Will Spartans’ slide damage their recruiting?
East Lansing — Nearly every college football team not named Alabama has experienced its share of struggles over the last decade or so.
Competing for a championship every season isn’t exactly realistic, though each team begins every season with that aspiration. Reality says there will be some down years, and for most of the nation’s top programs, that means a couple more losses than usual with at least a trip somewhere warm at the end of the year for a bowl game.
What’s happening at Michigan State this season, however, is something less common. A season ago, the Spartans were Big Ten champions for the second time in three years and playing in the College Football Playoffs.
Six games into the 2016 season, Michigan State has just two wins, has dropped four straight and doesn’t exactly have a remaining schedule that makes six wins and a bowl bid seem likely.
“It is a really hard one to figure,” Big Ten Network analyst and former Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “It’s one of the real surprise teams in the Big Ten and I know they’ve lost a lot of good players, but one would believe that under Mark Dantonio that Michigan State would be in much more of a reload situation then a rebuild stage. But even saying that, if they were in a rebuild stage I think their performance to date, dropping four games in a row, is quite surprising.”
There’s little doubt the loss of crucial personnel has played a significant role in Michigan State’s swift fall. Connor Cook is the winningest quarterback in school history while defensive end Shilique Calhoun was a three-time All-American and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge was named the best in the Big Ten last season.
But those were just the most noticeable losses. Along with Calhoun, defensive end Lawrence Thomas and defensive tackle Joel Heath headed to the NFL while potential replacements — tackle Craig Evans and end Montez Sweat — left the program for personal reasons. On the offensive line, three starters are gone to the NFL: All-American tackle Jack Conklin, All-American center Jack Allen and guard Donavon Clark.
And while graduation and attrition are not unique to Michigan State, this season, the fact those stepping into new roles haven’t gotten the job done has been, at least, eye-opening. Michigan State’s 2013 recruiting class, the members of which are now seniors and redshirt juniors, has only a few key contributors, including receiver R.J. Shelton, running back Gerald Holmes and linebacker Jon Reschke.
Outside of that, the Spartans are going young.
It’s led to an offensive line that can’t protect inexperienced quarterbacks and hasn’t opened any holes for three talented backs — Gerald Holmes, LJ Scott and Madre London. Only fifth-year senior Kodi Kieler and junior Brian Allen have extensive experience up front and Michigan State is relying on redshirt freshman Tyler Higby, sophomore David Beedle and true freshman Thiyo Lukusa while fifth-year seniors Benny McGowan and Miguel Machado are regular starters for the first time.
Sixth-year senior Brandon Clemons has moved from offense to defense to try to help that unit as teams have focused heavily on double-teaming tackle Malik McDowell, whom Michigan State starting moving around last week. But the Spartans haven’t gotten much from their ends — junior Demetrius Cooper, senior Evan Jones and graduate transfer Gabe Sherrod. So they’ve started playing freshman Josh King more and will start to work in freshman Auston Robertson.
Inside, the youth is also learning under fire. Kevin Williams has been steady as a graduate transfer, but redshirt freshman Raequan Williams is being counted on, as is freshman Mike Panasiuk. It’s added up to a pass rush that has all but disappeared. The once-swarming defense had co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel shaking his head after last week’s 54-40 loss to Northwestern.
“It is stunning to see a 54 on the board and there is a lot of pride of what we’ve done here in the past and people that we have here right now,” Tressel said. “I do expect to see people coming back swinging, but we need to watch the film and be honest with it and see who is really flying around on the ball like we have in the past.”
Key injuries have combined with inexperienced players taking time to develop, especially on defense. Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Riley Bullough missed three games with a shoulder injury while Reschke has played in just two games and is out long-term with an ankle injury. On top of that, senior linebacker Ed Davis has been slow to come back from last season’s knee injury at a time Michigan State could use an effective pass rusher.
In the back end, Michigan State is turning to several young players, including sophomore Tyson Smith and freshman Justin Layne.
“It’s really a mystery, not only to me but to a lot of people because us that really have followed football have the utmost respect for Mark Dantonio and his staff,” Mason said. “And let’s face it, what he has been able to accomplish — he hasn’t forgotten how to coach football, it’s just things aren’t really hitting on all eight cylinders this year.”
A bigger question might be how this season affects those down the road. Dantonio has improved Michigan State’s recruiting nearly every season, and an ugly season might sway some potential recruits.
However, with the track record of success at Michigan State, Scout.com’s Allen Trieu doesn’t see a one-year drop hurting the Spartans.
“Usually you find one season doesn’t affect it too much,” Trieu said. “I think when you look at isolated kids here and there maybe it might affect them with a kid here or a kid there. But overall I don’t think it will have a huge effect, especially because at least in this class most of it is already committed and I don’t see a change with any of the guys committed.
“I think there’s enough of an establishment of success at Michigan State with Mark Dantonio that most kids will view this as a bump in the road.”
Trieu also doesn’t believe the struggles on the field will hurt in head-to-head recruiting with Michigan.
“I’ve been asked about Ambry Thomas (a top cornerback prospect at Detroit King) a lot," Trieu said. "And with him, whenever it’s been brought up why he likes Michigan State, it’s always been the coaches, they’ve recruited him for a long time, and mom is really comfortable because of the relationship they’ve built over the years. Really, wins and losses haven’t really ever come up. You would hope by this time with seniors there has been enough of a relationship built over time that why a kid would come is not necessarily if the team is winning or losing this season.”
Does all of this mean Michigan State is headed for some sort of long-term slide?
Neither believes that’s the case. Trieu pointed to two teams in the top 10 of Scout’s rankings last season — Auburn and Texas — who have had issues on the field, while Mason believes having Dantonio in charge is the difference.
“You’re talking about a program that was in the College Football Playoffs a year ago,” he said. “So the only people more surprised than people like us are Mark Dantonio, his staff and his players. They sure didn’t see that coming, they wanted to keep it at the same level.
“It’s like the truck rolling downhill and you’ve got to stop it before you can go back up the hill, and I think that’s where Mark Dantonio is right now.”