EAST LANSING - Last spring there was very little depth-chart re-positioning in the Michigan State defensive backfield, which featured four established players. Cornerbacks Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams were locks for starting jobs, as were Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson at safety.
With Rucker and Hyde gone, the defensive backfield is seeing more competition and depth chart battles than in 2010.
Adams and Robinson are back this spring to anchor a talented crew of defensive backs. The MSU secondary features several underclassmen including sophomores Jairus Jones and Isaiah Lewis. Adams and Jones are engaged in a fierce competition to replace Hyde as the starting strong safety in the Michigan State secondary.
"Jairus Jones and Isaiah Lewis are both playing extremely well, especially for young guys," said Barnett. "They had a lot of retention from the season. It is going really well for the first three days. It is really close, really close. We will see in the scrimmages and the practices as well once the full pads are on if some separation can occur. If not, we will find out in the fall."
Jones was listed as the first-string strong safety on the initial spring depth chart ahead of Lewis. Barnett indicated the race was neck-and-neck.
"I wouldn't say (Jones is) ahead," said Barnett. "They are really close right now. Isaiah did play a lot of nickel back for us and he was over on our side of the field, he wasn't over on the scout field so he had a good understanding of what we were trying to do at both safety spots. It is not like Jairus was the only two because Isaiah was a two on the other side and he understood both sides. It is close all around and they knew that going into the spring. It wasn't a secret, they knew they were competing and battling and at the same time helping one another."
Lewis took reps with the first string during Friday's practice. It is difficult to tell what that move means exactly or if it means anything. Players engaged in position battles throughout the program have alternated between the first and second string during the first week of spring.
Whoever emerges in the competition between Jones and Lewis will be paired with another underclassman on the boundary side of the field. Sophomore Darqueze Dennard is the starting boundary cornerback through the first week of spring. When talented freshman Tony Lippett begins taking reps on defense during the second half of spring, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound defensive back from Georgia is expected to get a good push from Lippett who has drawn comparisons to Chris Gamble, a two-way star at Ohio State when Dantonio was defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes.
"You lose that side of the field in two seniors in Rucker and Hyde that were second-team all-Big Ten," began Barnett. "But our guys are ready to step up to that challenge. I really believe that. The only thing they lack, compared to those guys, and it is a big thing is experience. As long as they continue to work hard in practice and get in the film room and the meeting rooms and they continue to understand what we are trying to do, they will be okay."
Noteworthy developments through first three practices
Hicks on a similar path as Robinson was two years ago?: Mylan Hicks has impressed coaches at free safety this spring after moving over from cornerback.
The move to free safety is not necessarily permanent. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound former Detroit Renaissance star is splitting time between safety and corner.
"He is taking reps at safety and at corner and he is doing a really good job at it," explained Barnett, "and that is great for a young guy, a freshman that got red-shirted. He is doing an outstanding job of rotating between cornerback and safety so we've got some guys that are competing and learning and getting better each and every day."
Two years ago Trenton Robinson made the move to free safety from cornerback where he played as a true freshman.
"We kind of compare Mylan and Trenton in a lot of ways," Barnett said. "The only difference with what we are doing right now is that we are working Mylan at both positions. When we finally moved Trenton, that was it, he was at safety. Although, if we ever got in a real, real bad pinch he could go back out there to cornerback because he is quick enough and fast enough to cover guys at the No. 1 receiver. Very similar, Mylan and Trenton. Hopefully Mylan can out the way Trenton has thus far."
Different kind of hungry: Heading into spring football in 2010, Michigan State's defensive backfield was hungry to eradicate their reputation as the Achilles Heel of the Spartan defense the previous season.
That much-maligned unit transformed themselves from the red-headed stepchild of the Spartan defense to one of top secondaries in Big Ten with four second-team all-Big Ten selections. Last year's defensive backfield had a point to prove. They were driven by it.
There is still a great deal of hunger and drive in the defensive backfield. But the energy produced by that hunger has a different vibe this spring.
"We have so many young guys," Barnett said. "Trenton is the only senior in the entire room, that is including walk-ons and scholarship guys, everybody. You have a lot of young guys that are really wanting to play and do well and compete and I think that is a little bit to our recruiting because we brought in some guys that were competitors, natural competitors. Guys are competing, wanting to play."
Adams sharp through three: After a year away from football in 2009, Akron (Ohio) Buchtel star Johnny Adams returned to the Michigan State secondary last spring and made a smooth transition into the starting line-up. Adams looks even better this spring thus far.
"He has had a good spring so far, I know it has only been three days, but you can tell he is doing some things better, you can tell he has been doing some things on his own since the bowl game, and he is looking pretty good out there. He is looking really good, actually.
"Having that year off gave him a chance to sit back and study certain teams and certain guys and how they like to attack him and attack us and I think it was to his advantage."
Continuing talk about Lippett as two-way player: Playing on both sides of the football is extremely rare in college football. It usually only occurs when a team has an immensely talented individual like Gamble at Ohio State or Charles Woodson at Michigan or in a situation where a team has been racked by attrition at a position and is desperate for bodies.
Michigan State has good young talent at both corner and wide receiver. The continuing conversation about Tony Lippett, the converted quarterback from Detroit Crockett, playing on both sides of the ball as red-shirt freshman in 2011 is a barometer of how highly the Spartan coaching staff thinks of the 6-foot-2, 185-pound athlete's potential.
"Tony is a very versatile athlete that will be a two-way player here," said Barnett. "We are anticipating that he will anyhow, and that he will be a very successful one. We are looking forward to working with him. He has done a really good job throughout the fall when I had him and even in the winter during conditioning we worked with him a little bit. He is going to be fine."