Feb. 6, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Weeks before Michigan State beat Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship, the majority of head coach Mark Dantonio's eighth, and arguably best, recruiting class was already committed.
It's important to note because it means incoming players like early enrollee Matt Sokol weren't smitten by Rose Bowl glory emanating from the 24-20 victory against Stanford on Jan. 1. They weren't lured to Spartan Stadium by an unprecedented 13-1 record or bedazzled by the No. 3 final ranking, its highest in nearly half a century.
Sokol, a 6-foot-5, 226-pound tight end from Rochester Adams High School, and most of his 21 fellow Class of `14 prospects unveiled during Wednesday's National Signing Day announcement chose MSU because it's where they wanted to be despite the Spartans' 7-6 finish, and 3-5 Big Ten record, in 2012.
"What I saw when I was being recruited was that I wasn't treated like I was just a player," said Sokol, an early enrollee who is living in Case Hall, taking classes and experiencing the rigors of winter conditioning. "I was really treated as a person and this is an atmosphere like no other college I experienced.
"And Coach Dantonio, there was no other coach I would have wanted to play for even after whatever season. He's done an unbelievable job with this program and I knew I wanted him to be my head coach if it was possible. This is a dream school for me with the way the work ethic is here, and the reputation Michigan State has had is why I committed so early."
The momentum generated by Michigan State's first Rose Bowl in 26 years may have swayed some of the later commits, but it's widely expected to have its greatest effect on Dantonio's ninth class.
While Dantonio was disappointed with the way 2012 turned out, he didn't see as the backward step many did, and apparently neither did the high-schoolers he identified as potential Spartans.
"That's what it's become now - 7-6 is a bad year," Dantonio said. "But we've always taken the approach that the glass is half full. I think (the incoming recruits) believe in what we're doing as people and we've established relationships.
"We have outstanding facilities and our players sell our program, too. I think it just gives you an indication that things are going in the right direction."
Dantonio saw another sign of that forward movement Tuesday night in Oklahoma City at the Jim Thorpe Award banquet honoring this season's recipient, MSU All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
"When you have people that are getting those types of awards it points to the future that other people can do it," Dantonio said. "It's sort of like going to the Rose Bowl or winning a championship. Once it's been done, you know it can be done again and it gives people an added incentive to understand ... you can do amazing things here."
If this year's recruit class produces as Dantonio believes it can, MSU will build on success in ways rarely seen in East Lansing.
The Spartans followed their four Big Ten championships from 1966-91 with just one winning season (6-5-1 in 1988) and an overall post-title mark of 17-26-1. The renowned '66 champs gave way to a 3-7 showing in '67 and `78's 8-3 Big Ten co-winners turned into a 5-6 team in '79. The Spartans fell from 8-3-1 and tied for first in the conference in '90 to 3-8 the following year.
Including the co-championship won under Dantonio in '10 and the Legends Division crown in '11, Michigan State has improved its season-after-championship record to 35-35-1.
The ability to capitalize on the national exposure that comes from winning at the highest level and sustained success has eluded MSU football since the `60s, but the layering of what Dantonio considers another successful recruiting class could have the Spartans in the midst of a Renaissance.
The Rose Bowl "sort of insured what we're doing as a program," Dantonio said. "It basically gave our people the stamp of approval - this is what we're doing, this is the right direction to go, we're graduating our players at nearly an 80-percent rate, our grade-point average is the highest it's ever been as a team, we've won more games than we've ever won.
"I don't mean to disrespect our other classes, but from top to bottom I feel like this a very top-level class in terms of players who can get on the field very quickly and make a name for themselves."
The strength of the group may be at defensive line - the toughest position to fill in college recruiting - headlined by Craig Evans (6-2, 305), the No. 1-rated player overall in Wisconsin.
The tackle position became an area of need with the departure of seniors Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. The situation became even direr when red-shirt sophomore backup Mark Scarpinato decided after the Rose Bowl to retire from football and focus his full attention on medical school.
Replenishing one of the nation's top defenses was a little easier for coordinator Pat Narduzzi this year.
"We had a wish list in the past, especially inside at our D-tackle spots, and those wish-list (players) were gone before you knew it," Narduzzi said. "This year, we had targeted some guys at the top of the board that we wanted, and we got them. The last few years we haven't gotten them.
"I think that's a tribute to (first-year defensive line coach) Ron Burton being able to go in and making kids want to play for him and liking his enthusiasm and what he brings to the table. I think that's been a huge, huge factor beyond what he's done on the field."
Defensive back Montae Nicholson, the top-rated player out of Pennsylvania, gives defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett a chance to continue to enjoy an embarrassment of riches in the secondary.
Dantonio is also pleased with other skill players such as Matt Morrissey, who played wide receiver and safety at Lincolnshire (Ill.) Adlai E. Stevenson High School and is the son of former MSU middle linebacker Jim.
Narduzzi was convinced Michigan State was going to have a strong class regardless of how it finished this past season.
"Three-quarters of our class was committed by the time we won the Rose Bowl," said Narduzzi. "Maybe a couple guys stayed with you because of the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten Championship, but if we can have another successful season next year on top of the Rose Bowl win..., I think for the future it's really going to help us."
Chris Frey, a highly rated linebacker from Upper Arlington (Ohio) High, didn't need the Rose Bowl to convince him MSU was where he wanted to play. He's also enrolled in spring semester with Sokol.
"Seven and six doesn't define a program; that's just one season," Frey said. "Michigan State has had one of the top defenses in the nation, has a great coaching staff and has been to seven straight bowl games, including (the Rose Bowl).
"When it came to my decision, I looked at that. It wasn't really a leap of faith. I knew this program has been developed, Coach Dantonio has really changed it around and I just went with it."