Michigan State's rebuilt corps of cornerbacks remains a work in progress
East Lansing — When Travares Tillman was named Michigan State’s cornerbacks coach in January, he didn’t have a lot of experience to work with.
Kalon Gervin was the lone returning cornerback who had started a game. Four players had departed through the transfer portal.
That changed quickly as the Spartans brought in four Power Five cornerbacks via the portal. Concurrently, head coach Mel Tucker and staff signed three more corners as part of the 2021 recruiting class.
Six games into the season, the new faces are fitting in nicely for 10th-ranked MSU. The top four cornerbacks are all playing their first season in East Lansing.
“It is unique,” Tillman said. “But I could put any of those guys in a game right now and be fine.”
The group includes Alabama transfer Ronald Williams, Florida transfer Chester Kimbrough, Louisville transfer Marqui Lowery and freshman Charles Brantley.
Williams and Kimbrough have each started five games — Gervin started the first two weeks — while Brantley has seen significant playing time. Lowery, who is back from an undisclosed injury, got plenty of work in last week’s victory at Rutgers.
“I’ve got a group that comes out to practice every day and works,” Tillman said. “They take coaching really well. They are always hungry for technique work, and they all know that we’ve got capable guys in the room. We’ve got a really good group, and I can throw anybody in there, and I am confident in that guy.”
There's more work to do. Through six games, MSU is last in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 301.7 yards a game.
But they’ve been better in the red zone, allowing opponents to score 78% of the time. That ranks third in the conference. Opponents have managed only 11 touchdowns in 23 red-zone trips (47.8%).
“Every defense doesn’t want the offense to get any yards, but sometimes that’s just not the way it happens,” Tillman said. “What I’m looking forward to at the end of the game is a win, ultimately.”
It's been all wins thus far for the Spartans (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten). The secondary has had a hand in keeping the record unblemished. A late interception by Williams helped seal the victory at Miami. Kimbrough’s pick in overtime set up Michigan State’s winning field goal.
Tillman is getting his group to focus on its successes as it chips away at some of the mistakes and missed assignments.
“Just get better each week, which I think we’ve done,” Tillman said. “I try not to put too much pressure on those guys because they’ve got stress already. Like I’ve said, there is a room full of guys that could play at any time. Whenever you are out there, make the most of your opportunity.
“Those guys have short memories, man. They go through that play, good or bad, and on to the next. That’s just a philosophy we have as a team.”
Kimbrough and Williams have become the clear starters. But that doesn't mean Tillman won’t turning to Lowery and Brantley. Lowery was effective against Rutgers. Though Brantley didn't get on the field against the Scarlet Knights, there's plenty of season ahead.
“Chuck’s a dawg,” Tillman said. “He doesn’t care. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he plays big and that’s where the heart comes in. He tries every day to get out there and do everything right. He is young, but he’s not playing like it, and I have all the confidence in the world to put him in a game.”
And when Tillman needs some advice, he doesn’t have to go far, tapping into the knowledge of secondary coach Harlon Barnett, who works with the safeties.
“It’s been great, we meet every day with each other, bounce ideas off each other, make comments to the players,” Tillman said. “He may see something the corners are doing and I may see something the safeties are doing. We have a good marriage and I’ve learned a lot from Coach Barnett.
“He’s a legend around here, and he’s been around this game a much longer time than I have. I really appreciate how he has taken me under his wing and showed me different things here and there.”
No. 10 Michigan State at Indiana
► Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Indiana
► TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
► Records: No. 10 Michigan State 6-0, 3-0 Big Ten; Indiana 2-3, 0-2
► Line: Spartans by 4.5