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Niyo: Michigan State, Michigan need to narrow widening gap in recruiting

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio stood at the podium Wednesday and he was neither dazed nor confused. He certainly wasn’t seeing stars.

But considering this was college football’s early signing day for recruiting, that was part of the problem.

“There are a lot of good football players in America,” Dantonio said just after noon on a day where he’d like to think he signed 19 of them to letters of intent. “You have to anticipate how they’re going to develop and then you sort of build it from there. That’s what we’ve always done.

“I really don’t look at the stars, I just don’t. We’ve had guys come here that are four-star players that have never played.”

"We’ve had guys come here that are four-star players that have never played,” says MSU coach Mark Dantonio on why he doesn't consider recruit star-rankings.

And other guys whose names Dantonio can rattle off where the story was just the opposite. He brought up one of his favorites again Wednesday when he hearkened back to the signing of Darqueze Dennard, a two-star cornerback with no other scholarship offers who went on to become an All-American and a first-round NFL draft pick.

But that was a decade ago. And the reality now is much different, both in Ann Arbor — even with Urban Meyer gone, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh keeps losing ground to archrival Ohio State — and especially in East Lansing, where another .500 season left the Spartans scrambling just to stay afloat.

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Michigan State was — and is — a regional program that’s going to rely more on Midwest talent and bank on player development to compete with brand-name rivals. But the Spartans’ recent struggles, coupled with questions about Dantonio’s future and the likelihood of a coaching-staff overhaul this winter, have made that challenge all the more difficult.

Michigan State’s class currently ranks 11th in the Big Ten, according according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. And Dantonio’s highest-rated in-state recruit this year — Dallas Fincher, a three-star offensive lineman whose father played for the Spartans in the mid-1980s — doesn’t even rank in the top 10 among Michigan high school prospects.

The fallout from their 2016 “Dream Team” class implosion and the still-pending federal lawsuit filed by former recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell surely have something to do with that, particularly in Detroit. But so has Harbaugh’s presence and Ohio State’s continued Big Ten dominance. Michigan landed three of the top six players in the state this year, and the Buckeyes and Wolverines have an early leg up on the 2021 class as well. Other Big Ten schools like Penn State and Purdue have made inroads. So have SEC schools like Kentucky, which landed the state’s top-rated player in Oak Park defensive lineman Justin Rogers.

State of affairs

“We’re going to recruit Michigan hard,” Dantonio insisted Wednesday. “We’re going to be in every high school and work at it. It is sort of what it is sometimes.”

What it should be, though, is another signal that Michigan State needs to make changes. Dantonio declined again Wednesday to talk about what moves he intends to make after the season ends with next week’s Pinstripe Bowl in New York, but it’s clear he’ll need to make significant ones. Similar to what Harbaugh has done the last few years by adding young, charismatic assistant coaches like Josh Gattis and Sherrone Moore to a staff that already had plenty of juice on the recruiting trail.

That’s about the only way to keep up in a game that’s grown increasingly lopsided in the playoff era, where only four teams make it in each year and out of sight means out of mind.

Consider that of the 28 recruits with five-star ratings in 247Sports composite index, 18 were either signed or expected to sign with a handful of powerhouse programs — Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Georgia.

And if you focus solely on the Big Ten, the picture is just as clear. As the Buckeyes’ first-year head coach, Ryan Day, put it earlier this week, “I know when you’re at Ohio State, you’re going to get top recruiting classes because you kind of have first pick.”

The first several, really. By late afternoon Wednesday, Ohio State had signed 10 players ranked in’s Top 100. The rest of the Big Ten had signed eight combined, with Michigan leading the pack with three.

More:Trieu: Breaking down Michigan State's 2020 football recruiting class so far

More:Spartans look regionally for 2020 class, but not from own backyard

The top-rated player among Michigan State’s 19 signed recruits — Darius Snow, a three-star safety from Texas and another legacy recruit for the Spartans — had offers from most of the nation’s elite programs, sure. But he’d still only rank 15th on the Buckeyes’ list of signees, according to 247Sports.

“Everybody (in the Big Ten) wants to compare themselves to Ohio State,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director. “But in order to close that gap, you have to beat them or become competitive with them in their areas of strength. Well, where is that?”

The cynical answer is everywhere, of course. But Luginbill and others will point first to the offensive and defensive lines, where those playoff teams routinely lose underclassmen to the NFL — usually as first-round picks — and then simply plug and play similar blue-chip talents the next season. The rich keep getting richer, and deeper. (Deeper pockets undoubtedly play a role, too, I know.)

“But if you’re going to talk about closing a gap,” Luginbill added, “I think that’s where the conversation begins.”

That’s certainly where it started with Michigan last year as Harbaugh’s staff leaned heavily on the lines.

This year’s class, which ranks 12th nationally and is virtually tied with Penn State for second in the Big Ten, seems a bit more spread out in that regard.

But if there’s an underlying theme it’s probably the speed and versatility the Wolverines brought in, both to fit Gattis’ offensive scheme and to build on the strides Michigan made last fall with an influx of talent like five-star freshman safety Dax Hill.

There are big-play threats at running back (Blake Corum) and receiver (A.J. Henning) and some intriguing hybrid players to add to Brown’s defense.

Likewise, after loading up on offensive lineman a year ago, Dantonio knew he needed to address the lack of playmakers on offense.

He landed four receivers to go along with Jayden Reed, a 2018 freshman All-American from Western Michigan who sat out this season as a transfer.

And after seeing several of his own players enter the transfer portal this fall — eight in all, including three running backs — Dantonio knows there’s plenty more recruiting to be done this winter, “whether it’s the transfer portal or whatever it is.”

“There’s 2,000 names in there,” he noted, adding “this is a new and developing ‘saga’ — I’ll call it a saga, OK? Or ‘journey.’”

Whatever you call it, safety and tailback are two positions the Spartans may target via the transfer route. Tight end might be another.

“Depends on how it all shakes out,” Dantonio said. “We’ll go slow and we’ll look at things as we go.”

Harbaugh and the Wolverines will, too, just as they did last year when they added defensive lineman Mike Danna as a graduate transfer from Central Michigan. Truth is, they have no choice, really. Because Ohio State isn’t done yet, either. The Buckeyes signed 24 players Wednesday — a whopping 14 of them will be early enrollees, by the way — and with two other four-star recruits committed, including Michigan’s Mr. Football, Muskegon quarterback Cameron Martinez, Day was asked if this class was completely full.

He laughed as he answered, “We might be able to make some room.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo