While Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne—who was recruited as a wide receiver—only intercepted three passes during his college career, one in each year that he played, the Pittsburgh Steelers were not concerned about his ball skills. Apparently, neither are Layne or his position coach from Michigan State, Paul Haynes.
Haynes told Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “there’s no doubt that the ball skills are there and he can make plays”. He pointed out that he came in as a receiver, “and he definitely had some of the better hands on the team. A lot of times, they didn’t throw his way, so all that plays a factor in getting a bunch of interceptions and all that type of stuff, too”.
While he had only one interception last season, he also had 15 passes defensed, which was among the most in the country. And the first important step in getting interceptions is getting yourself in position to make plays on the football. He took strides in that department in each season of play.
In spite of his relative newness to the cornerback position, Haynes says that was never a factor for them or in their belief in his ability to execute the defense, and that “we never took him out” of the game, which resulted in him having among the highest snap counts in his conference.
Haynes added that he has a long history with Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin, saying that he’s “still a players’ coach type of guy” and that “he’ll love Justin”, adding that the team’s defensive backs coach—they pretty much have two now—will as well.
Perhaps they will, but it will take fans time longer to love him, and that is going to require getting his hands on some footballs. Either that, or a starter struggling, which will precipitate calls for the rookie to play. Because the backup is always the most beloved person in town if the man in front of him is not performing up to expectations.
“They’re going to love him” In Pittsburgh, he said, “because he has an unbelievable personality. He’s funny, he’s fun, he was fun to coach. I told everybody, you can get after him, you can coach him hard, but I think the Steeler nation is just going to love his personality”.
Anybody who has watched him give interviews can see that he projects himself as mature beyond his years, which is generally preferable, and not necessarily mutually exclusive to having fun. See JuJu Smith-Schuster for the perfect case in point.
How soon can we expect to see Layne on the field, on defense? It’s hard to say, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it doesn’t come this year. He figures to come in no better than fifth on the depth chart behind Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton, all of whom have starting experience in some respect.