The “No Fly Zone” is a thing of the past for Michigan State.
The title for the Spartans’ secondary of two years ago was fitting back then, when Michigan State boasted arguably the nation’s finest corps of defensive backs. Darqueze Dennard won the Thorpe Award and was the No. 24 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Kurtis Drummond was last season’s Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, and Trae Waynes was the No. 11 pick in this spring’s NFL Draft.
With all three of those guys gone, it makes for a somewhat depleted unit heading into this season, but with a program the caliber of Michigan State, the next wave is always on the horizon.
Tuesday, the Spartans released their depth chart for Friday night’s season-opening contest against Western Michigan. And sitting atop one of the cornerback spots was Vayante Copeland, a redshirt freshman who head coach Mark Dantonio had plenty of praise for.
“Vayante’s a very talented player,” Dantonio said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “We redshirted him last year because we had the luxury of doing that. Great tackler. He was a sprinter in high school ... so he’s a guy that can really run. He’s got great deep-ball skills. He’s young, but he’ll be tested under fire. We’ve got a lot of other corners playing in and out of there, too, so really we’re going to have four starting guys that will play. But he gets the nod based on his summer camp. He’s had a great summer camp, and he’s an outstanding tackler.”
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Copeland was a three-star recruit out of high school, per Rivals, with offers from plenty of other Power 5 schools but no programs with the success Michigan State has had in the past few seasons. The No. 41 cornerback in the Class of 2014, Copeland has obviously yet to play a college game after sitting out last season.
As Dantonio mentioned, there will be plenty of other guys helping Copeland attempt to fill the hole left by Waynes’ departure. There are a total of 11 career starts among the cornerbacks, with Darian Hicks accounting for 10 of those and Demetrious Cox accounting for one. Cox is the other starting corner across the field from Copeland. Hicks is further down on the depth chart.
Fifth-year senior R.J. Williamson returns at safety after starting 12 games a season ago. The other safety spot is occupied by sophomore Montae Nicholson, who started three games last year.
But Copeland and the rest of the contributors Dantonio was talking about have no starting experience. That’s of no real concern to the head coach, who’s seen plenty of turnover heading into his ninth season at Michigan State. And why should he be worried? Dantonio has filled spots of departed starters with success many times before, posting double-digit win totals in four of the past five seasons.
As the cliche goes, next man up.
“It's guys waiting their turn, understanding the situation, our system. We talk in terms of, is that guy functional? Can he play and function within a system? Then he has to raise his level of play,” Dantonio said during his Tuesday press conference in East Lansing. “A lot of times guys wait their time. We continue to coach everybody. I just talked about all the corners. We are actively coaching those guys. So it's not just two or three guys that we're coaching at every position, it's a number of players. I think we've got talent here. We've got good players. We recruited good players. When they have an opportunity to show those talents, they've done a great job. A lot of it to me is timing, as well, and opportunity.”