Feb. 6, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - There's carrier-pigeon quaintness to the way the scholarship tenders of Michigan State's newest football players came across the fax machine Wednesday morning.
Talk about throwbacks: The ringer chirps, an aide runs to grab the precious National Letter of Intent off the technologically ancient machine, fists are pumped.
It was so 1987.
Meantime, in the corner office overlooking Spartan Stadium, head coach Mark Dantonio dictates a prospect's details to football operations graduate assistant Ben Mathers, who's tweeting them on the newly minted @DantonioMark account.
"I'm putting you on Twitter right now," Dantonio, a smart phone pressed to his ear, tells R.J. Shelton, the shifty running back from Beaver Dam (Wis.) High School, at 8:38 a.m. "Yeah, I tweet. I went active Saturday night. My daughter (Kristen) set it up for me."
Wearing a gray Nike hoodie, black Nike "Elite" warm-up pants and green-and-white Nike sneakers, Dantonio is orchestrating the 21st Century information flow while attacking a breakfast burrito with a plastic fork.
Dantonio reminds Shelton that he stuck by his oral commitment to MSU since last Feb. 26 and thanks him for keeping his word for nearly a year.
"You're going to have an outstanding career here," Dantonio says. "There's no question you'll get the opportunity to play right away. I think the trust factor is huge and we're excited about you being here as a person, a football player and a leader."
And with that, Dantonio, beckoned by a chirp or a tweet, moves on to his next National Signing Day priority.
"I think it's just a way to give our Spartan fans a little glimpse of who's coming in here," Dantonio says of his foray into social media. "It comes right out, there's a readily accessible tag to the highlight film and they get a chance to see the guys that are going to be on the football field for us the next couple of years."
Regardless of the high-tech advancements for getting the word out, National Signing Day has always had a holiday feel to it.
"I'd compare it to New Year's because to me it's the beginning of something," Dantonio says. "It's the end of recruiting, it's the end of a football season, and it's the beginning of the next challenge.
"You look forward understanding there are going to be challenges ahead of you and obstacles in your way, and there are going to be a lot of exciting times as well. And, it's a new part of life for all these guys and for us (coaches) as well because now we can count on them to be on this football team and on the depth chart."
Rare, if not non-existent, is the coach who says his incoming class of recruits isn't an upgrade over the previous one, and Dantonio is no different. However, he also hasn't deviated from MSU's guiding principles regarding player identification, procurement and development.
It's also the methodology overlooked diamonds-in-the-rough, such as former Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Garrett Celek, who played for the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's Super Bowl, used to get ready for playing at the next level.
"Who would have thought Darqueze Dennard would be as good as he's been?" Dantonio says of senior-to-be All-Big Ten cornerback the University of Georgia let escape from its own backyard. "When I think about it, we have done a good job of developing players."
It's also the system that has allowed bona-fide blue chip prospects like defensive end William Gholston and tight end Dion Sims, juniors on last season's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl championship team, leave early for the NFL.
Cousins' Class of '07, which included quarterback Nick Foles, who transferred to Arizona and finished last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, has seven players currently on NFL rosters.
And Dantonio notes that his first group was assembled hastily and with relatively little research.
"It's what they do after they get here that counts," he says. "How they mature and how they progress after they start getting instruction at this level."
Dantonio can confidently look at the 18-player Class of 2013 with the expectation that one or more will be playing in the NFL in four or five years regardless of how many stars they received from the recruiting services.
"We have recruited most of these guys for a year-and-a-half, so the process started in the summer or fall of their junior year," Dantonio says. "So, we've gotten to know the individuals and that's the biggest thing - the intangibles they bring to the table.
"How hard they work? What's their mental toughness? How they grasp things? Those are the things that separate them for me. Everybody's going to have certain measurables, some will have better than others, but it's those other things that usually determine success."
Every class is recruited to meet different needs. With the Spartans losing just 12 scholarship seniors - along with Bell, Sims and Gholston, three highly productive juniors - Dantonio and his staff targeted certain areas.
"The strength of this class is in the linebacker group, the running back group is extremely strong and we addressed our situation at kicker, and that's a huge positive," Dantonio says. "We always try to be selective. We do have an immediate need at running back and the kicker positions."
As the morning festivities drew to a close, Dantonio swapped out his sweatshirt for a dress shirt and tie before taking part in a conference call with highly touted, big (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and athletic quarterback Damion Terry and his Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep classmate Delton Williams, who's also headed to MSU. Cathedral Prep coach Mike Mischler also was on the line.
"Excited?" Dantonio asks Terry.
"Yeah, real excited," Terry answers.
"It's been a long time coming, hasn't it?" Dantonio says. "First of all congratulations and Coach Misch, thanks for all your help in this. And thanks for your trust in this matter. When you take the next step, regardless of what you're doing, there's trust involved in the process.
"How we doin' Delton? We had 5:30 workouts and you'll be involved in those next year. We were up and moving this morning."
"I'll get my rest now," says Williams.
"Both of you guys are going to have an opportunity right out of the gate," Dantonio says. "It's going to be exciting for both of you. I know that with your help, great things are going to be possible here. Delton, we're going to bring you in as an athlete and probably start you out on the offensive side of the ball, much like we did with Le'Veon Bell. I think there are a lot of similarities.
"And Damion, you'll be at quarterback. If you guys just do what you did on your game films, everything will fall into place. What are your goals?"
"Get a degree, Rose Bowl and National Championship," Terry says.
"How about you Delton," Dantonio says.
"I'm right behind him," Williams says. "I just want to say thanks Coach. You stuck with me through some ups and downs with me and I'm happy I've got your trust. I'm just happy I made this decision because you stuck with me all the way through it and that's why I stuck with my commitment even after all these other colleges came after me. Don't worry. I've got trust in you and you've got trust in me."
"Have a great day," Dantonio says finally. "It's just the beginning."