Each week heading into the fall football season for MSU, The State News will be taking a look into each position group on Mel Tucker’s roster as the Spartans prepare for their third season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Sam Sklar dives into the "Achilles' heel" of last year's team.
Keeping it plain and simple, it was a rough go for Michigan State’s cornerback group in 2021.
Through the first few games, it appeared to be an effective part of MSU’s bend-don’t-break defensive recipe. But then the cornerback play worsened. Injuries began to amount too, and the Spartan secondary was picked apart on a weekly basis. It was the Achilles’ heel of last year’s team.
Michigan State relied on quick patches via the transfer portal last year, and it resulted in a defense that surrendered the most total passing yards (4,052) in Division I by a mile. MSU also faced an absurd amount of passing attempts, putting a damper on those 4,052 passing yards, but it’s still an area of necessary improvement for a team with aspirations to prove 2021 was no fluke. It also doesn’t solely fall on the cornerbacks’ shoulders.
“We were very minimal of our defense this spring,” defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said. “We shrunk it down as best we could so that we could spend more time on techniques, fundamentals of doing each job. They have all the tools that they need to run the whole package now.”
Sixth-year cornerback and Georgia transfer Ameer Speed is one of the Spartans’ big wins in the transfer portal and figures to slide in as an immediate starter. Outside of him, MSU returns the same group of cornerbacks that were part of the regular rotation last fall. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, with Michigan State banking on improvements from them.
“I think we're close,” Speed said in the spring. “We’ve brought in some people to help. We had a very good season last year, so I think the pieces are coming together. We just gotta put them together and gotta play like it and feel like it.”
Here’s a look at Michigan State’s cornerback group:
Speed spent five years at Georgia where he was recruited by MSU head coach Mel Tucker while he was on the Georgia staff. He played sparingly in his first four seasons but had a career year in 2021 as part of Georgia’s historically dominant defense. Speed was a starter in Georgia’s first three games but then lost his starting job to a young five-star recruit. He still notched a career-high 13 tackles while also being a key contributor on special teams.
Speed hopes to carry his championship pedigree into East Lansing and share some of his experiences with his MSU teammates. He’s a long, athletic cornerback that may instantly be Michigan State’s top corner.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Tre Mosley said Speed has lived up to his last name, while redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed has had high praise for Speed as well.
“He's got wings,” Reed said. “I like him a lot. He's really handsy, he likes to get hands-on. He's really good at it, so I'm excited to see him get out there.”
Williams didn’t get much time to prepare last year, arriving at Michigan State in May 2021 as a transfer from Alabama. He still was MSU’s most effective corner, leading the Spartans in snaps at cornerback, passes defended and pass break-ups.
However, Williams’ play was nothing worthy of a parade. His delayed off-season arrival led to some questionable plays as he became familiar with the Michigan State system on-the-go. Williams began to look a tad more comfortable as the season progressed, which offered encouragement. He also should benefit from a full year with MSU.
For now, he projects as the Spartans' other starting cornerback opposite Speed.
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The other mainstay starting cornerback in 2021, Kimbrough played on the opposite side of Williams. He was a transfer too, coming over from Florida, and like Williams, Kimbrough was a bit underwhelming.
He didn’t appear in the season opener at Northwestern but played in the 12 remaining games. Kimbrough can get too handsy at times and got burned a few times on deep routes, though he had a remarkable interception in overtime versus Nebraska that led to Michigan State’s chip shot walk off field goal.
This spring, Kimbrough has mostly repped at the nickel spot instead of outside corner. Junior safety Darius Snow mainly occupied the position last fall and was one of Michigan State’s breakout defensive players. But he plays more like a linebacker, so adding Kimbrough to the nickel spot should help improve the pass coverage and ultimately be a better fit for him.
Brantley was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman in 2021. He kept improving seemingly each and every week, spotlighted by a monster performance versus Michigan where Pro Football Focus graded him as the top performer on MSU that day.
That earned Brantley his first career start at Purdue the following week, but his season came to an end when he suffered a shoulder injury versus the Boilermakers.
Brantley was limited in the spring as he worked back from his injury. He has a thin frame but was fundamentally promising in 2021. Brantley’s unique swagger can’t be understated either, and he hopes to build on his encouraging start to his collegiate career.
A transfer in 2021 from Louisville, Lowery played 223 defensive snaps, mostly in a reserve role. He started two games, one at Ohio State and one versus Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl, but was nothing too special. That being said, Lowery wasn’t awful and he’s only a redshirt sophomore. Fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson noted Lowery, along with Williams, as one of the cornerbacks that took positive steps in the spring.
“I like Marqui a lot,” Henderson said. “He's got a tendency to get hurt a little bit so he's got to get physically better – he's got to get I think thicker a little bit. But I like Marqui a lot.”
Michigan State has seven other cornerbacks on its roster. Ade Willie and Caleb Coley are both talented true freshmen who enrolled in January. Redshirt junior Justin White made 11 tackles and also was a solid contributor on special teams. Redshirt sophomore Khary Crump played seven snaps on punt coverage in his first year at MSU as a transfer from Arizona. Senior Kendell Brooks saw 26 defensive snaps and is a former Division II player. Redshirt junior Torrell Williams and redshirt sophomore Zach Denha have yet to play.
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