MSU counting character more than stars in recruiting

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

Soothing the sting from last year’s Michigan State football slip-up could begin as quickly as Wednesday, with a happy National Signing Day.

It would support thoughts in East Lansing that a 3-9 autumn was a quirk. That things will be closer to normal in 2017 and beyond. And that Mark Dantonio’s latest recruiting crop proves, even after a drive into the ditch, the Spartans and their head coach have gotten back on path.

Evidence is on MSU’s side. And not only because Dantonio is expected to make roster repairs that will put the Spartans, at the very least, back into a bowl picture in 2017.  Wednesday’s crop is in line with classes that ahead of 2016 had made MSU a common Big Ten title contestant, with a string of nine straight bowl trips that preceded 2016’s tumble.

The Spartans are rated 18th nationally by and 28th by The numbers, while disparate, are in the vicinity of past Dantonio classes that often have leaned toward the top 25.

“I think, as I’ve watched Mark Dantonio’s program, especially the last three-to-four years, what we’ve seen is them start to get more confidence on the recruiting trail,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for “When you win football games, you’re going to win more games because you’ve learned how to win. And when you’ve landed four-star and five-star recruits, you’re going to land more of those four-stars and five-stars in future classes.

Meet MSU's 2017 football commitments

“Now, if you look at Michigan State’s 2017 class, by their recent standards they’ve dropped off a little. But they’ve started to rally late. And I’ve listed them as the Big Ten team to surprise.  They know how to recruit top talent.”

What always has counted in Dantonio Land is not so much star ratings, but how recruits are developed. And how those players have stayed in school and contributed deep into their MSU lives.

Dantonio never quarreled with his reputation as a sharp-eyed hunter-gatherer who could scoop up lesser-billed prep stars, invite them to Spartan Stadium, then buff and polish them into players who helped MSU sparkle.

But a bad 2013 class, gutted by injured players, by sub-par players, and by some rare – for Dantonio – defections and transfers, helped deliver the Spartans’ 2016 debacle. Astonishingly, their 3-9 freefall followed Michigan State’s ticket to last year’s national semifinals in the College Football Playoff.

Tried and true

This year’s group appears to be, in line with Helmholdt’s thoughts, unspectacular but mainstream: Four four-star recruits and 14 three-star players are part of the 20 commitments MSU has landed and Rivals has measured ahead of Wednesday’s formal starting-gun for players to sign national letters of intent. lists six four-stars and 14 three-stars. lists the Spartans as having the Big Ten’s sixth-best class. Rivals likewise has MSU rated sixth.

MSU's 2017 class got a big boost earlier this month with the commitment of four-star linebacker Antjuan Simmons of Ann Arbor Pioneer.

If there has been any shift in recruiting approach or strategy at East Lansing, analysts say it has been subtle. And likely of no real consequence, or gain.

“Just a little bit,” said Allan Trieu,’s Midwest football recruiting manager, speaking of any tactical shifts at MSU. “Their success for a while had allowed them to recruit higher-ranked guys.

“Then they decided, it seemed, to go back to recruiting the way they used to recruit – getting kids who really wanted to be there. The character piece is really important to them. Notice in this class, most (17) had committed by July. Then they didn’t have a great season, but not a single one of those kids has wavered.

“It hasn’t looked as if a single kid has even thought about jumping ship, or taking a trip (visiting another school). Dantonio knows the character guys coming into your locker room are just as important.”

This is Dantonio’s blueprint, analysts and observers say, written specifically to fit a head coach’s personality and a program’s values, if not its realities.

“They’re very private about what they do,” said Tim Staudt, the Lansing sports anchor who for 40-plus years has reported on MSU’s events by way of his daily television and radio shows.

“But I think Mark Dantonio’s personality clearly defines him, and from what I’ve always been able to tell in the time he’s been here, his greatest strength in recruiting has come when players and parents meet him and conclude this is a genuine guy. That doesn’t make him unique among coaches. But his particular style comes through. And in the world of recruiting, when you’ve got how many coaches going after the same guy, I think it shows that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

The Dantonio way

Helmholdt tends to agree.

“He certainly has his own style – different from, say, a James Franklin (Penn State), who knows everyone’s name in the room. James Franklin is sort of the ultimate living-room guy.

“What recruits appreciate about Dantonio, at least every kid I’ve talked with, says they trust him implicitly,” Helmholdt said. “They know he gives them the truth. With some coaches, you get the used-car salesman pitch. Well, that’s certainly not Mark Dantonio.

Trieu: Top Michigan State recruits driven by common goal

“He’s not Nick Saban. He’s not Jim Harbaugh. He tends to stay true to the style of coach he is. And with some kids that resonates more.”

It didn’t resonate well enough, at least with enough MSU-grade recruits, to have spared Dantonio and the Spartans from last autumn’s cliff-dive.

Postmortems on 2016 centered on that 2013 class. It left the Spartans with wobbly fronts on defense and on offense when upperclassmen from that year’s haul should have been helping deliver payloads closer to the previous three seasons when Dantonio’s gang was 36-5.

“If you pay attention to the rankings – and I know not everyone does – but that 2013 class was by far the lowest-ranked of his more recent groups,” Helmholdt said.

Both Scout and Rivals ranked that 2013 class 47th in the nation.

“From that class you had a couple of highly-rated guys get hurt (linebacker Jon Reschke and offensive tackle Dennis Finley).

“Then, the star of that class, Damion Terry (quarterback) wasn’t even a starter. They had Darien Hicks, Demetrius Cooper, Gerald Holmes, and R.J. Shelton all playing big roles. But that’s four guys out of one class.

“And that’s not the hit-rate you want.”

The 2013 group was also on the smaller side, 17, a contrast to Dantonio’s 2017 haul, which is expected to reach perhaps 24.

“I think they wanted to get to the low to mid-20s, and they’re going to finish there, so that’s good, “Trieu said. “They’ve filled some key needs. They really needed a linebacker, a cornerback, a defensive end, and a slot guy.

“So, they’ve got to feel pretty good about that. Their primary needs are at least filled. Now, they’ll try and close on some others.”

Whether this, or any series of classes, will be good enough to move Dantonio within range of Big Ten championship games the Spartans twice have won and three times have played in since 2011 makes for zesty talk in East Lansing and elsewhere.

The challenge has gotten tougher, almost everyone agrees. And it’s because of Michigan’s reconstruction in the two years since Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, Penn State has come alive, as well, under Franklin.

“It’s never easy for any Michigan State coach to go against Michigan, and it’s probably never been truer than it is now,” Staudt said.

“I think this is going to be the most challenging run in Mark Dantonio’s career. Not that he’s done poorly in Michigan State’s division (Big Ten East). But Harbaugh came around at absolutely the right time at Michigan. Meyer’s got everything in place at Ohio State. And Penn State’s weathered the storm and they aren’t going backward.

“Can he (Dantonio) continue that earlier success and put a product on the field with the same competitive level as those other three schools?

“I guess that remains to be seen,” Staudt said. “But I just think, man, those three teams were in the top 10 of the final polls – and they’re in the same division of the same conference he has to play every year.”

Staudt, though, acknowledges Dantonio so often has beaten expectations.

“He has to be who he is,” Staudt said, pondering a coach whose record in East Lansing is a hefty 90-42. “And that’s not necessarily a negative.”

Twitter @Lynn_Henning