By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – It’s as if Hunter Rison and Cody White are coming to Michigan State with an abundance of advanced-placement credits.
In wide receiving.
Both first-year Spartans to be – Rison is already enrolled and White arrives with the rest of the 2017 recruiting class this summer – have been students of the game since birth, and probably before based on conclusions experts have made about pre-natal information exchange.
Rison’s dad, Andre, was a dazzling split end who made some of the most unforgettable plays in MSU history from 1985-88. His clutch 36-yard catch set up the game-winning field goal in the ’88 Rose Bowl, he was an All-American as a senior and the first-round draft of the Indianapolis Colts. Andre won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 1996 and played in five NFL Pro Bowls.
Sheldon White, Cody’s father, was an All-Mid-American Conference cornerback at Miami of Ohio and played six NFL seasons for three different teams, including the Detroit Lions. After retiring from pro football, Sheldon rejoined the Lions as a scout in 1997 before becoming the club’s Director of Pro Personnel. He completed the NFL’s career development program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in ’04 and was the Detroit’s Vice President for Pro Personnel from ’09-15. He joined MSU’s football staff as a consultant last season.
“He’s asking questions that you don’t expect freshmen to ask,” Spartan wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said of Rison after MSU’s newest recruit class was unveiled on National Signing Day. “I think that’s more of his dad in him. He sees things from not a freshman level but as a sophomore going into his junior year.
“Him and Cody, every time they get a chance, they’re always asking me about routes and plays, or something of that nature.”
While Rison was tutored by his dad, whose hard-charging, roughneck style was matched by his entertaining outsized personality, Samuel pointed out that White has been surrounded by top-flight mentors, including former Lion Calvin Johnson, who is considered one of the greatest receivers of all time.
Rison, a 6-foot, 195-pound prep All-American and two-time all-stater, logged nearly 1,700 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Ann Arbor Skyline High School. White (6-3, 200), Michigan’s reigning Mr. Football, played multiple positions while amassing more than 3,200 all-purpose yards for Walled Lake Western.
“When you’re talking about Hunter, and Cody too, you’re talking about two kids that grew up in football,” Samuel said. “Maturity level. Hunter, seeing how his dad had to handle things. Cody, seeing how his dad had to handle things football-wise. When you’re able to see that as a kid growing up, you have a perspective that’s great for me as a teacher.
“They see things and understand the pitfalls in college football, or football in general. Both of these guys understand that if you don’t prepare for your opportunities, you’re going to miss your opportunities. They’re mature enough to understand that I have to prepare to compete and that’s what’s special about both of these guys. That’s different than any kid I’ve ever had.”
Andre Rison tried to turn every pass-catching opportunity into a big play because he didn’t get many. Coach George Perles’ run-loving Spartans averaged just seven completions on 13 passes per game during Andre’s last two seasons at MSU.
By comparison, the Spartans completed an average of 18 of 31 passes per game over the past two seasons.
Andre’s yards-after-catch numbers were off the charts and his 24.6 average in ’88 is second on MSU’s all-time single-season list while his 20.5 career average is third, and Hunter is cut from the same cloth.
“What I see with Hunter is that same quickness component,” said Samuel, a Purdue wideout from 1991-94. “I can see Hunter, with his vision, being able to get in and out, stop and start, maybe a little bit more than dad was able. He also has a strength component. He’s not small and thin and has no strength.
“He can throw a stiff-arm and do some things physically in the same vein as Andre as well. I think Andre was more physical in college and he learned his other skills a little bit later and I think Hunter has more stop-and-start, change-of-direction than what Andre had at the same point in time. That might be one of those debates Andre will call me on and we’ll have a long discussion.”
Hunter applied pro receiving principles in high school.
“When you watched him, he was more determined that a lot of people on that field, and he was smooth because his father taught him how to run the routes – see openings, find the exit, be efficient,” Samuel said. “You see the young Andre without the teaching and with Hunter, you see him being taught.”
Hunter also inherited his father’s competitive edginess.
“He’ll say to anybody in the state, ‘If you want to come check me, get up on the line of scrimmage,’ ” said Samuel, conjuring up memories of when Andre prefaced his 1987 and ’88 showdowns with Florida State All-American Deion Sanders by saying, “He can’t check me.”
Hunter will be tracing his father’s footsteps in Spartan Stadium and venues throughout the Big Ten as he tries to catch up with a legend, and maybe even run by him someday.
“I used to watch film of him all the time and I was watching a Rose Bowl clip and they said (the Spartans) had run the ball 20 straight plays and then they threw a bomb and he caught it,” Hunter said. “Just seeing his success here, knowing it was a run-based offense with Lorenzo White, amazes me.
“Knowing that we have more of a pro-style offense here now and we throw the ball a lot more, and that I’ll have a chance to eclipse his records makes me really excited. I just can’t wait to work hard and do those types of things.”
At the same time, Hunter looks forward to a time when instead of hearing, “Hey, are you really Andre Rison’s son,” it will be, “Hey, are you really Hunter Rison’s father?”
“Everybody has their own path to follow,” Hunter said. “I’m really not just like him because he was also playing track and basketball here. He was a spectacular athlete and I can’t really follow in his footsteps because I wasn’t the No. 1-ranked athlete coming out (of Michigan), so I’ve had to work a little bit harder to put my name out for myself.
“But, it’s going to be interesting to see.”
Who knows? Maybe 30 years from now Hunter will also join Andre in the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame – as its first father-and-son tandem.
GoG Quotes and Notes: While Rison was virtually committed to Michigan State for years, defensive back Emmanuel Flowers, of Chino Hills (Calif.) Ayala made up his mind to become a Spartan just minutes before signing his national letter of intent on Wednesday.
Flowers’ recruitment will go down as one of the most audacious in co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett’s coaching career.
One day in late November Flowers’ father, Charles, direct-messaged Barnett via Twitter.
“We get these all the time saying stuff about, ‘Watch my film,’ ” Barnett said. “But what caught my eye about his was, he’s a 6-2 corner from L.A. So I’m like, all right, let me look at it. And I’m, ‘Whoa, this dude’s pretty good, right?’
“So then I D-M the dad back and say, you’re flying over a lot of schools to get to Michigan State, not that we’re chopped liver, but what’s going on here? He’s 6-2, can play like this, what’s the issue? What’s wrong?”
Charles replied that while he had sent out Emmanuel’s highlight video to schools like USC and UCLA, MSU was the only one he contacted east of the Mississippi River.
“The dad said, ‘I’m from Chicago, I’ve got family in Grand Rapids and I’ve always liked your program,’ ” Barnett recalled. “I responded to him and it went from there. So that’s the Emmanuel Flowers story.”
Samuel said Rison and White will have a chance to contribute right away as true freshmen and Barnett believes the class as whole is capable of lighting a fire under the returning veterans.
“These guys are good football players that we’ve got coming in here,” Barnett said. “It’s a very focused group overall and I think it’s a group that will get the attention of some guys on our team that will either make them go their way, with them, or they’re going to say, ‘Man, these guys are relentless.’ I think’s going help our team overall, I really do.
“I feel great about this class and it’s going to put some pressure on our current guys. I think they’re smart, too. A smart football player makes a great football player and these guys understand the game.” And if the vets feel threatened by the competition, “good,” said Barnett, what are they going to do about it?
“Exactly right,” he added. “Some guys are going to rise, like my old man used to say, the cream rises to the top. We’re going to see who’s the cream.”
Another receiver Samuel expects to make an impact, sooner rather than later, is 6-3, 200-pound C.J. Hayes, of Bowling Green (Ky.) South Warren.
“He’s a strong wide receiver who’s, you bump me but you can’t stop me,” Samuel said. “It’s a diesel just going down the street and the deer just happened to get in the way. As DBs come up to him, if you aren’t physically strong enough to handle him, he’s going to make you look bad. It’s just a matter of how fast he can learn.”