With 20 new transfers on Michigan State's football roster, there are a lot of new faces in new places, especially in the secondary. There is one mainstay though who has made 20 consecutive starts and will likely go the whole season as the face of the secondary: senior safety Xavier Henderson.
Last year with Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker in his first season at MSU, the entire roster had to spend lots of time and energy toward learning a whole new system. Now, those 20 transfers in addition to the incoming freshman have to do the same.
Because of all the new players in the secondary —10 in total—and his veteran experience, senior safety Xavier Henderson has taken it upon himself to serve as a leader on the team.
“At my position, it is my job to get more people to feel the same way,” Henderson said. “It’s not my team. It’s our team. We got dudes that are capable of leading. I can be a better leader every day, so I am working on that and trying to help other dudes step up and use their voice because everybody respects everybody in the locker room.”
In 2020, the Spartans had the 73rd best passing defense out of 127 teams, conceding 239.4 yards per game, about 30 yards more than they did in 2019. Michigan State lost six letter-winners in the defensive backfield over the offseason with the most impactful being the loss of cornerback Shakur Brown, who is currently fighting for a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster after going undrafted.
To fill the holes, the Spartans brought in six defensive backs via the transfer portal, some of whom may see significant playing time as early as week one. Henderson specifically made note of Division II transfer Kendell Brooks from North Greenville University and Division III transfer Spencer Rowland from Wheaton College as defensive backs that have stood out in camp.
“Kendell Brooks has been looking really good,” Henderson said. “He’s made a lot of strides. He kind of tweaked his ankle so he has been playing on a bum ankle for all of spring last year, but he’s got his ankle healthy and has been looking really good so I am excited to see what he can do. We’ve got a couple different guys. Spencer Rowland, who has got a little hammy, so he hasn’t been able to be out there as much. But Spencer is a guy who I think can get out there and do productive things on the field.”
Tucker announced Tuesday that the team is about 95% vaccinated, with the goal being 100% by next Friday, which has allowed for relaxed COVID-19 protocols.
This year, the positional meetings between safeties and cornerbacks are together in the same room, rather than separate like they were last year because of the pandemic. Because the two positions have similar characteristics, being in the same meeting rooms can help with the cohesion and chemistry with the defensive backs.
“It’s very important,” Henderson said. “We all have to see the same thing because we are the net. That’s what coach [Harlon] Barnett likes to call the five DBs out there. We are the net. If a big play breaks off, we gotta net the ball down, so we all gotta understand what we are seeing out there and do our job, leverage the ball, and I think that just being in there together compared to last year has helped us out a lot. Coach [Travares] Tillman and Coach Barnett are really good in there together.”
Michigan State also returns three other members of the secondary who have starting experiences: safeties Michael Dowell and Angelo Grose, as well as cornerback Kalon Gervin. With MSU’s newly implemented 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the defensive back’s cohesion is more important than ever before.
“I feel pretty good about what we have,” Tucker said. “We are working to build depth in the secondary. We have guys that can cover. We need to continue to work on our perimeter run force, but I feel good about the guys that we have back there. The newcomers are going to contribute. They are going to help us quite a bit.”
Things took another step toward normalcy on Monday when Michigan State held its 18th annual “Meet The Spartans” event at Spartan Stadium after taking 2020 off. However, instead of the ordinary autograph and photo opportunities, Tucker held a 90-minute open practice with thousands of fans in attendance for the free event.
Now considered a veteran at MSU, Henderson said this season so far has felt a lot more like a typical season compared to what it was last year, especially with some of the usual offseason events happening such as Big Ten Football Media Days in July.
“It was just fun,” Henderson said. “It was more people than I expected to come out really. My parents came up, kind of surprised me. It was just fun to get that feeling back and have some people there.”
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