Mel Tucker welcomes first recruiting class at Michigan State, knows work isn't finished
“Recruiting never stops.”
When Mel Tucker met with the media over Zoom just a little after noon on Wednesday, the start of the early signing period, he uttered that phrase at least five times.
At that point, 15 of 18 committed players to the 2021 class had sent in their national letters of intent and were officially Spartans, and the attention for the current class was quickly shifting to the three players who have indicated they’ll wait until February to sign, leaving open the possibility they might shift their allegiance.
What it also meant, clearly, was Tucker and his staff were hardly done for the day.
Less than an hour later, Michigan State scored its biggest win of the day as four-star linebacker Ma'a Gaoteote of Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas signed with the Spartans despite being committed to Southern Cal since February of 2018.
The 155th-rated player in the country according to 247sports.com, Gaoteote quickly bumped the Spartans’ overall rankings up a few notches from No. 42 to No. 33 at 247Sports and from No. 27 to No. 23 at Rivals.com. He also qualified as Michigan State’s highest-rated individual signing.
Of course, it hadn’t happened by the time Tucker met with the media, so he wasn’t able to comment on the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder specifically. But later on the Big Ten Network, Tucker raved about a player that will have a better-than-average chance at contributing immediately for the Spartans.
“He loves football, he’s aggressive, he’s got great instincts,” Tucker said. “He’s physical and he loves Michigan State and he wants to be here. He wants to play physical, hard-nosed football, and that's what we’re all about here. He fits our culture. He’s relentless and he’s process driven. He’s mature beyond his years. He’s a huge get for us.”
In other words, Gaoteote is Michigan State’s kind of guy, a mantra often used by MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, who Tucker praised during his opening remarks on Wednesday.
Ranked the No. 93 prospect in the nation by ESPN, Gaoteote is from the same high school as current Spartans Jalen Nailor and Jacob Isaia; however, he did not play this fall because the season was canceled because of COVID-19. He played his first two high school seasons at Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas and last year at St. John Bosco in California before transferring to Bishop Gorman.
“I chose Michigan State because of the love they showed me,” Gaoteote said, “and I wanted to be a part of that Spartan Dawg defense.”
Gaoteote’s signing was big on its own, but it’s as important for what it could bring. Gaoteote’s brother, Palaie, is a former five-star recruit as an inside linebacker and has played at Southern Cal the last two seasons. But he entered the transfer portal this fall and some believe he’ll follow his brother to Michigan State.
It would provide a significant upgrade at the position, but it likely won’t be the only player pulled from the transfer portal, as the Spartans later added quarterback Anthony Russo, a graduate transfer quarterback from Temple.
Tucker talked about the portal again on Wednesday and described how Michigan State’s scouting department is divided with one group working on high school players and the other focuses on the portal.
Of course, while the portal is scoured, Tucker and company will work hard to secure the three committed players who did not sign on Wednesday — running back Audric Estime, offensive lineman Rayshaun Benny and offensive lineman Geno VanDeMark. Benny and VanDeMark have indicated they intend to sign in February, while Estime just picked up an offer from Notre Dame. Many recruiting services have him flipping to the Fighting Irish, but Estime told Rivals.com this week he’s still committed to Michigan State.
Last week, Tucker said he’s prepared to fight to keep his committed players and he wasn’t backing away from that on Wednesday.
“I feel good about our class and what we're building,” Tucker said. “Like I said, recruiting never stops. It’s very competitive and we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’re very active in the portal, and it’s just a relentless effort to get the players that fit our program.”
Those that did sign on Wednesday are exactly those players, Tucker said.
Led by defensive back Charles Brantley of Venice, Florida — a four-star recruit at Rivals — the Spartans landed five defensive backs, three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, two linebackers, a quarterback, a running back and a tight end.
Quarterback Hampton Fay, offensive lineman Ethan Boyd, defensive back Michael Gravely Jr. and defensive back AJ Kirk all plan to enroll next semester, Tucker said.
“Our general goal in recruiting is to fill our needs, while strengthening our roster from top to bottom,” Tucker said. “We're not just collecting players or chasing stars. We are building a team.”
That team added 16 players on Wednesday and another joined the group later in the day when Russo announced he was headed to Michigan State.
Where the class ends is anyone’s guess. There’s sure to be more players leave Michigan State through the portal while Tucker and his staff replenish from it as well. And they’ll keep recruiting, too, focusing on Estime, Benny and VanDeMark.
“We have a very good idea (of who we’re after), but it’s not to our advantage to talk about the numbers of guys we're going to sign,” Tucker said. “We know exactly where we want to go and how we want to get there.”