Grinz on Green: Spartan Secondary Eager to Return to ‘No Fly Zone’
Following a season full of injuries in 2015, the Spartans return 12 letterwinners to the defensive backfield with plenty of game experience.
After missing 12 games last season with a neck injury, cornerback Vayante Copeland is healthy and back in action for spring practice.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Despite the disquieting nature of his injury, Vayante Copeland had no doubt he would play football for Michigan State again.
Bones in other parts of the body heal without further consequence, so why would a fractured neck vertebra be any different?
“I could name everybody, older guys and just people on the team that have been hurt,” Copeland said Tuesday after MSU’s first spring practice in pads. “I was making a joke out of it. I got hurt, but I always felt like I could come back and play.
“But when I was going through everything, everybody would be making jokes about me being in a neck brace and stuff like that. I’m a funny guy, being the voice the makes people laugh.”
In his first game as a Spartan, the 2015 season opener at Western Michigan, Copeland gave every indication that the stellar lockdown cornerback tradition established by predecessors and “No Fly Zone” founding members Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes – back-to-back NFL first-round draft picks in ’14 and ’15 – was going to continue.
Copeland completed his red-shirt freshman debut by wiping out the possibility of the Broncos making things interesting in the closing moments with an interception in the end zone to secure the 37-24 victory. He was just 10 minutes away from passing another test with flying colors when he was injured in what he calls an “accident” while tackling Oregon’s Royce Freeman in fourth quarter of the 31-28 win.
“When it happened, I thought I had a concussion or something,” Copeland said. “My neck kind of hurt, but at the same time it didn’t. But, I had to go through it slowly because I couldn’t rush myself back out there and possibly hurt myself again.”
As the Spartans took the old adage, laughter is the best medicine, to new heights, Copeland watched from the sideline as the secondary continued to be ravaged by injury and performance issues.
Williamson sat out eight of the last nine games with an arm injury and cornerback Darian Hicks returned from a preseason illness only to miss four starts with concussion-like symptoms. True freshmen Grayson Miller and Khari Willis were pressed into starting roles at both safety spots and Demetrious Cox flip-flopped between safety, his natural position, and cornerback throughout the season. Even Watts-Jackson, a backup safety and Copeland’s roommate, ended up on crutches after injuring his hip at the end of his game-winning fumble return against Michigan in the seventh game.
In all, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett trotted out seven different starting lineups in the back end through 14 games.
Safety Demetrious Cox (No. 7) and cornerback Darian Hicks (No. 2) perform drills at MSU's third spring practice on Tuesday.
“Mentally, it hurt not to play,” Copeland said. “But seeing those guys make plays – interceptions, pass-breakups, tackles – I was living through them. It hurt but it didn’t because I’d seen those guys doing what they do. They were doing good, the team was doing good, so I felt like I was doing good.”
Somehow, Barnett and the secondary held it together. The Spartans were ninth in the Big Ten in pass defense and pass-efficiency defense, but with the second-most interceptions (15) they led the league in turnover margin en route to the East Division title, the conference championship, MSU’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff and a No. 6 placement in the final polls.
"A lot of depth is back because a lot of guys had to play. They're working hard, they're all doing a good job and they all have something to prove this year."
-MSU co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Harlon Barnett
Cleared for full contact, Copeland dismissed speculation of how much better Michigan State would have been with him in the final 12 games – the Spartans were 10-2 without him – just as he pooh-poohed talk of him being a major part of the reason the secondary could be dominant in 2016.
“I’m not the key, man,” he said. “I’m just a guy that’s out there trying to help my team. I get compared (to Dennard and Waynes), but I haven’t done anything yet. When I do something, maybe I’ll look at myself as that, but right now I’m just trying to get myself better for the betterment of this team.
“I’m just a player on the team trying to make plays just like everybody else.”
Barnett, who loathes the term “cover corner,” calls Copeland a “complete corner” who exudes toughness and thrives the physical aspects of the game.
“I don’t want to blow his head up too much, but he can play,” Barnett said. “He’s a good football player and I’m looking forward to him showing everybody that he can play. That’s the last time I say good things about him. He loves to play, he loves the game, so I’m excited for him because I think he can be a special player.
“But I’m not pointing anybody out this spring – on purpose. Let’s wait till the end.”
Nevertheless, having survived last season’s ordeal while witnessing so many baptisms by fire, Barnett is cautiously optimistic about the future of a settled secondary with Copeland as its linchpin.
Only Williamson and Arjen Colquhoun, who came through with a yeoman performance as Copeland’s primary replacement, have graduated from the playing group.
Cox, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, is back at home as a fifth-year-senior-to-be free safety after splitting time at cornerback and safety last season. Hicks is poised to solidify his hold on the other cornerback spot while junior safety Montae Nicholson is coming off a breakout final five games after an inconsistent start.
Jermaine Edmondson and Mark Meyers will return with four years of experience and Miller and Willis have transitioned from rookie to veteran status. Meantime, hungry talent in the form of Tyson Smith, Kaleel Gaines, Matt Morrissey, David Dowell and Kenney Lyke are waiting in the wings. Even Watts-Jackson is way ahead of schedule in his bid to make a contribution.
Head coach Mark Dantonio pledged on an almost weekly basis that the Spartans near-constant state of flux due to injury, particularly in the secondary and offensive line, would make them stronger in the long run and Barnett can see that promise coming true.
“A lot of depth is back because a lot of guys had to play,” Barnett said. “We all feel really good about the secondary, but I hate talking good about it. They’re working hard, they’re all doing a good job and they all have something to prove this year.
“They’re going to be fired up and I can’t wait until August rolling into the season. There’s going to be a lot of competition because we’ve got some guys that can play this game. Who’s going to be the most consistent is what it’s going to boil down to.”
Hicks sees no point in looking back at what might have been.
“Injuries are something you can’t control,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t gotten sick in the summer. I wish I never would have gotten the concussion or hurt my ankle in the Cotton Bowl. I wish Vayante had never fractured his vertebra. I wish RJ had never gotten hurt and we had to shuffle everything around, but I’m very impressed by what we were able to accomplish.
“Freshmen got thrown into the game and now have experience of how it is to play in front of 80,000 people. It was hard but it’s over now. We’re all healthy. We’re going to be a big strength.”