EAST LANSING - Michigan State assistant coach Harlon Barnett discussed the emergence of Jairus Jones as the surprise frontrunner for the job of starting free safety in addition to other developments in Spartan defensive backfield after practice on Friday.
A quick overview of the things we learned from defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett on Friday:
1. Junior Jairus Jones has edged ahead of preseason favorites Kurtis Drummond and RJ Williamson in the competition for the starting free safety job.
How? Jones is a few pounds lighter than he used to be and is playing faster.
How else? All of them - Jones, Drummond and Williamson - are playing well. But Jones has been securing more interceptions. The coaches love that.
"The other guys have been knocking the ball down, he's been catching them," Barnett said of Jones. "I'm trying to find something that tips the scales; they're all playing well, and we're going to find out more here in the next two weeks."
2. Darqueze Dennard is fully healthy after missing the last one-third of the spring with a shoulder injury. "He's a competitor," Barnett said.
3. Senior Johnny Adams has taken his level of play up a notch after being All-Big Ten last year. "He's on a mission," Barnett said.
4. Junior Isaiah Lewis has been terrific at strong safety. "He's a killer," Barnett said. "He's exactly what you want at safety."
5. Lewis will play the slot area in the 'star' position in the nickel defense for a third straight year. As for the two deep safeties in the nickel, MSU has repped mostly with Williamson and Drummond back there. Drummond played that role last year, and had two interceptions.
But now that Jones has been making a push into the starting lienup, MSU might have to re-think and re-shuffle the nickel personnel group. Would it make sense for Jones to come off the field on third down? Not necessarily. That's why Jones has been repping in with the first-string nickel in the last day or so as well.
Jones served as a safety in the nickel defense for part of the Big Ten Championship season of 2010 when he was a redshirt freshman. He was in position to take over that role for good when he blew out his achilles tendon on the next-to-last practice of the 2011 spring practice season. The injury sidelined him for several months. He returned to the field for the second half of last season, but only recently regained his speed, and may have even added to his speed.
6. Senior Mitchell White is the third-best cornerback in the program and solid in the two-deep. At the other second-string CB position, MSU is rolling three candidates in the competition: redshirt freshman Arjen Colquhoun, redshirt freshman Trae Waynes and true freshman Ezra Robinson.
Waynes is the fastest guy on the team. Robinson is exceptional from a mental standpoint for a true freshman. Colquhoun is suddenly the fastest-rising DB in the program, having started to make plays much more frequently than in the past. The Canadian was burned twice in the Green-White Game, including once by Johnny Adams, lost confidence, but answered with a great summer.
7. True freshman Demetrious Cox is also getting reps with the second string at free safety. He is the most physically gifted of the safeties.
8. Sophomore Mylan Hicks seems to be in danger of going backward on the depth chart. He is focused on playing cornerback now, after doubling up at corner and safety in the past. Hicks is serving as the second-string 'star,' behind Lewis as a specialist in the nickel defense. With hybrid talent as a corner and safety, the hybrid role of 'star' might suit him for the long term.
Click below for a video interview with Barnett.