Dec. 27, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TEMPE, Ariz. - You can't tell if Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes is excited about playing in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl just by looking at him.
The same goes for whether he's nervous, apprehensive, giddy, anxious, confident or feeling anything else in advance of what's expected to be an expanded role Saturday night against TCU in Sun Devil Stadium.
"That's Trae, and he's going to always be like that, too," MSU defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said before Thursday's practice at Corona del Sol High School. "He could have a great game and you're going to get the same reaction.
"But that's a good thing. It's good for a corner to have a poker face. He's ready to go. He can run, he's got some physical toughness to him, he can catch. It's time to get his feet wet. Let's see what happens as far as experience for next year is concerned."
Waynes, a red-shirt freshman, is being thrust into the forefront because fifth-year senior All-Big Ten selection Johnny Adams is ailing with a turf toe injury and not expected to play, head coach Mark Dantonio announced.
The Spartans were going to have to replace Adams regardless, and Barnett is OK with it being sooner rather than later.
"I hope nobody we've recruited wants to stand on the sideline and cheer for somebody else," Barnett said. "At some point, you want to get out on the field and play. That's why you come here. So when the opportunity comes, you've got to be ready to go because you never know when it's going to come."
Adams' premature exit means the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl will serve as a preview for what MSU's secondary will look like in 2013.
"Whenever it's a player's first time getting a chance to start, it's always a big proving ground," Barnett said. "It's an opportunity for (Waynes) to take advantage of, and hopefully he will do that."
Waynes will be in the competition to fill the spot opposite Darqueze Dennard, who was also an All-Big Ten pick. Dennard emphasized at Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Media Day Thursday that he is planning on returning for his senior season.
Junior strong safety Isaiah Lewis twisted his ankle in practice on Tuesday but Barnett expects him to play. If he needs a break, experienced backups Jairus Jones and RJ Williamson will be ready to step in. Kurtis Drummond, a six-game starter at free safety, will have two years of eligibility remaining after playing the Horned Frogs.
The only statistics Waynes has recorded are one solo tackle and one assist in eight appearances. He's hoping to pad his numbers.
"I'm just looking at it like another job opportunity," Waynes said. "Next year's going to be big and if I do what I've got to do in this game, it's like showing the coaches what I can do.
"Hopefully, this will just be a step toward getting me ready for next season. I've got to be ready at some point, so why not now?"
Waynes is preparing for TCU's spread offense by watching as much game film as he can, taking as many actual and "mental reps" as possible and absorbing all the advice he can from his more experienced teammates.
"Having players like (Adams and Dennard) ahead of you helps you out because you know they'll have a shot to play at the next level and they tell you all the tricks of the trade," Waynes said. "You pay attention to everything they say."
Dennard all but quashed speculation that he may leave early for the NFL and said he was looking forward to playing with Waynes in what should be one of the Big Ten's top secondaries next season.
"My goal coming back next year is to push my teammates as hard as I can so we can become the team we should be, and that's competing for the Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl Championship and National Championship," Dennard said. "Right now, I'm getting ready to play this game and looking forward to next year.
"I am coming back."
Quality depth is what has Dennard, who returned his second interception against Georgia for a touchdown to spark the Spartans' comeback victory in last season's Outback Bowl, feeling so confident.
"We're going to miss a great player in Johnny Adams next year and he's done a lot of us," he said. "At the same time, we have some young guys who can fill the void and we won't skip a beat. You could see that Trae had the dog in him to play corner early and he's been making plays throughout bowl prep.
"I'm really not worried about those young guys. They're already really good and have the opportunity to be great some day. They're really coming along and we'll be ready to go as a secondary next year."
Lewis is puzzled by some of the postseason assessments that have MSU's defensive backfield taking a step backward next season.
"I don't know why anyone would look at it as an area of concern," he said. "We've got a bunch of athletes out there who are ready to step up and make plays. I'm not worried about it at all."
Although TCU runs the ball out of the spread formation more than it throws - 482 rushes, 373 passes - Drummond said the young players like Waynes should get tested on every play.
"It's going to be a great opportunity for whoever gets in, especially playing in a bowl on national television," Drummond said. "Trae is fast, he makes plays on the ball, he's a coverage guy and he works hard every day. But we have all the confidence in the world in whoever's on the field with us.
"You've only seen Johnny and Queze on Saturdays, but we have a lot of great young players who've been competing just as hard as if they're going to play in the game. We should be just as good next year."
Williamson, a red-shirt freshman, will make his bowl debut as a member of MSU's nickel package.
"Every game and every practice is a competition," he said. "You're either competing with the other team or you're competing with your teammates to eventually win a spot. So every guy out there is going to play their hardest to win a game, but at the same time to give yourself a bit of an edge for next year."
As far as leadership is concerned, Williamson said there's no question who the alpha dog is in Barnett's pack.
"I have to give that to No. 9, Isaiah Lewis," Williamson said. "He hits anything, whether it's his own teammates or anybody else. He's our engine. He's the soul of the secondary. He's a hard-nosed kid, a tough player and everybody looks up to him."
White has been involved with the evolution of the Spartans' defensive backfield for five seasons and like the rest of his teammates, said the unit should be listed as a "strength" next season despite the loss of Adams.
"But if you look now from top to bottom, the ability and talent is there for everybody. There's no drop-off. I do think this secondary is better off than it was five years ago just because they're competitive, they have ability and there are some things that can't be coached, and all those guys have it."