Niyo: Blackwell has faith in MSU recruiting doctrine

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Curtis Blackwell followed the Summer Swarm. He took note of his rival’s star-studded Signing Day party.

And Wednesday, after a relatively low-key affair inside Spartan Stadium, Michigan State’s recruiting coordinator had no qualms about tipping his cap.

“I respect anyone for being creative enough to come up with ideas,” said Blackwell, in his third year on Mark Dantonio’s staff. “So what they’re doing down the road (in Ann Arbor), I respect it. It’s legal to do it. So there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing. Hats off to them for doing it.”

And whether it’s Jim Harbaugh pulling out all the stops in bringing in A-list celebrities for a charity event at Michigan, or barnstorming through SEC country with satellite camps as a recruiting ploy, it’s more than simply fodder for riled-up rival fan bases.

“It allows us to kind of measure ourselves and say, ‘All right, what do we need to be doing?’ ” Blackwell said. “But at the same time, we know what has worked for us.”

And with work wrapping up on another recruiting season Wednesday — the 2016 class is widely viewed as the best in Dantonio’s 10 years at Michigan State — the notion of taking things to the next level has taken a different tack: Think globally, act locally.

Of the 19 players who signed letters-of-intent with Michigan State on Wednesday, only one comes from outside the Midwest. That’d be Cam Chambers, a four-star receiver from New Jersey who was the very first commitment in this 2016 class and is one of seven early enrollees already on campus.

Familiarity breeds success

Dantonio refers to that backyard target practice as “Level One” — Michigan and its bordering states — and it was the mandate he handed Blackwell, the well-connected former Detroit Public School League assistant coach, when he hired him to lead MSU’s recruiting back in 2013. Dantonio pointed to the homegrown roster that’d just won a Rose Bowl and declared that the blueprint.

The thinking isn’t hard to understand, as Dantonio and his staff rely on their own roots as they try to keep the program going — and growing. Familiarity breeds success, and both open doors, obviously. This class boasts 10 four-star recruits, one fewer than the 2011-13 classes combined. But with eight players from Ohio, and a handful each from Michigan and Illinois, it also promises fewer growing pains.

Spartans excel at filling holes in receiving corps

Michigan State’s staff has a better handle on the recruits — their families, their coaches, their schools. And the recruits have a better handle on what they’re signing up for, many of them having been regular visitors to East Lansing over the last couple years. Donnie Corley, the four-star wideout from Detroit King who is probably the biggest name in this class, has been on campus “probably 30 times,” Dantonio noted, “and that’s what recruiting is about.”

“It makes it easier to get a gauge of who you’re recruiting,” Blackwell said. “When you go out further away, you know less about the brand of football, you don’t know their coaches. So those things add a lot more variables.”

Fewer variables lead to less attrition, at least in theory. And more production, which is the “bottom line” that Michigan State coaches kept referencing Wednesday.

“We’re evaluating our classes on the way out,” Blackwell said, “not the way in.”

Trophies are bottom line

And in that sense, it’s hard to argue with all the recent success, including three consecutive top-six finishes, and three Big Ten titles — with a 65-16 overall record, fifth-best in the country — in the last seven years. Michigan State won’t match Michigan or Ohio State in terms of star power or sheer volume. Yet while the drama elsewhere seemed to rule the day, Dantonio joked in a Big Ten Network interview, “Our drama seems to take place during the season.”

“We’re staring at a lot of trophies around here, too: That’s the bottom line,” he added. “And I think sometimes on days like this, people forget that the bottom line here is you need to win football games and compete for championships. And we’re doing that on a regular basis here.”

So, no, there was nothing all that irregular about this year’s recruiting push at Michigan State. Most of the class committed last summer, with few flips or flaps, the pending case with one recruit (Auston Robertson) notwithstanding. Wednesday was about as eventful as Tuesday night, when Dantonio had the seven early-enrollees over to his house for dinner and “shot a little pool.”

“This is who we are every single day, and this is part of our recruiting,” Blackwell said. “If you come here, this is what you’re gonna get. We want to make sure people understand the way that you’re treated today on this recruiting visit is the same way it’ll be when you arrive for your first day of class, your first day of practice. …

“So we don’t have a whole lot of over-the-top theatrics to really present or try to bring ’em down from. Because they’ve been settled in the fact that they’re gonna be Spartans for a long time here. And the way we recruit, we don’t really have to do a de-recruitment. Because we don’t go over the top to get ’em to come. Once they arrive, it’s business as usual.”

And lately, yes, business has been pretty good.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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