Anytime a new coach takes over a program, that first recruiting class tends to be fairly underwhelming.
Add in the fact that Michigan State’s Mel Tucker got a later start than most — he was hired on Feb. 12 to replace Mark Dantonio, who retired after 13 seasons leading the Spartans — and it would be fair to say he and his staff would be playing catch-up in building their 2021 class.
Well, it’s early May and Tucker has already landed 10 commitments, all coming in a three-week stretch to close out the month of April. The Spartans added an 11th Thursday night in Michael Gravely Jr., a three-star safety out of Cleveland Glenville.
“I think they’re ahead and if you asked most people, when they took the job as late as they did, if they thought (Michigan State) is going to start the month of May with 10 commitments in the class, you would have taken the under on that,” said Allen Trieu, who covers Midwest scouting for 247Sports. “So, I do think that the combination of newness along with, obviously what's happening in the world and the recruiting rules, I think they are very ahead of schedule.”
The pace has been quicker than some might have expected, but the quality isn’t too bad, either. With Gravely's commitment, the class ranks 21st in the nation in composite rankings at 247Sports, the same ranking given by Rivals.
One of the latest to jump on board — cornerback Charles Brantley of Venice, Fla. — was just one example of Tucker and the Spartans’ staff showing they won’t simply be picking up the recruiting scraps left behind by some of the top programs in the country.
Brantley is rated a four-star by Rivals and held his share of impressive offers. The same goes for three-star defensive end Tyson Watson from Warren, who held offers from a handful of Big Ten and SEC teams.
“It’s not like they're dragging guys that otherwise would have gone to mid-majors,” said Josh Helmholdt, who covers Midwest recruiting for Rivals. “No, they're recruiting Power Five-caliber guys. They may not all be national guys, they may not be guys like they were pulling back in 2016, but they're pulling some talented guys, some serviceable guys and players that certainly can lay the foundation for future championship teams.”
The Spartans are also proving that foundation goes beyond Michigan and the Midwest. They’ve already landed commitments from players in Florida, Texas, Maryland and New Jersey, showing the early recruiting focus will go outside of the footprint.
“I think what has surprised me is their ability to go into other states and regions, and also to really good high school programs,” Trieu said. “You get a kid out of DeMatha (Catholic in Maryland), which is really recruited by almost every school in the country. You get an early commit from a quarterback out of Texas. I would have expected them to be able to get some in-state guys to commit early, but I wouldn't have expected Texas, Florida, Maryland, etc. to all be represented in the class at this point.”
The DeMatha player Trieu mentioned is cornerback Antoine Booth and the quarterback is Hampton Fay.
Tucker and his staff have certainly leaned on some of the relationships they had already established at Colorado, where Tucker was the head coach last season and was joined by offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic and running backs coach Will Peagler.
It paid off in landing Fay out of Fort Worth, as well as running back Davion Primm from Oak Park. However, many of the commitments have been secured from players that did not have any previous contact.
“They’ve been able to use some existing relationships,” Trieu said, “and they've also been able to build some relationships really out of nothing with guys like (Miami defensive back) Gabe Nealy, for instance, or Charles Brantley.”
Like most programs, the coronavirus pandemic has changed things dramatically. Not only has the lack of spring practice forced many to put more of an emphasis on recruiting, it has forced staffs to get more creative in how they interact with prospects.
Tucker has pushed the Spartans to get far more involved on social media than they did under Dantonio while emphasizing how important “virtual visits” have become. In some cases, that’s the only chance some of the commits have had to experience Michigan State’s campus, and it’s a formula that is working.
It’s all helped create a renewed excitement around the program.
“What I'm hearing from kids is the energy around the program is different,” Helmholdt said. “I’ve talked to kids that visited in January and then visited in March that talk about the energy of the program changing. That type of energy is attracting kids, but also the opportunity to be part of a rebuild and getting Michigan State back to where it was when they were playing for and winning Big Ten championships. So that is something that always attracts kids because they know they're the guys that the coach recruited, whereas the current is what the old coach recruited.
“It’s also a changing scheme. That opens up changes and opens up positions and opportunities for young guys to come in. So many kids want to play right away. I hear that all the time, and it's a coaching change that usually brings about some of those opportunities.”
Other prospects are taking note, including some of the top players in the state.
West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards has long considered MSU as he’s been recruited by the nation’s top programs, including Michigan, Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma, while the likes of Oak Park offensive lineman Rayshaun Benny and Belleville linebacker Jamari Buddin are taking a look at Michigan State.
“There’s several guys that were about to write Michigan State off, and said as much,” Trieu said. “Those are top guys in the state like Rayshaun Benny, Jamari Buddin who are now very seriously considering Michigan State. So those guys haven't necessarily spoken to a contrast, like directly comparing the old staff to the new staff, but I think based on their interest, you can see that what the new staff is doing is having an impact.”