EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio sought out Trae Waynes a couple of days after the Spartans' 46-27 loss at Oregon in September.
The Ducks had burned Waynes a few times for long touchdown passes, and Dantonio needed to check on how his junior cornerback was coping.
"He wanted to make sure I was still OK," Waynes said. "He said I kind of seemed out of it after the game. I told him I was just a little upset at some of the things I could have done better."
The breakdowns in pass coverage against Oregon were uncharacteristic for the Spartans, who have fielded one of the nation's best pass defenses for the past several seasons. But they were also understandable.
Michigan State plays a style of coverage that is highly unusual in college football and one that is highly demanding of its cornerbacks. They are asked to press up on receivers at the line of scrimmage and often left to fend for themselves down the field. It's an aggressive scheme that requires players with broad-based skill sets and, maybe most importantly, a fearless mentality.
"Every week, our coaches harp on how they're the most valuable players if they do their jobs," Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond said. "They have a tough task being on an island all game.
Life on Sparty Island calls for the toughest of survivalists. The Michigan State cornerbacks will once again be put under heavy pressure Saturday when No. 19 Nebraska comes to East Lansing for a key Big Ten showdown. They wouldn't want it any other way.
"We understand that we're playing a high-risk, high-reward kind of defense," Michigan State defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said. "But we know that, if we play it with the confidence required to play it out there, we'll be all right."
Air traffic controllers
The "No Fly Zone," as former star cornerback Darqueze Dennard dubbed the secondary, has been much more than all right for Michigan State in recent years.
The Spartans have consistently ranked near the top of the FBS in total defense the past few seasons, and the lack of big passing plays against them is a major reason why. Since the start of 2011, Michigan State has allowed just 5.69 yards per pass attempt, which is second in the country behind Florida State (5.62) in that time span. Only 25.5 percent of passes against the Spartans have gone for first downs, the lowest figure in the nation, and opponents have completed only 51.2 percent of their throws. Only Virginia Tech has held teams to a lower completion rate.
Base camp for the "No Fly Zone" was established a decade ago, when the routes of three men merged into a fly pattern.
Dantonio, who played defensive back in college and came up through the coaching ranks overseeing that position, got his first head coaching gig at Cincinnati in 2004. He hired Barnett -- a standout defensive back at Michigan State in the late '80s who went on to play seven years in the NFL -- as his secondary coach. And he brought a fiery young assistant named Pat Narduzzi on board as his defensive coordinator with the Bearcats.
Dantonio always favored press coverage throughout his career and credits Nick Saban -- his former boss at Michigan State -- as having the biggest influence on his pass defense philosophy. But under Saban, Dantonio said, the Spartans would press with a deep safety covering the middle of the field. Narduzzi's radical idea was to keep two safeties within eight to 10 yards of the line of scrimmage while still pressing the corners.
Narduzzi's Cover 4 or "quarters" scheme is a common look used by many teams. But very few do it with the safeties so close, because if a receiver can slip away from the press, he could run free down the field. Dantonio felt it worth the risk.
"Throughout time, we've become more aggressive, more aggressive, more aggressive," Dantonio said. "I think that's what needed to happen, with the offenses you see nowadays."
Barnett, who played for Saban both in East Lansing and later with the Cleveland Browns, said he clicked with Narduzzi and his ideas right away.
"We played a lot of Cover 3 under Saban," he said. "We never played this aggressive, this long. But this is what we do and have always done. We played at Ohio State and pressed Ted Ginn. We played UAB and pressed Roddy White. Our defense has been doing this for 11 seasons now."
A misguided perception exists that Michigan State's corners simply play man-to-man coverage. That's not true. Narduzzi's scheme actually combines both man and zone principles, giving cornerbacks the ability to adjust immediately to what the offense is doing. On shorter routes, they can drop into deep zones and get help from the linebackers. Safeties can provide assistance if they don't have to account for inside receivers.
But a Spartans corner often has sole responsibility on the outside receiver, and if that man goes vertical, there's no cavalry coming.
"It's definitely hard, because you're going to be left on an island, more times than not," Waynes said. "But we do it so much that it's just routine. I don't even think about it."
Yes, there's inherent risk in leaving a defender alone against an often taller wide receiver down the field. But the coverage begins with the press at the line of scrimmage by bumping a receiver off his preferred course.
"So a guy may get a step on you, but the timing of the route has already been disrupted," Dantonio said. "Sometimes, that's enough."
"They're real physical," Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. "They like to get their hands on you. Your release is key, and you've got to be able to hand fight with them and be physical right back."
The corners are taught to get inside leverage, meaning they force receivers toward the sideline. That then becomes a low-percentage throw, because not many college quarterbacks are skilled enough to consistently lob a precise, back-shoulder ball, especially of late in the Big Ten. And by not having to commit extra players to help on deep routes, Michigan State can bring more defenders into the box to stop the run or execute a zone blitz.
"We look at our defense as nine-man front at times, based on our corners being able to press and take out the No. 1 receivers," Barnett said. "It allows us to be a little more aggressive on defense with the front in stopping the run, and that's the No. 1 thing you have to do. And this is coming from a DBs coach."
Physical + mental = 'complete corner'
Of course, making the whole scheme work requires a special type of player at cornerback.
Barnett eschews the term "cover corner" and instead prefers "complete corner." That's because a Spartan cornerback has to be strong at the line of scrimmage to push a receiver off his route, have enough recovery speed to chauffeur that receiver all the way down the field and tackle well enough to provide run support, all while owning the football smarts necessary to make the proper on-field adjustments at a moment's notice.
"You have to have quick feet and be physical on the run and the pass," said sophomore Darian Hicks, a first-time starter at corner this year. "You've got to have the whole package."
One of the first things Michigan State looks for when recruiting a potential cornerback is great judgment on deep balls. The Spartans like players who were wide receivers in high school, "because that's what you really have to become when the ball goes up," Dantonio said.
Waynes is a perfect example of this. He wasn't flooded with scholarship offers from major schools and while injuries played a role in that, the bigger factor might have been that he didn't play cornerback until his senior year.
But Michigan State loved his speed -- both his parents ran track in college, and he was clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- and his lanky frame that has now filled out to 6-foot-1 and 182 pounds.
Once the right athletes are found, development becomes key. Waynes recalls being a mess during his redshirt year as a freshman, with a stance that "was all jacked up" and no idea how to read his keys. But like many Spartans players under Dantonio, he has continued to improve every year.
Finally, attitude can be just as important as the physical attributes. Every corner knows he will get beat at one time or another. What separates the great ones is the ability to shake that off.
"You've got to have a 'Dawg' mentality," Waynes said. "That's one thing coach [Barnett] emphasizes in the room. On game day, even in practice, you've got to let that other guy come out."
"It's a mindset. If you see they have that mental toughness within them, they can get it done. Nobody wants to be called soft. And if you are, you won't play," Barnett said. "If we happen to not have such great technique at the line of scrimmage and guys get on top of us, then you've got to have a confidence. I always tell our guys, 'Now you've got to enter Cool School.' You've got to be cool. You can't panic. Play guys' eyes and hands to the ball."
Dantonio doesn't like to reveal too much about how Michigan State trains its cornerbacks, for fear of letting other teams in on the secret. But Barnett constantly preaches proper techniques and eye control and uses game-specific drills in practice. The system hasn't changed much in 11 years, because it works.
"Really, a lot of what we've been able to accomplish is his doing," Dantonio said of Barnett. "He's a great teacher, he has great rapport with our players and that group as a whole is always extremely success driven in that room. It's a confidence thing when you're out there playing corner, and our guys have confidence because they have succeeded."
Michigan State's complete corners and safeties have hogged multiple All-Big Ten nods in recent years, including last year's Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, who was a first-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in May.
"I had good corners ahead of me helping me out like 'Queze and Johnny Adams," Waynes said. "I think it's just the repetition of knowledge coming through that room."
Things don't always go according to plan. In Michigan State's lone loss of 2013, Notre Dame repeatedly threw deep fades against the single coverage and drew several (controversial) pass interference penalties. Oregon scored touchdowns on three pass plays longer than 24 yards, including once when Waynes got bumped and fell down.
The "No Fly Zone" is a "No Hide Zone" in moments like that. But the cornerbacks can expect to receive support, not screams, after they get torched.
"That's a silver lining for those guys playing here," Dantonio said. "They've got a head coach that understands it's difficult, who understands that one inch here or there can make all the difference, so they're never going to get beat up coming to the sideline. I think that helps with their confidence.
"It's a tough job out there."
Life on Sparty Island can be a demanding, even lonely existence at times. But the Michigan State cornerbacks don't just survive out there. They thrive. More often than not, it's the opposing receivers who end up feeling deserted.