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‘No drama’: 20 stick with Spartans from start to signing

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As the early signing period fast approached, college coaching staffs around the nation were putting the finishing touches on their classes, many hoping everyone who had committed would sign their letters of intent Wednesday.

Among the Michigan State coaches, the thought that any player would waver never really crossed their minds.

Elijah Collins

“It’s kind of funny,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “We’re in a staff meeting and started talking about it and people were talking about how maybe not all these kids – around the country – were going to sign. Our assumption was, ‘I think they’re gonna sign. Should we call them?’

… ‘Why wouldn’t I (sign)?’ That was sort of the take our players had.”

That assumption proved to be true as Michigan State received signed letters of intent from 20 players on Wednesday, all of which were in before 10:30 a.m.

“No drama today,” coach Mark Dantonio said.

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That might be the biggest change from everyone signing in early February. The idea of keeping a player committed a couple more months is no longer a concern.

But what was even bigger for the Spartans was the fact their class comes in ranked in the top 20. It’s not a shock when looking at Michigan State’s overall success under Dantonio – this season’s 9-3 mark and Holiday Bowl berth the latest example.

What was most impressive was that 15 of the 20 commits had pledged before a single game was played in 2017, meaning the last memory those recruits had of Michigan State football was a 3-9 season in 2016 followed by off-field turmoil in the winter and spring.

Each of those 15 recruits signed Wednesday.

“I appreciated everybody's commitment to us, their trust in us,” Dantonio said. “We had a tough year last year, other things going on in the offseason. They maintained their commitment. They maintained their belief in us as people.

“It wasn't just about us as a football program, it was in us as people. You just really appreciate that. They were the cornerstone of our class because they were the earliest commitments. People saw that, I think, and gravitated to do likewise.”

There was plenty of talent in those early commitments. Four-star defensive back Xavier Henderson of Pickerington (Ohio) Central was first back in September 2016. He was soon followed by teammate Trenton Gillison, a four-star tight end who might also play baseball at Michigan State. Four-star quarterback Theo Day of Dearborn Divine Child was next and by the end of last summer, 15 players were on board.

Five more joined as Michigan State was in the midst of flipping the script on the field, beating the likes of Michigan and Penn State to finish in second place in the Big Ten East.

“As the season progressed, we weren't a 3-9 team anymore,” Dantonio said. “So many different things started happening on the recruiting landscape. We were 8-2 – there was a lot of interest. We climbed back into the top 20, which is where we should be. A lot of good things have happened.”

What was also happening was players who had previously looked past Michigan State or had decommitted from other schools started to show interest in the Spartans. By then, however, Dantonio and his staff had targeted other players they felt fit best.

One was running back Elijah Collins of U-D Jesuit.

“We looked at him and said that this is a guy we had to have,” Dantonio said. “We passed on some other guys to hold for him. We had some other guys that wanted to commit. I just held firm saying that I think we can get this guy. We were very fortunate to do that.”

Collins’ commitment came in late December. Next were offensive linemen Jacob Isaia and James Ohonba, who had offers from nearly every big program in the country. Then it was Cass Tech defensive back Kalon Gervin, the top-ranked player in the state.

Two weeks ago, Muskegon’s La’Darius Jefferson closed things out. A dual-threat quarterback who will likely get his first shot at MSU as a running back, Jefferson was another player Dantonio was holding out for.

“We passed on some guys that had decommitted from other high-level programs that were very interested in coming to Michigan State in order to get this guy,” Dantonio said. “I just think he's an extremely good football player.”

Dantonio said he and his staff will look to add another player or two, specifically a defensive lineman, but much of the recruiting efforts will go toward the 2019 class.

In the meantime, it’s up to the 20 players that signed on Wednesday – seven will enroll early – to make a name for themselves on the field at Michigan State.

“I talked to our players on the phone, our committed guys,” Dantonio said. “I think I said one thing to every one of them: It's the end of one process and the beginning of another. What they do with that new process is really up to them.”