By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Success proved to be the key that members of Michigan State's coaching staff could use to unlock the door standing between them and any high school prospect in the country. And, head coach Mark Dantonio & Co. knew it was in the middle of something really big when access got even easier with each championship and postseason accomplishment.
However, in recent months MSU recruiters saw the strength of the Spartan program in a different light.
Dantonio revealed compelling evidence of Michigan State's staying power when he unveiled MSU's 2017 Recruiting Class during National Signing Day activities Wednesday afternoon at Spartan Stadium.
Of the 22 signed prospects currently in the class, 15 had made a non-binding oral commitment to Dantonio's program before a rash of injuries, inexperience and lapses in leadership led to a difficult 2016 season.
The class, headlined by players such as four-star wide receiver Hunter Rison (Ann Arbor Skyline) and offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis (Maine South in Park Ridge, Illinois), attracted a steady stream of interested future Spartans right up to the final minute with the signing of Emmanuel Flowers, a towering 6-foot-2 cornerback from Chino Hills (Calif.) Ayala.
"I think our brand is very, very strong," Dantonio said. "When you look at when you're recruiting young people right now, you're talking to young people that have seen us play in the Rose Bowl, in the playoffs, in the Cotton Bowl. They've seen us on the big stage.
"When you walk into any high school in America (and) you have a Spartan (logo) on your shirt, you're going to be in the hunt. Doesn't mean you're going to get them..., but there's been absolutely no loss of our brand in this country. We're able to walk in and go head-to-head (with every program in the nation)."
Dantonio gave the class credit for seeing last season for what it was: despite fielding one of the country's youngest lineups, the Spartans held the lead in every game and had eventual national semifinalist Ohio State and then-No. 2 ranked Michigan on the ropes.
"I never got one question about where we're at (as a program)," Dantonio said. "Our season was one of a lot of different things going on, but competitiveness was never the problem. And these guys will come and will be part of the process, and we're excited about that.
"And I do appreciate their loyalty, but I always have. Probably one of the most important things that I say to a player in this process at the end of the day is that I appreciate your trust in us as people, and your loyalty to the program -- but more your trust in us as people, in terms of helping you move forward in your life."
Rison -- he's already on campus with fellow early enrollees Jack Camper and Josiah Scott -- had been a virtual lock to play for the Spartans since birth. His father, Andre, was an All-American receiver in 1988 and five-time NFL Pro-Bowl performer.
"One of the most important things that I say to a player in this process at the end of the day is that I appreciate your trust in us as people, and your loyalty to the program -- but more your trust in us as people, in terms of helping you move forward in your life."
Nevertheless, MSU's downturn in 2016 never caused Rison to second-guess his decision, or his status as a legacy player.
"It didn't affect me at all," Rison said. "I just knew when I came in I was going to have to work because that's the type of team we are and that's what a Spartan is. We're still tight, we still know the goal and we still know that MSU is a great program.
"We've won so much since Coach D got here, it doesn't even worry me."
Camper, an athletic, 6-5, 240-pound, highly rated tight end from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, said recruiters from other schools attempted to change his mind by bringing up last season.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "They try to throw everything in your face, but I stayed with my strong commitment to here. You can look at everybody who's committed to MSU. They all had tons of options to go to other places, higher-ranked schools at the end of the season, but it shows the dedication everybody has to this program before they even got here."
What impressed Camper as much as anything about Michigan State is its long-standing penchant for developing unheralded players from Kirk Cousins to Le'Veon Bell to Darqueze Dennard to Trae Waynes to Jack Conklin to Shilique Calhoun to Connor Cook... and the list goes on and on.
"I feel like every athlete, when they choose what school they want to go to, chooses a school that can develop them to be the best player they can be," Camper said.
Scott, a 5-10, 175-pound cornerback from Hamilton (Ohio) Fairfield, sees last season as an aberration for MSU, a team he and his father, Oliver, have avidly followed since Dennard led the Spartans' "No Fly Zone" under co-defensive coordinator and defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett.
"I knew what the situation was last season and it didn't affect me," Scott said. "We had a bunch of young guys playing and just a lot of injuries and I don't feel like that's going to stop us next season. If anything, we're going to come in hungrier, stronger, faster and bigger.
"The three words Coach Barnett likes to use are effort, toughness and knowledge. You have to come in here and give effort, because that's the first thing they look for. Then you have to be tough because sometimes you just want to give up but you have to keep pushing through. And then knowledge, you have to be able to study your film and be ready to get to work."
Scott heard a similar message from competing recruiters but it sounded more genuine to him coming from Michigan State.
"You kind of have to pick out what's real and what's not real," he said. "So, you just have to closely listen in to the details of what other schools are saying and look what they're doing on the field and off the field."
Whatever sheepishness Barnett felt about talking to recruits after last season quickly fell to the wayside.
"Going out recruiting this year, especially the first part of December after the season was over, as a coach you're a little apprehensive," Barnett said. "But no kid ever brought up our season, and when I would say something to the coach that I knew at the school, they'd all say, `Coach, it happens to teams. You're going to be fine. We know that's not who you are.'
"After that first week, I was back to my old, `We good.' I never had to answer to that and the coaches would be pumping us up as the school that had the two first-round corners. I didn't have to say anything and that's a great feeling. Now we have to come back this season and do well, but that's how it went this recruiting season."
As a whole, MSU's class may be reviewed lower than those of recent seasons, but that's OK with Barnett, since those ratings didn't stop the Spartans from winning the Rose Bowl, beating Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, or getting to within one win of playing for the 2015 national championship.
And for that reason, Barnett said, nothing really changed for the Spartans this recruiting season, aside from a reaffirmation to stick with an evaluation process that has worked famously, regardless of star or class rankings.
"What we've talked about is looking for more grit guys, or what I call `dawgs,' " Barnett said. "Not that don't have dawgs currently, but we really, really, really put an emphasis on looking for that tough guy, which is what Michigan State football has always been about.
"It's not that we really shied away from it, but what we were really digging into was, is this guy a great guy' and is he a dawg, D-A-W-G?"