April 13, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It wasn't meant as a trick question.
Will it be tougher to replace the communication, leadership and experience Robinson provided as a three-year starter at free safety, or the skill and savvy of an NFL-bound defensive back who was the fastest at his position at the pro combine?
On the one hand, the answer is both. On the other, it's neither.
Let Barnett explain:
"Well, it's a little bit of all of it in a way, but I will say, the three players we have back are good players, too, and they've kind of picked up the slack from where he left off," Barnett said Thursday after practice. "I'll tell you what happened. Two years ago, Marcus Hyde was `the general.' Then the next man up was Trent.
"Now, the next man up is Isaiah (Lewis). So he's going to have to be the guy to control it, and get everybody in the right place, and keep it moving back there..., and he's doing a good job. He's the next man up."
In other words, MSU is so beyond the point of where the graduation of one key player can potentially break a corps, a unit or a team. Players are mentored and developed to assume the roles to which they are suited, according to Barnett.
The Robinson era may be over, but Lewis, the gregarious junior with a penchant for big hits, has picked up the mantle at his strong safety position. Like Robinson, Lewis had four interceptions last season, but he returned two for touchdowns.
Furthermore, it's not like Lewis is going to have to micromanage every position in the secondary, possibly at the expense of being distracted from his own duties.
He's flanked by Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, arguably the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem and one of the best in the nation. Adams is a fifth-year senior with eight career interceptions, including three last season. Dennard also had three picks, in his first full season as a starter, including the one he returned 38 yards for a critical touchdown in the Outback Bowl triple-overtime victory over Georgia.
The comfort level for those vying for Robinson's spot this spring is high. Kurtis Drummond, a sophomore, had two interceptions in 12 appearances, including one start. Junior Jairus Jones, who played in the last six games after missing the first eight contests with an Achilles injury, along with red-shirt freshmen RJ Williamson are competing well.
"It's been a little bit of an adjustment without (Robinson) and we're missing his leadership a little bit," Lewis said. "But we've got guys who are stepping up and have played back there with us in games, so they know what they're doing.
"We feel comfortable playing with them. I still have to work on my leadership, but coach wants me to mentor the younger guys and help them out."
Adams has assumed the role of senior statesmen in the secondary, Lewis added, but with eight defensive starters returning, along with several experienced backups, the level of sophistication and coordination has never been higher under sixth-year head coach Mark Dantonio.
"The defense as a whole is full of leaders and I think everybody will step up and play that role," Lewis said. "(Middle linebacker) Max Bullough is our big leader. He's the guy who will stand up and talk, but a lot of guys will say things that need to be said once in awhile.
"We've got all these guys coming back from what was the top defense in the nation at the beginning of the season and ended up as one of the best (sixth). And even though guys like Trent are gone, we've got other guys who are playing well and filling their spots. We're just going to keep it rolling."
Lewis said the secondary and the front seven play off each other. Lewis, Adams, Dennard and Drummond accounted for 12 of Michigan State's Big Ten-leading 18 interceptions last season largely because of the way the rush affected opposing quarterbacks, and the Spartans were second in the league with 45 sacks, thanks in part to the coverage in the back end.
"We work off them and they work off us," Lewis said. "If the D-line is rushing the quarterback and having him throw picks, that's good for us, and if we're locking down the receivers, it gives them time to sack the quarterback. So, we're all working together on it."
Barnett won't be surprised if the Spartans break spring camp without an established No. 1 free safety, and the competition could continue right up to the Aug. 31 opener against Boise State.
"They're battling, they're working hard and we'll see what happens," Barnett said. "And, we've got guys who'll be coming in this summer, so we'll see. It's going to go down to the wire, I think.
"We've got some good competition there. That's not a bad thing because they're making each other elevate their games. May the best man win, but we may never really know who that is until the end of the season, to be honest with you, because if a guy gets tweaked here or there and isn't playing as well, the next guy is so close he may get an opportunity. We'll see if somebody can create some separation by the end of spring or early in (preseason) camp."
Dantonio has no doubt that MSU's system is set up to reload rather than rebuild.
"Kurtis Drummond and RJ Williamson have got to remain consistent," he said. "We've got guys who can tackle, are explosive players and have great ball skills. What they don't have is Trenton's experience, but we're going to get that as we continue working.
"Everything that we've been able to do points towards (the evidence) that we've got a foundation and are moving forward. We've got some gaps that we're addressing, just like every football team in America right now, but I am happy. I'm happy with the chemistry of our football team, the attitude and the work ethic. When you're getting their best, you have to be happy with it, and we are."