CB Justin Layne embracing being 2-way player to help injured wideouts
Justin Layne didn’t think there was a chance he'd line up on offense last Saturday against the Wolverines.
The starting junior cornerback didn't hold his breath when he was told by coach Mark Dantonio before the 21-7 loss to No. 5 Michigan he might play wide receiver — what he was originally recruited to East Lansing for.
But Layne got the nod, and when the 6-foot-3, 185 pound Cleveland product was targeted twice during Michigan State’s (4-3, 2-2 in Big Ten) opening second-half drive, he wasn’t too unfamiliar with the Spartans’ offense.
“It felt good,” Layne said after practice Tuesday. “I mean it’s way different playing offense in college than defense. I just got to get back to what I know.”
Layne might have to get back to what he knows sooner rather than later, with wide receivers Felton Davis III (season-ending torn left Achilles), Cody White (broken left hand) out indefinitely, and Darrell Stewart (apparent unspecified ankle), Laress Nelson (unspecified leg), Jalen Nailor (unspecified) and C.J. Hayes (unspecified) slowly coming back.
“He'll play on defense primarily, but he will play some offensive football, as well,” Dantonio said.
The Spartans face off against Purdue (4-3, 3-1) at noon Saturday in Spartan Stadium on ESPN. A team that is on a four-game winning streak, with its last win being a 49-20 blowout of No. 11 Ohio State last Saturday.
The Spartans have to prepare for the red-hot Boilermakers, all while Layne is getting used to being a two-way player.
“It’s a lot of spider webs,” said Layne, who has 47 tackles (34 solo and 13 assisted) with one interception and five pass deflections this season. “My route-running is kind of iffy, but I’m getting the hang of it and a little bit … so, we shall see.”
Layne was recruited to MSU as a four-star wide receiver and practiced as one during the beginning of his freshman season in 2016, and when he used to wear No. 39 instead of No. 2.
Dantonio said during Layne’s freshman year, he started to have him practice as a defensive back, eventually starting him at corner on Oct. 15, 2016 against Northwestern.
“He has the background and the foundation to be able to go over there and play, and I think at this point in time, until we get our guys back, all of our guys back, which with the exception of Felton, we should get them all back. I think he needs to play there some,” Dantonio said in his weekly news conference Tuesday. “But at the same time, we can't take him away from the defensive side of the ball. Their no-huddle offense just depends on how long their drives are and what's going on, and if we can insert him in there, we will, but I think he has the background to do some specific things and help us.”
Layne said playing cornerback for over two years has helped him in how he goes up against opposing corners as a wide receiver.
Which is different from when Layne played wideout and cornerback at Benedictine High School in Cleveland.
“I think it gives me a little leverage, just knowing that I know a little bit, like how the receivers are thinking,” Layne said. “At the same time, college is different. There’s a lot more that goes into it besides just having help playing defense.”
Layne, who thinks his longest reception is 100 yards back at Benedictine, said it’s more difficult to get used to playing wide receiver because in practice you don’t get game-like touches.
“You don’t always get the ball every time in the game. In practice they can put certain packages in for that period and just give me the ball,” Layne said. “In a game, you might get three catches or maybe none, but in practice you're probably getting 20, 30 catches a day.”
Layne said he’s been watching film every night, per usual, but this time it’s on MSU's offense.
But against the Wolverines, Layne said quarterbacks coach Brad Salem was surprised at how much of the offense he remembered when he was forced to go out there.
“I recall most of the plays, but they've changed a lot,” Layne said. “So, I’ve just kind of been learning the new stuff this past week.”
While Layne is trying to remember the offense, he’s also focused on playing his main position: cornerback, the position he switched over to almost two years ago.
“I’m 100 percent defense,” Layne said. “I’m not taking back anything from there. Whenever Coach D calls me, or whenever my packages are called, I just play.”
And with quarterback Brian Lewerke harboring a right-shoulder injury and the possibility of backup Rocky Lombardi getting the nod behind center, Layne might have to get used to two different quarterbacks.
Layne said him and Lewerke have a “small connection,” since Lewerke and Layne did practice as quarterback and wideout back in 2016.
Which showed why they weren’t on the same page last Saturday
“Probably the biggest thing is I haven’t throw with him in two years or so,” Lewerke said. “So, it was kind of hard just going out there and getting a rhythm with him. And him knowing when I want a back-shoulder throw and when I want to throw it deep or me knowing his body language, is something we weren’t really able to do with practice last week. So, it’s something we got to work through.”
But no matter if Layne has to play corner and wide receiver, he said he’s ready for the challenge of being a two-way player. And it doesn’t matter who's throwing the ball.
“They’re [Lewerke and Lombardi] both great quarterbacks,” Layne said. “I just got to do my job and catch the ball. I really don’t even look and see who’s back there throwing to me. I just catch it, and that’s it.”
CB Josiah Scott returns to practice, could play Saturday; Josh Butler update
When MSU took on U-M this past Saturday, Dantonio said cornerback Josiah Scott “wanted to get in the game.”
It's been over two months since Dantonio first announced Scott’s torn left meniscus injury at Media Day Aug. 6. And the 5-foot-10, 175 pound sophomore might play this week against the Boilermakers as he started practicing this week for the first time this season, according to Dantonio.
“When you get someone back like that, it excites your team a little bit, gives them a little spark,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “So, it’s exciting to see him back out there a little bit, running around, jogging around. So whenever he’s ready, he’s ready. I couldn’t tell you when it’s going to be.”
But Dantonio can and said he’ll make his decision on whether Scott will play based on Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices, along with cornerback Josh Butler, who’s been out with an unspecified injury since the team's 35-21 win over Indiana Sept. 22.
“He's [Scott’s] close to being the four-game redshirt thing, so we'll see how that goes,” Dantonio said. “He'll probably dress this week and have an opportunity to play this week if we deem that. But we'll see.”
During practice earlier in the week, Layne said it looked like Scott “was never hurt in the first place.”
“I miss him a lot because that’s like my little brother,” Layne said. “He probably could’ve helped just with his experience, but we got good corners so we just gotta play, gotta make plays either way.”