Feb. 6, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Football recruiting at Michigan State has evolved dramatically since the first day Mark Dantonio took over as head coach on Nov. 27, 2006.
For one thing, the increase in the number of quality high school players who want to be pursued by MSU is directly proportional to the Spartans' on-field success, symbolized in 2013 by Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championships, a 13-1 record and No. 3 ranking in the final polls.
But anyone who thinks Dantonio and his staff will, or must, abandon the philosophical underpinnings that got the Spartans to this point in order to achieve even greater success, underestimate the level of belief inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
The system that developed walk-ons Kyler Elsworth and Trevon Pendleton into key Rose Bowl contributors should transfer easily to players with starrier resumes and comparable work ethic and competitive drive.
And, while MSU celebrated what will be regarded as the best recruiting class of the Dantonio era during National Signing Day, it was with a nod to the Elsworths and Pendletons.
In other words, there will always be room for diamonds-in-the-rough and late-bloomers at Michigan State.
"I think we're trying our best not to let recruiting change for us," said linebackers coach Mike Tressel, who has been immersed in the process from the very beginning. "In my opinion, if you start allowing us winning on the field to change how we evaluate players, that's not a good thing.
"A lot a times you have a tendency to say, `OK, now we can look at these kids that are four-stars and five-stars and we can recruit them when maybe we didn't think we could before.' But then all of the sudden you're recruiting off somebody else's evaluation instead of our own."
Calls from the "recruitniks" for a greater emphasis on national recruiting will likely continue to get louder even though Dantonio's latest class includes more players from out of state than from Michigan. The Spartans' footprint covers Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio with its incoming class.
Tried and true criteria will determine how and where Michigan State extends its reach, not an arbitrary decision made for the sake of doing so.
"We need to make sure we maintain our same process in terms of how we evaluate kids," Tressel said. "Hopefully, a few more of those guys that we evaluated highly and weren't able to get before will come our way, but we need to make sure we trust out evaluations like we always have.
"No doubt, we'll be able to get in the door with more kids we weren't able to in the past. But when it comes down to the process, we have to stay true to ourselves. There are definitely guys every year that we look at and say they didn't fit Michigan State even though they might have been rated as four- or five-star kids. And then, there are other kids we can't figure out for the life of us why they're a two-star."
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who's leaving MSU with All-America honors and the school's first Jim Thorpe Award, and former running back Le'Veon Bell, whose 1,793 rushing yards in 2012 are the second-most by a Spartan, are two notable former two-star who were largely overlooked.
One of the flaws of the star-rating system, Tressel said, is prospects are generally graded by the recruiting service when they are sophomores or juniors, and those high or low marks typically stay with a player throughout his prep career.
The beauty of Dantonio's hastily recruited, but highly successful first class was that the staff only had enough time to evaluate prospects like unheralded quarterback Kirk Cousins as high school seniors.
"We need to keep in mind our success has been about coaching players and developing players, and getting kids in our program that we know our going to sell out and believe in the people around them," Tressel said. "We want to continue to see not who's the best sophomore, but who's the best college player.
"We don't make a living on ready-made kids who just step in and play from the first minute they step on campus. We pride ourselves in developing kids and over time getting them to believe in our system and coaches and their teammates. Those are the type of kids we want."
Having just completed his first season as co-offensive coordinator, Jim Bollman can compare and contrast MSU recruiting at this time of prosperity to what it was like when he was the Spartans' offensive line coach during a rebuilding period from 1995-97.
"I think (the Michigan State brand) is certainly stronger and more recognized," said Bollman, who was Ohio State's offensive coordinator from 2001-11 and MSU's co-offensive coordinator in '13. "Programs are really marked by their consistency and Coach Dantonio has done a great job of making this a consistent program.
"He's won 11 or more games in three of the last four years, and not many places in the country can do that, anywhere. Those are the kinds of things people take note of. My basic recruiting area is somewhere I've recruited for 35 years, so they've known me no matter what school I'm at. Certainly, you were always well-received and with note before, but now when people across the country are more and more aware of your success, and become aware of what Coach Dantonio stands for and the kind of guy he is, the more receptive (prospects) are of checking Michigan State out.
"I think there are more guys taking a genuine interest in learning about Michigan State University."
Defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett can remember a time when identifying himself as a Michigan State recruiter didn't evoke nearly the same response from a prospect as a representative of a more established program would.
"There has been a change of perception over the course of time since we've been here, and that's a good thing," Barnett said. "That comes with winning and playing well. Before, you'd get call guys calling you saying they wanted to be a part of Michigan State, but they were always the guys we didn't necessarily want.
"Now we're getting calls from guys saying, `Hey Coach, I'm interested in Michigan State and these are my credentials,' and you're like, `Whoa, these guys can play and they're calling me first.' That's a great thing and we just have to keep it going. I tell people all the time that it's a program now, meaning that when you lose someone, next man up. Programs that sustain have a next-man-up mentality."
The days of playing time being MSU's biggest selling point are long gone, but for the betterment of the program.
"I never ever, and I don't think any of us have, told guys they could come in here and start because that's disrespectful to the guys who are already here," Barnett said. "I always tell them there's opportunity here and the best players play. You can check our history on that. We don't care how old you are, fifth-year senior or true freshman.
"Some of them like hearing that, and those are the guys you want because they're attracted to it. They're like, `You're telling me, if I'm the best player, I will play.' A competitor will say, `I want to go there and play, and I want to be a part of something that's big, moving in the right direction and always be competitive as a program, and I'll get my shot.' "
Said assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, "We're going to take great players and we're going to find them. It doesn't matter where they are. We don't forget where our great players have come from, and when you've got a guy who has an edge to him and wants to be a great one, it doesn't where they are."