East Lansing — Justin Layne insists he was just caught up in the moment, feeling the passion that is the rivalry between Michigan State and Michigan.
It just so happens, the television cameras caught a quick glimpse of some of that passion as Layne, the sophomore cornerback, gave a quick choke sign to Michigan’s Eddie McDoom after the receiver dropped a pass deep in MSU territory on the final drive of the game. Three plays later, the game was over and Michigan State had won.
“It was just an emotional thing, an in-the-moment thing,” Layne said this week. “I was like, ‘How’d they catch that?’ It happened in the background. I didn’t expect them to catch that.
“My phone has been crazy about that. I didn’t think it was gonna be that big.”
The moment was captured by many and has had quite the run on social media, but it’s hardly what Layne is focusing on these days. It shouldn’t detract from the progress that Layne has made this season, not to mention the production he had against the Wolverines, recording five tackles and an important forced fumble.
As No. 21 Michigan State gets set to take on Minnesota on Saturday night in Minneapolis, the former wide receiver turned cornerback is back in the starting lineup and showing why the Spartans coaching staff made the switch with him early in his freshman season of 2016.
“Justin Layne is a talent,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s big, he can run. Guy ran 46 something in a 400. I mean, he can run. He’s a recruited wide receiver, so he has great ball skills. He’s tackling very effectively. I think he’s got a big upside.
“He reminds me a lot of Trae Waynes when Trae was a redshirt freshman.”
That’s fairly high praise considering Waynes, who started the final game of his redshirt freshman season, became a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings following the 2014 season.
It’s the type of compliment that was surprising to Layne, but one that he said will only push him.
“That’s a great comparison, a great person to be compared to,” Layne said. “It makes me want to work that much harder so I can get up to how he was.”
The key moving forward for Layne is that he can work harder knowing he’s just a cornerback. After making his debut last season against Indiana as a receiver, Layne was at corner the next week against BYU and a week after that started against Northwestern, intercepting a pass and returning it 43 yards for a touchdown.
He finished the season playing eight games on defense and starting five. But by the time spring rolled around, the receiving corps had lost at least one player from the season before and all of the freshmen weren’t on campus. That left Layne playing both spots, but any thought of platooning ended by the time preseason camp began as the receiving corps had been restocked.
And it’s benefited both Layne and the defense.
“He’s gotten better and better for a young man that came here as a wide receiver,” said co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, who also coaches the secondary. “Now he’s been with us full time since the summer. We thought we were gonna have him full time after last year, then we went into spring and had to move him back over to receiver. At first, it was partially, then it became full time because of injuries.
“But ever since the spring and throughout the summer, he’s been back with us. So, he’s now starting to get all the little technical things down at defensive back, at corner in particular, that he needs to to take his game go to another level.”
He and freshman Josiah Scott have reached another level fairly quickly, locking down the starting spots after the first several games used a rotation that included junior Tyson Smith and sophomore Josh Butler. All four will still see time, but the starters are clear at this point.
“We feel like those two guys have really stepped up,” Barnett said. “We still feel great about Tyson and Josh. They’re good players, and you will see them some more this year, you will see them for sure. But for right now, somebody has to start obviously and play, so we feel like Josiah and Justin are doing a good job.”
And the more Layne plays, the more comfortable he gets as a cornerback.
“It’s a lot different from receiver, obviously,” Layne said. “Last year there was a lot going on. I feel like I was just going with the flow. But right now I’m starting to work on the little things, and cornerback is becoming more natural to me now.”