Michigan State Football: Secondary play will continue to improve in 2021

Michigan State's head coach Mel Tucker, left, talks with Angelo Grose during the first quarter in the game against Ohio State on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.201205 Msu Osu 083a
Michigan State's head coach Mel Tucker, left, talks with Angelo Grose during the first quarter in the game against Ohio State on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.201205 Msu Osu 083a /

Even with the departure of Shakur Brown to the NFL, Michigan State football’s secondary returns familiar faces and newcomers who’ll contribute right away.

One of the more uncertain positions on either side of the football for Michigan State heading into the 2021 season is the secondary, namely the cornerbacks. In the recent years since Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard made life miserable for opposing wide receivers in the defensive backfield, the production from that position has dropped off.

While there have still been solid players to come through East Lansing at that position, like Josiah Scott and Justin Layne, who did their best to rebuild the ‘No Fly Zone’, the overall unit has clearly not been as sharp.

Since Mel Tucker took over as the head football coach in 2020, he has made good secondary play a priority. Tucker has added seven defensive backs to his roster through recruiting and through the transfer portal. He also made a tough decision in processing out former Spartan, Julian Barnett, who had fans scratching their heads as to why he didn’t see the field much. This was because Tucker was personally coaching up Barnett, but neither of the two were ever on the same page, and eventually they agreed it was time to move on. Barnett then transferred to Memphis in December.

According to a tweet from CFB Film Room, Michigan State’s cornerbacks played better than expected in 2020. It shows that all three cornerbacks who played the most snaps — Shakur Brown, Angelo Grose and Kalon Gervin — all allowed a lower catch rate than expected on the season. Michigan State’s defense, at times, was not a great unit, but those three players were solid all year long.

Before the season, Brown was not viewed as a corner who could play in the NFL. But after one season under Tucker, his play improved drastically. He intercepted five passes, tied for third in the FBS. He also recorded 25 tackles and four passes defended. He is projected as a Day 3 pick by NBC Sports.

With Brown’s departure to the NFL, the Spartans’ cornerback room took a bit of a hit. Tucker rebounded by adding former Florida defensive back Chester Kimbrough, who is a former three-star recruit. Kimbrough only played in 11 career games at Florida before making the move to East Lansing, defending three passes in his short Gator career. The 5-foot-10 Kimbrough will get a chance to make an immediate impact in the Spartans’ secondary.

Looking at who returns from last year’s team, the aforementioned Gervin will continue to see a lion’s share of the snaps as a redshirt sophomore. Gervin, who stands at 5-foot-11, improved his play from the previous year, recording 22 tackles, four passes defended, and recovering a fumble for a touchdown in six games this season. He had lapses in coverage at times, but that’s expected to happen when a new defensive system is implemented. Gervin improved greatly from his redshirt freshman to sophomore year, and he should continue to improve going into his third year.

True freshman Angelo Grose stepped into a tough starting role this past season and stood out. In a conference-only season, the Big Ten will throw its best teams out every week, especially at the wide receiver position. Grose took each challenge head on and gave each receiver he faced a tough time. Putting together a couple good games against top teams like Ohio State and Indiana, Grose expects to continue his outstanding play with a freshman season under his belt in which he was thrown into the fire without much preparation. This type of adversity always creates the best competitors, so expect Grose to turn a couple more heads this upcoming season.

One incoming freshman to keep an eye on is Chuck Brantley. The 6-foot-0 Venice, Fla., product committed to the Spartans on April 30, and this got the attention of many recruiting experts. A ball-hawking corner who isn’t afraid to hit, Brantley has the tools to become a really good defensive back for Tucker. He’s got good technique, reads the quarterback’s eyes well and is super speedy. Brantley is a long corner who will be even stronger once he gets in the weight room at MSU. If he doesn’t make an impact right away, it’s likely we will see him get plenty of playing time down the road.

Looking at the safety position, Xavier Henderson looks to go out strong in his senior season. With the departure of Tre Person, Tucker dipped into the transfer portal and landed Division II safety Kendall Brooks from North Greenville University. Brooks is a rangy and physical safety, and he could get some good playing time next to Henderson.

With Harlon Barnett and Travares Tillman, as well as Mel Tucker, coaching up these defensive backs, the secondary is going to make a huge leap from what they’ve been the past couple years. With the talent in place and the coaching they’ll receive, it’s possible we see a rebirth of the famed ‘No Fly Zone’ once again.

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