Wojo: UM, MSU count more commitments than stars

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

For Michigan State, no drama, no big noise, not much different than normal. That’s perfectly fine with Mark Dantonio, who seldom veers from his recruiting strategy.

For Michigan, no drama, no big noise, but different than normal? It sure seemed that way, as college football launched its first early signing period Wednesday and Jim Harbaugh didn’t unveil the usual collection of shiny baubles.

Oh, the Wolverines did well by most standards, just not quite as starry as their accustomed standards, with no celebrated five stars. According to recruiting services, Michigan’s 16-recruit group ranks anywhere from 11th to 16th in the country, third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Penn State. Michigan State’s 20-member class ranks between 18th and 28th, fourth to sixth in the Big Ten.

Those numbers could change, as most programs still have a few prospects to pursue into the February signing period, but the bulk of committed players signed early.

And two notable takeaways from Michigan and Michigan State: The Spartans seemed to get a boost from their 9-3 rebound season, while the Wolverines’ four-loss campaign didn’t stir as much interest among elite prospects as Harbaugh has in the past.

A little perspective, though. If you factor in Mississippi transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, a one-time five-star recruit, Michigan’s incoming group is boosted significantly, especially if Patterson is ruled immediately eligible.

But after back-to-back top-eight classes, Harbaugh and his staff had to do a little scrambling.

Was it out of necessity, or a slight shift in the program’s philosophy, perhaps trusting its own staff evaluations rather than chasing stars?

Probably a bit of both. Leading up to signing day, the Wolverines added an unheralded receiver, Ronnie Bell, who had committed to playing basketball at Missouri State. They also flipped fullback Ben VanSumeren from Iowa, which had flipped him from Western Michigan, and added another under-the-radar recruit, German defensive end Julius Welschof, a former Georgia Tech commit.

Making vows

While Dantonio was happily announcing every Spartan recruit had signed by 10:30 a.m., Michigan was losing out on five-star defensive lineman Eyabi Anoma, who chose Alabama, as expected.

Michigan’s highest-ranked commit, four-star linebacker Otis Reese, didn’t sign Wednesday, and is being hotly pursued by Georgia.

No one should fret much for the Wolverines. They did land seven four-star players, including tight end Mustapha Muhammad, and a batch of touted defensive players. And again, more could sign in February.

“The thing I like best was, there were guys who really wanted to be at Michigan,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no one in (this class) that thinks they’re doing us the favor. It’s equal. That’s what I like the most.”

Sounds like Harbaugh was more interested in counting commitments than counting stars, and maybe that’s a byproduct of the early signing period, when schools and players have to make their vows sooner.

As silly as the flipping season can get, of course it matters. Alabama has topped the recruiting rankings five of the past six years, but apparently will be unseated by Georgia or Ohio State. All four teams in the playoff — Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Oklahoma — landed top-10 classes.

On-field success begets recruiting success, which begets on-field success. That’s why it was so important for the Spartans to bounce back definitively from 3-9.

Every committed player stayed committed, and if you’re still wondering how Dantonio maintains such a strong program, there it is. He and his staff identify players they like — versatile, hungry, more athletic than polished — and don’t necessarily hunt for recruits out of reach. And both sides stick with each other.

“It’s important to recognize they believed in us from the start, coming off a difficult season, as we all understand,” Dantonio said.

“But I think due to our longstanding foundation and the culture here, they stayed with us.

“And I appreciate very, very much their trust in us as people, and their trust in the overall health of this program.”

Interesting happening

The Spartans’ first commitment, four-star defensive back Xavier Henderson, stuck with them for a year-and-a-half. Michigan State landed the best player in the state in Cass Tech cornerback Kalon Gervin, as well as the state’s top-ranked quarterback, Theo Day, and running back, Elijah Collins.

Dantonio said he likes the early signing period and it works well for the Spartans because they choose players willing to commit, not shop around. It also became easier to keep them as Michigan State won big games, including victories over Michigan and Penn State.

“As the season progressed, we weren’t a 3-9 team anymore,” Dantonio said. “We were a 9-3 team, or 7-2 as we hit November, when so many different things started happening on the recruiting landscape. 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.”

A decent amount of good — and interesting — things also happened for Michigan, much of it centered on Patterson. And in case anyone was wondering, Harbaugh said the competition between Patterson, Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey was wide-open, and nobody was guaranteed anything.

“I told all three of the quarterbacks at the same time, the only thing that’s guaranteed here is an opportunity,” Harbaugh said.

“If I was in the mindset of Brandon Peters, that’s how he should think, he’s the starting quarterback. If I was Dylan McCaffrey, I’d have the mindset, I’ve been MVP on the scout team, now I’m gonna get stronger, and no matter how many quarterbacks are on the roster, nobody’s gonna beat him out. And if I was Shea Patterson, I would have the mindset, wait until they get a load of me.”

Patterson will be the most-watched newcomer next year, as neither program necessarily has an immediate-impact freshman.

Michigan and Michigan State played so many young guys this season, they’ll have a chance to develop this group. On a low-key day in a brand-new recruiting world, that was the theme, more about confirming commitments than confirming stars.