EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had some high praise for freshman cornerback Justin Layne Sunday night, although he added some temperance.
“He reminds you a little bit of Trae Waynes in a lot of respect. A young Trae Waynes,” Dantonio said during a conference call with Michigan State beat writers. “He’s playing as a true freshman, which Trae never did, so he should be something special for us and look forward to the future.
“But, I slow down with all of that kind of stuff because we’ll see how he plays next.”
Who Layne and the Spartans play next is Ohio State, currently ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Buckeyes (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) are assuredly going to move up when this week’s rankings are announced Tuesday night after a 62-3 win at Maryland. No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Washington all lost their games on Saturday.
Ohio State’s win was its second in a row by a 62-3 score. Ohio State did the same thing to Nebraska the week prior in Columbus. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has completed 44 of 65 passes for 543 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games. Barrett hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 153 pass attempts and he has plenty of receiving options to choose from.
Junior Curtis Samuel, a hybrid running back/receiver, is the leading threat with 57 catches for 750 yards and six touchdowns. Junior Noah Brown has 27 catches for 345 yards and 7 touchdowns, four of which came in a 45-24 win at Oklahoma in September. Senior Dontre Wilson has 26 catches for 343 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Michigan State (3-7, 1-6) needs more than a young Trae Waynes — or a Waynes clone in Layne — to slow down the Buckeyes when the teams play Saturday at noon at Spartan Stadium.
Waynes is the former Michigan State cornerback who, along with Darqueze Dennard, was part of the “No Fly Zone” defense from 2012-14. The Minnesota Vikings chose Waynes with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Dennard is now playing for Cincinnati after the Bengals made him their first-round pick in 2014.
Layne began the season as a wide receiver and made his debut on Oct. 1 at Indiana wearing No. 13. The next week against Brigham Young he’s wearing No. 39 and playing defensive back. Layne made his third start of the season in last Saturday’s 49-0 win against Rutgers and was credited with 3 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss. He also drew an offensive pass interference penalty against Rutgers wide receiver Carlton Agudosi in the first quarter.
“Justin took a step forward this week at the corner,” Dantonio said. “Remember, he’s really only been at corner for (a few) weeks but he’s got special skills, very special skills. He’s got deep-ball judgement, can tackle in space, can change direction. He’s big, he’s long.”
That’s where the comparison to Waynes came along. Layne is 6-foot-2, and 180 pounds. Waynes is now listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds on NFL.com. Waynes was credited with 101 tackles, 4 for loss, with 6 interceptions and 13 pass breakups during his three seasons at Michigan State.
Layne also made starts against Northwestern and Michigan. He returned his first career interception 43 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern. Layne also was beaten for a 57-yard touchdown reception in that game after he made a mistake in his coverage assignment. That’s part of the learning curve with a freshman.
Sophomore Tyson Smith wasn’t available to play because of an unspecified injury, Dantonio said, giving way for Layne to start along with senior Damian Hicks against Rutgers. Michigan State lost sophomore Vayante Copeland to a broken foot in practice two weeks ago.
Layne isn’t the only freshman wide receiver who has been turned into a defensive back. Donnie Corley began the season wearing No. 9 on his jersey, but is No. 29 now as he plays both offense and defense.
Corley has 27 catches for 397 yards and 3 touchdowns on offense this season. He made 2 tackles against Rutgers in his most extensive playing time on defense this season. He’s split time in practice between wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel’s group and co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett’s defensive backs.
“Should I go on offense this period or should I go on defense this period? They’ll be arguing sometimes,” Corley said.
Dantonio has said he sees a Corley playing both ways even more extensively in the future. Barnett will gladly take him for as many snaps as possible.
“He’s a football player, just a natural-born football player,” Barnett said of Corley.
He could have just as easily have been speaking of Layne.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo