Each week heading into the fall football season for MSU, The State News will be taking a look into each position group on Mel Tucker’s roster as the Spartans prepare for their third season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Sam Sklar dives into the ever-deepening safety position.
Some of the biggest news of Michigan State’s offseason was delivered one week after MSU’s win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl: safety Xavier Henderson would be returning for a fifth season.
It was a welcome sight for MSU who gets back one of its strongest leaders on the team. It also wiped away the potentially cloudy future of Michigan State’s safety position.
Henderson and junior safety Angelo Grose ran the show as the two safeties last year and both saw nearly the most defensive snaps in the nation. The two are both versatile and athletic, but secondary coach Harlon Barnett said he’d like to get them some more rest during the season in order to tap into Michigan State’s stronger depth.
The Spartans’ 2022 recruiting class features four players that could potentially play safety – two four-stars and two three-starts. Perhaps at least one of them pops as a true freshman and can comfortably replace Grose or Henderson if needed.
Then there is junior Darius Snow who before Wednesday morning was listed as a safety, but has officially made the switch over to linebacker. He played mostly at nickelback in 2021 outside of one start at safety in the Peach Bowl but spent spring practices with the linebackers. It’s probably a better fit for Snow, but since he was still listed as a safety, he was not included in the linebackers breakdown two weeks ago. We’ll keep him in this piece despite the position change.
Either way, he’s still capable of sliding into the safety position too if needed. That’s added depth that can help MSU transition from less zone coverage to more man coverage.
“That’s kind of the preparation of the next step because you’d really like to be able to challenge guys,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton said. “And then that takes away some of those leaky yards of, hey, instead of just checking it down and getting five and that’s, well now he’s got no place to go, okay quarterback scrambles, maybe you get another hit on.”
Here’s a look at Michigan State’s safety group for 2022:
Ol’ reliable Xavier Henderson has now started 33 consecutive games at safety and hopes to make it 46 as long as his durability continues to hold up. He put together his best season as a senior, earning All-Big Ten honors, and was tied for the team lead with 96 tackles. Henderson can roam down the field or rush into the backfield. He grabbed an acrobatic, one-handed interception last fall against Youngstown State, the third interception of his career.
Henderson’s leadership with the team cannot be understated either. He was the only captain for all 13 games in 2021, making him the clear leader of the team, perhaps excluding redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne. Henderson is a sure bet to be one of the two starting safeties in 2022.
The hard-nosed safety pair to Henderson, Grose returns to MSU after a productive sophomore season. He was a highly-touted cornerback high school prospect, and it appeared to help him in 2021, ranking second on Michigan State with seven pass break-ups.
But it’s really the athleticism and endurance that stands out with Grose, who isn’t afraid to deliver a blow to anyone, even as he played through a wrist injury last fall. He led the nation with 645 coverage snaps, a signal of the trust MSU coaches have in Grose. His dynamite 16-tackle performance versus Western Kentucky was one of the most impressive individual efforts last year.
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It will be interesting to see what steps Grose can add to his game in 2022. Consistency is one area that could be improved, but MSU’s stronger depth could give him some more breaks to improve his productivity. Strength was also a concern coming out of high school, but he should pencil in as one of the starting safety once again.
Michigan State’s breakout defensive player of 2021, Snow went from a freshman special teams player in 2020 to a 650 defensive snap player one year later. He didn’t start in the first four games, but once he got going it was hard to keep him off the field.
Snow, the nephew of All-American linebacker and Spartan great Percy Snow, is a hard-hitter and probably the most versatile player on the team. He started eight games at nickelback and one at safety, and demonstrated a strong tackling ability and willingness to defend against the run. Darius Snow’s ability against the pass at nickel wasn’t spectacular, prompting him to switch over to linebacker.
Like the safety group, the linebacking core also has more depth than last season. It will be interesting to see how MSU uses Snow. Head coach Mel Tucker suggested at last week’s Big Ten media days that there may be some special packages that call for a role in the secondary. Michigan State will make sure he is on the field at some sort of capacity.
Behind Henderson and Grose begins a rebuilt safety group centered around youth. Michigan State has four true freshman safetyties on its roster and Mangham appears to be first in line of the bunch. The consensus four-star recruit joined the team in the spring and was running at free safety with the second team.
The other four-star safety in Michigan State’s 2022 recruiting class, Tatum also was an early enrollee this spring. He’s got some versatility to his game so there’s no guarantee that safety is his position when it’s all said and done. But he was ranked a tad higher than Mangham as a recruit, giving him an edge there.
Redshirt junior Tate Hallock is one of the most experienced of this group, but has only seen snaps on special teams. Senior Kaleb Elam attended East Lansing high school and joined the team as a walk-on transfer in January from Davenport. Redshirt freshman AJ Kirk was a highly recruited player who chose MSU over many other power five schools, including Ohio State in his hometown.
Malik Spencer and Malcolm Jones are three-star freshmen who weren’t with the team this spring and are likely headed toward a redshirt season. Redshirt freshman Khalil Majeed hasn’t played a competitive football game since his sophomore year in high school. Redshirt sophomore Kobe Myers was a walk-on in 2020 and has yet to appear in a game. Freshman Isaiah Henderson is a recent addition as a preferred walk-on.
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