division III Wheaton College, Illinois. There have been four other cornerback transfers that came to the team in Chester Kimbrough, Florida, Ronald Williams (Alabama), Khary Crump (Arizona) and Marqui Lowery (Louisville) in May. Cornerbacks Antoine Booth and Chuck Brantley – both three-star prospects – have signed the 2021 recruiting class.
Kimbrough had 15 tackles and three passes in 17 games in two seasons in Florida. After two stellar years at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, Ronald Williams had a three-game tackle for Alabama last season after missing time due to injury. Lowery and Crump didn’t play as true newbies last season, while Brooks and Rowland, who trained with the Spartans this spring, will try to contribute at a higher level.
With Brown gone, Gervin returns to the squad as a seasoned cornerback. Grose was listed in this position in the spring, but was safe during open training on April 24th. Whether it’s Nickelback, Cornerback or Safety, Grose should be an important member of the secondary in autumn. Dowell and Snow are also at Nickelback.
Although Gervin recorded 420 defensive snaps last season, he will likely be challenged to hold onto a starting spot in a wide-open competition in the cornerback. Kimbrough and Williams, who are six feet tall, both have Power Five experience.
Henderson is entering his third season as a starter and should be the senior high school leader while Person has not taken the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19. The other security point is to be won between Grose and the returnees Dowell, Emmanuel Flowers, Darius Snow and Tate Hallock. Flowers only recorded three defensive snaps last season, while Snow and Hallock only played in special teams. The Spartans also signed two three-star collateral for their 2021 recruiting class with early entrants Michael Gravely and AJ Kirk.
Michigan State secondary school will look a lot different than last season, especially at the cornerback, where the space has been remodeled by the portal. That makes fall camp crucial for newbies to learn the program and coaches to find out who they will be relying heavily on this year.
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