February 3, 2011 at 9:17 pm

John Niyo

Turf war for recruits is on between U-M and MSU

Mark Dantonio: I think you always have to address the rivalry, and I think you have to address Michigan in this state and throughout the Midwest. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Mark Dantonio hasn't been shy about marking his territory since returning to Michigan State.

And shortly after he introduced his fifth recruiting class as the Spartans' head football coach — "exciting," was the word he chose to describe Wednesday's 21-player haul — Dantonio was asked to do so again.

Michigan State might be the reigning Big Ten co-champion, but much of the talk around here lately has been about the football program in Ann Arbor, where the new head coach, Brady Hoke, has made no secret of his intention to reclaim Michigan's traditional stronghold.

So what does Dantonio think about that?

"I think you always have to address the rivalry, and I think you have to address Michigan in this state and throughout the Midwest," Dantonio said, almost chuckling at a question he knew was coming. "So, you know, we do that daily. It's a daily deal for us. We're gonna compete against them on the field and off the field and by the water cooler, I guess. That's just the way it is in this state."

It is, of course, and just as Dantonio understood that better than his predecessor, John L. Smith, so, too, does Hoke, obviously. And now that everybody's on the same page, maybe they'll finally do this rivalry justice.

Dantonio certainly has done his part the last five years, which might explain why the top recruit in the state — linebacker Lawrence Thomas, on the heels of William Gholston a year ago — is wearing green again this winter.

But Hoke, who, like Dantonio, is an Ohio native with strong recruiting ties there as well, came on strong the last few weeks. And he spoke again Wednesday about the importance of Midwest recruiting. So let the real battles begin, just in time for what is supposed to be a talent-rich Class of 2012 in Michigan and Ohio.

"But that's not a bad thing — that's a good thing," Dantonio said. "That's what makes college football special. I think Coach Hoke will do a great job down there. And I think in a lot of ways, much like when I came back here, he has an affinity for the place."

And in so many ways, it's easy to understand why Dantonio has such an affinity for this year's recruiting class. Nearly half of the newest Spartans are offensive and defensive linemen, two targeted areas of need for Michigan State. ("You have to win up front," Dantonio reiterated Wednesday.)There's also Thomas leading "probably the best group of linebackers we've been able to sign," Dantonio said, along with some speed in the secondary and underrated talent at quarterback and wide receiver.

Sure, they would've liked to have closed better, on and off the field this winter.

And for the more pessimistic Michigan State fans, signing day probably felt a teeny bit like New Year's Day, when the anticipated bowl matchup with Alabama quickly became a reality check.

Wednesday might have been another one of those, as the Spartans lost out — and really, this was not unexpected news — on a few higher-profile recruits in the end. Most notable among those were defensive tackles Darian Cooper, who chose Iowa despite rumblings it'd be MSU, and Marquise Wright, who stayed close to home and signed with Rutgers. I'd hold off on calling it a disappointing finish, though.

For one thing, the Spartans did get some good news on signing day, with the addition of offensive tackle Fou Fonoti, a junior-college All-American who'll be expected to contribute immediately.

For another, the strength of MSU's recruiting now is that it's not simply a scramble to the finish the way it seemed to be under John L. Smith. Most of this year's class is made up of players who were in its summer camp and have been fully vetted, if you will.

It's impossible to ignore Ohio State's continued dominance in the Big Ten. (Though, as far as I know, none of the Spartans' recruits spent signing day in jail like one of Jim Tressel's did.) Ditto the arrival of another traditional power in Nebraska, joining Michigan and Iowa in division. Notre Dame, Penn State and Wisconsin will continue to win their share of recruiting battles.

But don't short-change what Dantonio has done the last five years, either.

He went out of his way Wednesday to praise Thomas for largely ignoring all the background noise ever since he committed to the Spartans last March, "because I know everybody was coming in on him and trying to talk to him. But he stayed true."

And the truth is, that's a victory that'll win more than games. It'll help win the battle of perception, too. The Spartans finally have the facilities and the "overall foundation" to compete for the best when it comes to recruiting, at least in the Midwest.

Now they've just got to finish what they've started. Because the game's going to get more competitive, and the neighborhood's going to be even more crowded.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Michigan State, 6C

Donavon ClarkJoel HeathOnaje MillerLawrence ThomasRoger Williamson

Michigan, 7C

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1. Auburn2. Florida State3. Ohio State4. USC5. Texas6. Georgia7. Alabama8. Notre Dame9. LSU10. Tennessee 27. Michigan 29. Michigan State

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ESPN

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Tom Lemming

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Rivals.com

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