Michigan State Football: Diagnosing the secondary


Going into the season, one of Michigan State‘s biggest concerns was breaking in an inexperienced secondary with three new starters. Michigan State football needed to do what it does best: reload.

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With several defensive backs receiving repetitions during spring and fall camps, co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel settled on a starting lineup including redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland filling the final void.

Heading into the Western Michigan game, Barnett decided that several players would have an opportunity to take the field.

Like years past, the Spartan defense primarily played out of a base 4-3, switching to a three-man front on obvious passing downs. This year, Coach Barnett made the decision to move R.J. Williamson into the nickel back role in those situations, along with bringing in a third defensive back.

Related: MSU vs. Western Michigan: Grading the Spartans’ performance

Last year, fans witnessed R.J. Williamson — along with several other players — get burned deep when lined up one-on-one with slot receivers. Williamson was also benched early in the season for his inability to tackle in space, one of the most essential duties of a safety playing in an aggressive defensive scheme.

Sep 4, 2015; Kalamazoo, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio talks to safety Rj Williamson (26) during the 2nd half of a game at Waldo Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

During the 37-24 win, the Michigan State defense was gashed repeatedly with a five-man secondary in the game. Part of this can be attributed to rotating in several defensive backs, but there were glaring weaknesses in the defense being employed.

For one of the first times in a while — that I can remember — the back-seven employed a straight zone defense, which was incredibly inefficient and resulted in wide open Western Michigan receivers across the field.

Must Read: MSU Football: Game by game predictions for 2015

Besides the zone scheme’s clear weaknesses, another issue was prevalent throughout the game — and every defensive back was guilty of it. On several pass attempts by Zach Terrell, the Spartan defensive backs did not look back for the ball.

In most cases, the players were in pretty good coverage, but their inability to turn their head and locate the ball resulted in completions that never should have happened. Against Oregon, who burned the Spartans for several deep passes last year, locating the football will be incredibly important for everyone in pass coverage.

Next Saturday, the vaunted Ducks’ offense will invade East Lansing after amassing 731 yards in a 61-42 victory over new Oregon QB Vernon Adams’ alma mater, Eastern Washington.

Sep 4, 2015; Kalamazoo, MI, USA; Western Michigan Broncos wide receiver Corey Davis (84) attempts to make a catch against Michigan State Spartans cornerback Vayante Copeland (13) during the 2nd half of a game at Waldo Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This game could become a shootout after the pair of top-10 teams gave up a combined 66 points to lower-level competition. It is imperative that the defense, especially the secondary, play its best game.

While the shuffling of defensive backs was to be expected in a season opener, the Spartan defense cannot afford to make the same mistakes in week two.

Juniors Jermaine Edmondson and Darian Hicks, along with senior Arjen Colquhoun, did not impress in their limited action in the season opener. Are the coordinators willing to bring in unproven freshmen, such as Josh Butler or David Dowell, in a top-ten matchup?

Will the coaching staff decide to keep the same scheme in place or look to include more athletic playmakers in roles that will counter the speed that Oregon will put on the field?

Although many players saw the field, I was surprised not to see true freshman Andrew Dowell receive any playing time. According to coaches, he demonstrated a strong understanding of the playbook and made several plays during camp.

Could the staff throw the freshman to the wolves in a game of this magnitude to ensure Michigan State can matchup with the Ducks?

Regardless of the decision made by the coaches, the Spartan’s secondary must channel their inner “No Fly Zone” or the game on Saturday could get ugly really fast.

Next: MSU Football: 5 bold predictions for the month of September