Wojo: MSU doesn't dazzle in recruiting; does it matter?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It has worked for a while, staying the course, doing what they do, not bowing to the howls of hype. The records speak for themselves. Michigan State has won without apology or glitz, a power with apparent staying power.

And then came 3-9. And then came a relatively quiet recruiting period, marked by unusual late flips. In many ways, Mark Dantonio did very well hanging onto every early commitment. But it’s fair to wonder if staying the course will continue to work amid significantly heightened competition.

A blip or a slip? That’s the question, and Dantonio did his best to wave it off Wednesday. The Spartans signed a solid class ranked 31st in the country by Rivals.com, not far below their previous classes. But as Michigan State unveiled its 22-player collection, other teams in the Big Ten East were wrapping up more-touted groups.

Michigan finished fourth nationally in Jim Harbaugh’s second full recruiting season, and held another celebration before several thousand fans at Crisler Center. The class ranks among the best Michigan has ever landed, and yet it still finished behind Urban Meyer and No. 2 Ohio State. Big Ten champion Penn State put together the 12th-ranked class, and Maryland and Nebraska also were higher than Michigan State.

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This is not entirely new. For years, the Spartans would shrug at the star-gazers, shine up their prospects and rack up 11-victory seasons, five in six years. When you win the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl and reach the College Football Playoff, doubt is a distant danger.

Dantonio was happy to point out all 17 recruits who committed before the season stuck with it. He talked about the Spartans’ strong national brand, and repeatedly mentioned under-recruited players such as Jack Conklin and Darqueze Dennard who became NFL first-round picks.

Dantonio even donned a hat from the high school of each recruit as he listed their credentials, and he looked only mildly uncomfortable doing so. It was nothing like the show in Ann Arbor, and that’s fine.

‘We put a focus on grit guys’

But adjusting to the ratcheting realities of recruiting will be the next major challenge for the Spartans.

“I put on some hats today, I thought that was big of me, I’m stepping out, OK?” Dantonio said with a smile. “I think it’s very important to walk into somebody’s home and be who we are. … A lot of people have different gimmicks as they go through it, and that’s part of the fun process. And we’ve done some of those things, as well.

“But I think in the end, you see people — if you spend enough time with people — for who they are.”

In other words, this is who Dantonio is, and who Michigan State is, and one awful season isn’t going to provoke dramatic change. Dantonio didn’t alter his coaching staff. He didn’t alter his recruiting philosophy much, although as the Spartans missed out on prospects, they did something they don’t normally do — they flipped commits from Purdue, Bowling Green, Boston College and Georgia Southern.

It smacked of desperation, although Dantonio said some of the flipped recruits developed later, and other Power-Five programs were courting them, too. And make no mistake, there are potential stars in this class — receiver Hunter Rison, linebacker Antjuan Simmons, tight end Matt Dotson, guard Kevin Jarvis. There also are off-the-radar types and the unfortunate case of Florida defensive end Donovan Winter, who couldn’t sign because he was arrested for burglary.

Michigan State is renowned for its player development, and it will be tested again. The Spartans surely missed out on some recruits because of 3-9, especially in-state, where the Wolverines cleaned up. But it wasn’t a prevalent theme on the recruiting trail.

“It was kind of weird because we went out with the mindset that it would come up, and kids didn’t even mention it, not once,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “No disrespect to people that get five stars, and it’s not like we don’t go after five-star players. We’ve never rested on our laurels, or felt we had it all figured out. But we tried to make sure we went after guys that fit who we are. We put a focus on grit guys, tough guys.”

Recent history supports them. Here are the rankings for Michigan State’s last 10 classes, according to Rivals, starting this season and working backward: 31, 18, 22, 22, 47, 42, 31, 31, 17, 47.

“Just check our track record,” Barnett said. “You don’t win no national titles, or Big Ten titles, on the first Wednesday in February. You won a recruiting war, and you got nothing for that. You gotta produce on the field.”

Fair enough. And the Spartans have earned the benefit of the doubt that last season was a blip. But stagnancy or complacency is always a threat.

‘It’s getting pretty radical’

Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner heard the criticism from fans and media, and is adopting the unfazed stance of his head coach.

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“I heard the same thing when Coach Dantonio made coach (Jim) Bollman and I co-coordinators in 2012, and everything worked out OK,” Warner said. “We always realize we need to continue to evolve. To make wholesale changes, I don’t see that happening.”

Michigan State will never consistently recruit on a level with Ohio State and Michigan, but for the past decade or so, it didn’t really matter on the field. It will matter more now, with Harbaugh, Meyer and James Franklin around.

Dantonio admitted he grapples with the new realities, and wasn’t exactly comfortable having to snatch a few players in the final days.

“That’s even more of a statement towards our 17 guys who stayed firm,” Dantonio said. “I do think it’s getting pretty radical out there with guys flip-flopping, flipping back to you, and flip-flopping again. So that’s uncharacteristic and that’s frustrating for a coach. But I guess that’s the world we’re living in. We need to be able to adapt.”

That process is under way, and it’s not entirely clear which way it’ll go.

The Spartans generally do what they do very well. But as recruiting shows, they have to do it the hard way, and it’ll only get tougher as the competition grows.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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