In 2017, a young football team took the field at Spartan Stadium.
Few expected the Spartans to go 10-3 and dominate Washington State 42-17 in the Holiday Bowl after a record of 3-9 the previous year.
With this defense, only two starters graduated last season: linebacker Chris Frey and defensive end Demetrius Cooper.
In the secondary, however, nobody graduated. Besides senior Grayson Miller transitioning from safety to linebacker and Jalen Watts-Jackson transferring, the entire secondary remains intact. A secondary with two 2017 All-Big Ten honorees in sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott and junior safety David Dowell.
“We all have a bond now. We know what to expect on the field and off the field from each other,” Scott said after practice Tuesday. “I feel like we have that one year experience under our belt, so now in practice, we know what to expect from each other.”
Along with Scott and Dowell, the projected starting secondary consists of senior safety Khari Willis and junior cornerback Justin Layne, with the nickel corner up for consideration.
One of those options is true freshman Xavier Henderson, who defensive backs coach Paul Haynes has thrown in all over the secondary, including the nickel and safety and running with the first team at nickel in practice.
“Xavier has been awesome,” Haynes said. “Very athletic, can play man-to-man. And again, we’re just throwing him in the fire, just throwing him in the fire and covering big-time wideouts. And he’s getting better.”
But no matter who becomes the starting nickel, Haynes and head coach Mark Dantonio have options.
Haynes said the players backing up Willis at the boundary safety right now are senior Matt Morrissey and sophomore Dominique Long. Dowell’s backup is senior Tre Person. And with Scott out for the first half of the MSU’s first game against Utah State because of a targeting call during the Holiday Bowl, it gives a possibly opportunity for others like Henderson.
“I feel really good that we got nine or 10 guys that can sit there and play for us,” Haynes said. “That’s the one good thing about my room. … It doesn’t matter who’s out there, those guys are just playing.”
Which, in this day of age of football, is more important than ever, Haynes said.
“You used to sit there and just try to get three corners ready and safeties ready to roll,” Haynes said. “But now with the (run/pass option schemes), all the fast pace stuff with all the injuries that happen, you have to have guys ready to roll.”
Somebody who helps Haynes with this secondary is Willis, who Haynes said “is one of the best kids I’ve ever coached.” Haynes has been back at MSU for just more than two months.
“You're talking about just a great kid, great person,” Haynes said. “Because if Khari Willis wouldn’t have respected me, then that room wouldn’t have respected me, just because of his leadership.
“You talk about a guy who sits up front and sits there and takes notes, who asks questions, who does exactly what I tell him to do. It’s helped me out so much in that room.”
This whole group barely played at all before 2017, with only 98 tackles in 2016 between the bunch. In 2017, they combined for 257 tackles and 46 pass deflections, and ranked No. 37 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game with 202.3 yards per game.
“This year, we got that experience under our belt. So the confidence and everything like that, we should be playing a lot faster. Flying around a lot more,” said Dowell, who had five interceptions last season. “I expect to make make even more plays this year.”
Even with it only being spring, the energy in the secondary is high with the rising expectations, something assistant defensive backs coach Don Treadwell has taken notice of.
“To see the players take it to that level, you can see they’re excited about what’s up next,” Treadwell said. “And the preparation it’s going to take to do some great things, it’s in progress now and it’s playing football.”