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Friday, February 6, 2009
Dantonio discusses Michigan State's recruiting


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As decommitments, down-to-the-wire decisions and late pledges dominated national signing day, Michigan State quietly inked a recruiting class that head coach Mark Dantonio thinks can elevate the program to the next level.

The Spartans picked up a 23-man group rated by several recruiting services in the Top 25 nationally, and they did it without the drama many programs went through on Wednesday. The depth and location of Michigan State's class stood out, as Dantonio and his assistants addressed pressing and future needs at running back, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back. They also did so almost exclusively with homegrown players, as 12 recruits hailed from Michigan and all but two from the Big Ten region.

I caught up with Dantonio on Thursday morning to discuss his latest class.

You graded this class an 'A.' Why?

Mark Dantonio: Well, [reporters] asked me. I labeled it an 'A,' maybe an 'A-minus,' basically because in four or five publications, we were ranked in the top 20. And the fact we filled so many needs. And when you really get down to it, we're the biggest evaluators of our players. We've worked with them personally, we've watched them play games in person, we've watched countless films on them. And when I look back, we made decisions to recruit a lot of these guys back in December of [2007] and spent over a year recruiting them. And 16, 17, 18 of these guys, we targeted in January and got 16 early commitments from them. And they stayed strong. I feel very good about them as people -- we've got some excellent students -- and also some outstanding football players.

You've been pretty realistic about your expectations for where you wanted the program to go: bowl game, New Year's Day bowl and then BCS game, Rose Bowl or whatever. Where does this class fit in to your short-term and long-term plan?

MD: It gives us a very solid foundation. The first class that we brought in here in '07, it was a class we had two or three months to work on. Six of those guys played and continue to be starters for us. This last year's class, six more played as true freshmen. This class will have every bit the numbers of young players playing, and this is the first class that really sets a foundation for us in terms of top to bottom, a full class. It's so balanced in the numbers: three linebackers, three DBs, four defensive linemen, a kicker, a quarterback, two tight ends, two running backs and four offensive linemen. So we sort of hit every position group, and we have excellent players at all of those areas.

When you get so many guys at so many positions, did you go into it with a set of needs, or were you trying to build depth across the board?

MD: No, there were key needs. We're relatively a young football team, graduated quite a few players the last two years. We took big linebackers last year that are growing into defensive ends, so we brought outstanding speed linebackers in this year. We had a need in the secondary for certain players, especially at safety with what we had lost in the last couple years. And next year, we have seven seniors in our secondary, so it's always important to bring in quality players at that position for the future. And then you look at the wide receiver position, we've got a good core back, but we needed to expand on our speed in that area.

We only had two quarterbacks on scholarship last year [Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins] that could play. Now again, two quarterbacks [Cousins and Keith Nichol], so it was important that we bring a solid quarterback in [Andrew Maxwell]. Our kicker [Brett Swenson] is a senior, so a guy that can kick off consistently into the end zone or to the goal line and a guy that can take over after Swenson leaves, all those things are important. Offensive line, we're losing players as well. So all these individuals have been recruited for a purpose.

Do you see the two running backs [Edwin Baker and Larry Caper] competing right away for playing time?

MD: They're two extremely unselfish people. One guy [Caper] committed a week later than the other guy was going to commit, and before he committed I went to the first guy [Baker] and asked him if he's comfortable with so-and-so coming, and he was. So that showed an unselfishness on both players' parts, one wanting to come even though the other had committed, and one accepting that commitment. That's how we'll always do things here. I want to empower our players to be decision-makers.

The second thing is they're extremely explosive players. Both guys are track guys. Larry Caper long-jumps over 23 feet. Edwin Baker has run 10.5 in the 100 meters. Change of direction, ball skills, catching the ball, toughness, great vision, both of the guys have that. They'll compete for early playing time and help fill the void that Javon Ringer left.

Does this class remind you of others you've been around at Cincinnati or Ohio State, the type that can elevate a program's profile?

MD: When I look back at Ohio State, after our first year, we had a great class [in 2002]. And it was largely made up of players from Ohio and they were top players from the state, highly recruited players, highly ranked players. And this reminds me of that. You've got Dion Sims, tight end, basketball player. An outstanding athlete, could have gone anywhere in the country, a full 6-5 or 6-6, 232 pounds and can run. You've got the two running backs, a quarterback that went to the Elite 11 camp that we saw as a sophomore.

You've got an offensive lineman in David Barrent who was nationally recruited. Chris Norman at linebacker could have gone anywhere in America. Our first commit, got the ball rolling, Blake Treadwell, who's an outstanding defensive tackle. His father [Don, the team's offensive coordinator] coaches here, and I've known him throughout his entire life. You've got defensive backs, Jairus Jones had all kinds of SEC offers coming out of spring last year and into the fall. So you've got quite a few different players.

We wanted to recruit skilled athletes who could compete on either side of the ball, so we took dual players at every skill position. These defensive backs/wide receivers can go either way. That just means they have ball judgment, they have toughness and they have great skill and size for the position. We didn't take a lot of guys that were smaller players. We focused on big, athletic guys who could run.

It seemed like the trend in the Big Ten seemed to be looking more toward Florida, the south and the southeast. You guys were very, very local. Was that by design, or did you sense opportunities to recruit that area?

MD: Recruiting should be like a celebration. Your whole family's involved in it. But every game should be like a celebration, too. It almost ought to be like a wedding. So when you recruit players from your home state, that happens. There's a natural support system built in for your players so that when there are problems on any side, there's that person that can come up immediately with you. There's more face-to-face time with those parents. We will go a great distance to find players, but when we can get a guy from Michigan or Ohio or the Midwest, we're going to look first there and then expand our recruiting. We're not going to go outside in. We're going to go inside out.

And the natural thing is you know more about those players. And because you know
more about 'em, you may see more spots on 'em, but inevitably, you're able to make clearer predictions in terms of how they're going to play. You're able to more thoroughly evaluate a player. Sometimes, you get into recruiting a guy from a distance, you get a different perspective on the type of football they're playing and you're not quite sure the team that has the guy you're recruiting plays the best brand of football in the state. You can name a school in Ohio or Michigan and I can tell you that's a great football team. You don't really have that sometimes in some of these other areas.

The one thing I want to make sure we have here is when players come, we don't really want attrition. We don't want to spend an entire year recruiting a guy and then have him leave after six months or a year because he's not playing or he's homesick. You build a program on somebody being there for a while, longevity and critiquing and getting better. And if you have players from closer to home, they're going to be more successful quicker. There's not going to be as much homesickness, they're going to have more of a support group built in from their family.

A lot of the league's new coaches have strong ties to the southeast, while your staff is more Midwest-based and remained intact this year. Does staff continuity play into where you're recruiting?

MD: There's three reasons we've been successful this year and should continue to be successful in recruiting. One, we've won. We went to a New Year's Day bowl game this year, and we went to a bowl game last year. People perceive our program as being on the rise. When people asked me for a prediction and I said, 'Well, the next step is a New Year's Day bowl game,' I didn't know really if that would happen, but it happened. So winning helps.

The second thing is resources. We have a brand-new facility here. It's state-of-the-art. It's got the 'wow' factor when you walk in here. We have an outstanding stadium and fan support and everything that goes along with playing in the Big Ten. And the last thing is the stability of the coaching staff. The same coaches have recruited players for three years here. We haven't lost a coach on our staff yet. And we have security in the head-coaching position. When you have that, people can look and say, 'Hey, I can go there for five years. That coaching staff's going to be in place.' If you're looking for things as a recruit, you look for those three factors.

Signing day has become so much about decommitment and switching. What was it like for you guys to have almost a drama-less day Wednesday?

MD: Well, we're not going to push on kids and ask them to commit. I just tell them, 'When it's in your heart, that's when you commit to this place. But make sure because I don't want you taking other visits. I don't believe in the term soft commitment. Either you're committed or you're not.' And not that they won't change their mind, but you need to be pretty vigilant because people are going to knock on your door and try to kick your door in, and if you open the crack at all, there's going to be all kinds of people busting in there.

So it's been a process of trust, and that's a positive thing. If you can form that relationship with the player, that will go a long way. It's about having meaningful relationships with your players long into the future, and you don't know if that's going to happen until the time comes, but that's what you hope.