February 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

At Michigan State, coach Mark Dantonio trumpets 'most solid' class

Southfield teammate Lawrence Marshall, left, made a last-ditch attempt to convince Malik McDowell to join him at Michigan this fall. But McDowell stuck with Michigan State. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

They’re seeing stars now, and it’s a welcome sight, no doubt.

But for Michigan State’s football program, this year’s National Signing Day is more about affirmation than aspirations, and you could argue it’s as much about the present as it is the future.

The reigning Big Ten champs unveiled another recruiting class Wednesday. And when it’s finalized — after a chaotic final week, the Spartans were still waiting on five-star recruit Malik McDowell’s letter-of-intent, and maybe another — this figures to be the Spartans’ best since 2009, at least on paper. In fact, of Mark Dantonio’s eight recruiting classes since taking over the program, “it may be our most solid,” the coach agreed.

And while Dantonio was quick to credit the work of his staff, including new recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell, he pointed to something else when asked if his team’s breakthrough 2013 season had given him some added clout. Well, he told reporters in East Lansing, “I’m wearing my Rose Bowl pin.”

So, yes, it’s safe to say that long-overdue trip to Pasadena was worth the wait.

A few weeks ago, Dantonio had talked about “feeling the ripple effect” and a late “surge” in recruiting. Wednesday, he was finally able to talk about recruits by name, players like safety T.J. Harrell of Tampa, Fla., and defensive tackle Craig Evans of Sun Prairie, Wis., both of whom were late additions to the 2014 class. He wasn’t able to say McDowell’s name publicly just yet, but he falls into that same category, having made up his mind a month ago.

“I think it helped us close,” Dantonio said of the Spartans’ 13-1 finish, capped by wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. “I think it helped us get on the national recruits down the stretch. I think it made a difference. And it sort of ‘ensured’ what we were doing as a program. It basically, I think, gave people the stamp of approval that this is what we’re doing, (and) this is the right direction to go.”

42-12 record helps

Dantonio insists it goes beyond his team’s success on the field. He pointed to the improved graduation rates, as well as the off-field problems of a few years ago that have largely gone away. The facility upgrades play a role, too. So does the staff continuity, particularly defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s decision to stick around at least a little longer.

Still, it’s the 42-12 record the last four years that helps open doors. (“We’ve won more games than we’ve ever won,” Dantonio said.) And it’s the NFL draft results — with four more likely picks this spring, that’ll be 15 since 2011 for the Spartans — that really carry weight with the top recruits.

It doesn’t hurt, either, when you’re making the rounds of awards banquets with your players. Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, Dantonio watched Darqueze Denard accept the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

“When you have people that are getting those types of awards, it points to the future that other people can do it,” Dantonio said. “Sort of like going to the Rose Bowl or winning the championship. It’s been done. Once it’s been done once, you know that it can be done again. And it gives people an added incentive to understand that great things are possible right here.”

Denard, of course, was a two-star recruit who had just two other scholarship offers — from Utah State and Middle Tennessee State. That only bolsters the Michigan State staff’s reputation for developing players, from Kirk Cousins and Trenton Robinson to Le’Veon Bell and Keshawn Martin.

That can’t change now, obviously. But Michigan State’s newest class includes a half-dozen “four-star” recruits, and presumably a five-star centerpiece whenever the fax from McDowell arrives.

At a news conference at school Wednesday morning, McDowell announced he’d chosen MSU over the likes of Florida State, Ohio State and Michigan despite his parents’ — particularly his mother’s — rather public misgivings.

“I listened to what they said,” McDowell said, “but I still had to make my own decision.”

Respect from Ohio State

It’s up to the rest of us to decide how much any of this matters, though if you listen to Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, there isn’t much to debate.

“I think we won today,” Meyer said of his class, ranked as one of the nation’s top two or three. “This isn’t a good class; it’s a great class.”

Good for them, I guess. And more bad news for the rest of the Big Ten, including the Spartans, who lost one commitment to the Buckeyes late in defensive end Darius Slade, but could’ve lost more.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the way they do their business, and that’s an adversary — that’s one of the teams we’re nose-to-nose with right now in recruiting,” Meyer said of Michigan State. “We don’t win them all, because I know we lost a couple, too. But that’s a real battle right now.”

Here’s the annual reminder, too. Remember all that angst about Se’Von Pittman leaving Michigan State at the altar to sign with the Buckeyes a couple years ago? Well, Pittman never played a down at Ohio State, suffering a knee injury as a freshman and then transferring to Akron last summer.

When it comes to the recruiting game, it’s not where you start. And it’s not necessarily where you finish, either. It’s where you’re headed.

As Dantonio explained Wednesday, “You’ve got to want to be where you’re going.”

And right now, it’s safe to say he likes where the Spartans are at.



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