Football futures start on signing day

Originally Published: February 7, 2014
By Adam Rittenberg and Chris Low | ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. and KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Hope springs eternal on national signing day, and that's whether you're coming off your best season in more than 40 years or your fourth straight losing season.

At Michigan State, the Spartans are fresh off a 13-1 season and Rose Bowl victory over Stanford and riding a wave of momentum under Mark Dantonio.

At Tennessee, the Vols are trying to get back to national relevance under Butch Jones after just missing a bowl game in his first season in Knoxville.

Adam Rittenberg spent signing day with the Michigan State staff and had behind-the-scenes access, while Chris Low did the same with the Tennessee staff.

Here's a peek inside:


The staff room in Michigan State's football office begins to fill. Whatever space remains is occupied by tension.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Adam Rittenberg/ESPNThe decision by defensive tackle Malik McDowell had the Michigan State coaches' attention.

Signing day morning has been mostly stress-free, just the way the Spartans coaches like it. The fax machine began beeping at 7:04 a.m., as the first national letter of intent came through, from linebacker Byron Bullough, the latest Bullough linebacker. Several other faxes follow as recruits who had verbally committed months earlier make it official.

The only drama, other than the ever-changing Big Ten choices of defensive end recruit Darius Slade, concerns Malik McDowell, a hulking defensive tackle from Southfield, Mich. Rated as the nation's No. 60 overall player by ESPN Recruiting Nation, McDowell is the top uncommitted prospect in the Midwest. He will select one of four schools -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Florida State -- during a 9:30 a.m. news conference at Southfield High School.

McDowell has told the coaches since early December that he wants to be a Spartan, but his parents want him to play elsewhere. His mother, Joya Crowe, has explicitly said she doesn't want Malik at MSU.

The staff gathers to watch McDowell's announcement, streamed online.

Coach Mark Dantonio sits at the head of the table, flanked by assistants Pat Narduzzi, Mike Tressel, Ron Burton and Brad Salem. Curtis Blackwell, who oversees MSU's recruiting, particularly with top Detroit-area prospects like McDowell, sits to Dantonio's right.

McDowell's father, Greg, tells a Detroit Free Press reporter on the live stream, "If he's happy being at Michigan State, we're happy." Some staffers start to celebrate, but Dantonio warns: "Careful, we've been there before."

After 13 other Southfield players announce their college choices, McDowell appears on camera. Nearly 15,000 viewers are watching the Free Press stream. Narduzzi, MSU's defensive coordinator, leans forward in his seat.

"I will be attending Michigan State," McDowell says.

The room erupts into hugs and high-fives. Dantonio raises his arms in victory.

"Oh, that's big," Salem says.

"Smile, Malik, smile," Tressel says, as McDowell remains mostly stone-faced.

"Oh, what a relief it is," says Burton, who will coach McDowell on the defensive line.

On the screen, McDowell and his father appear to sign a document, presumably the NLI. All that's left, it seems, is for the fax to come through.

While high-fiving his fellow assistants, Narduzzi repeats, "He hasn't signed yet, he hasn't signed yet."

Those words prove prophetic during a wild signing day at MSU.


Tennessee coach Butch Jones was in a hotel room somewhere last week while making a few final pitches on the recruiting trail.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Chris Low/ESPNTennessee coach Butch Jones pulled in the nation's No. 5-rated recruiting class.

He can't even remember where now, but does remember that he couldn't sleep.

"Your mind is always racing. I was up at 3 o'clock in the morning and had a million things going through my mind," Jones recalls. "I think I text messaged every single person on the staff and administrative staff about things to move the program forward. It's a passion, but there's an excitement level of what's going on here."

Jones is especially excited Wednesday morning as he arrives on campus for national signing day, which might as well be a national holiday in the SEC.

It's 6:20 a.m., and he's already on overdrive.

"That's who he is, and it's contagious," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart says.

Jones, sporting his customary orange tie, makes an appearance just past 7 a.m. to kick off Tennessee's in-house signing day show, an elaborate five-hour production that streams across the school's UTsports.com web site.

Then it's on to the Vols' recruiting war room in their sparkling new $45 million football complex, where Jones takes his seat at the table with the rest of his coaches and staff members and repeats several times, "No drama. That's the way we like it."

Fittingly, the first fax to come in is from safety Todd Kelly Jr., the son of former Vol and NFL player Todd Kelly Sr., and one of the players who really got this class rolling with his commitment in March. Kelly, a Knoxville product and ESPN 300 player, emerged as one of the Vols' most relentless recruiters along with Vic Wharton, another in-state kid whose uncle, Brandon Wharton, played basketball at Tennessee.

"There's a brotherhood and a bond in this class that's hard to describe, and a lot of these individuals who committed early, many of them from the state, sold our vision as passionately as anybody," Jones says.

"We said it from Day 1, that we need to own the state of Tennessee, and that's where it starts. We want individuals who have grown up on Tennessee football. They understand the rivalries. They understand the magnitude of Tennessee football and understand the importance of Tennessee football to this great state."

The day was just getting started just off the banks of the Tennessee River, but it was a day that would end with the Vols securing the No. 5 class in the country and a class that offers hope that better days are ahead on Rocky Top.


Despite an overnight snowstorm, most of the Michigan State staff is in the office before dawn. Dantonio, Narduzzi and secondary coach Harlon Barnett were in Oklahoma the night before to watch cornerback Darqueze Dennard accept the Jim Thorpe Award. Their plane touched down around 1 a.m.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Fax
Adam Rittenberg/ESPNAn aging fax machine was the star of the show in East Lansing, Michigan.

The coaches begin huddling around an aging Canon Super G3 fax machine, on this day the most important electronic device in the state-of-the-art Skandalaris Football Center.

"It's silly," offensive line coach Mark Staten says with a smile. "All these old guys waiting around a fax."

"I hope there's ink in there," Salem says.

The staff predict whose letter will arrives first. Players can send them in any time after 7:01 a.m. local time. Transcripts and test scores occasionally accompany the letters.

"It was Byron," says sport operations coordinator Simone Proulx, picking up Bullough's letter. "I thought for sure it'd be Jake [Hartbarger]."

Several assistants talk to recruits as their letters come through. Cell phones are passed to Dantonio, who offers his congratulations.

"Look forward to a lot of years of working toward championships," Staten tells offensive line recruit Nick Padla.

"They giving you the ball more?" Narduzzi asks defensive end recruit Montez Sweat, who also plays basketball. "When's your next game?"

As letters come through, pictures of signees are put on the board in the defensive staff room. By 8 a.m., there are five pictures up. Staffers come in to check every few minutes.

Safety T.J. Harrell's letter arrives at 8:05 a.m. Harrell hadn't been mentioned as an MSU commit by the recruiting outlets.

"A surprise to everyone but us," Blackwell says. "Hard to get those Florida kids up here."

Staten notes that offensive linemen are the toughest recruits to evaluate because they're still growing into their frames. Jack Conklin, from tiny Plainwell, Mich., wasn't even rated as a recruit but started at tackle throughout the 2013 season as a redshirt freshman.

Jamarco Jones drew much more fanfare. Listed as the nation's No. 6 offensive tackle and No. 74 overall player by ESPN Recruiting Nation, Jones committed to Ohio State in June but recently contacted MSU and visited campus two weeks ago. Late the night before, Jones reaffirmed his pledge to Ohio State and notified Staten, who was in bed when he got the call. Even Staten's wife could hear the pain in Jones' voice.

At some point, the kid has to make a decision and the university has to make a decision. Like they told me as an assistant, don't worry about the ones you don't get.

-- Mark Dantonio

"Great kid," Staten says. "It was tough for him."

While Jones signs with Ohio State, MSU receives an NLI from Craig Evans, a defensive tackle who had been pegged for Wisconsin until committing to the Spartans on Monday. The Spartans seemingly are in position for another flip in Slade, who had initially committed to Nebraska.

But Slade is having second thoughts about signing. His cousin, Jared Odrick, had starred for new Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson while Johnson was at Penn State. Slade wants to visit Ohio State before deciding. The MSU coaches make it clear they're not going to wait.

"At some point, the kid has to make a decision and the university has to make a decision," Dantonio says. "Like they told me as an assistant, don't worry about the ones you don't get."

By 11 a.m., the recruit board shows 18 pictures. The class is at 20, as two players enrolled early.

Two pictures remain on the table. One is Slade's, the other is McDowell's, whose documents have yet to come through.


As Jones predicted, there's not a lot of drama for the Vols. They already had 14 early enrollees on campus, and faxes from the remaining players begin creeping in as coaches sit impatiently around the table.

"Nothing counts until you get the papers," Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie says.

Dana Morrison, Tennessee's recruiting operations coordinator, announces each signee as the fax is received. Jones is seated right next to his director of player personnel, Bob Welton.

"The first text I got this morning wishing me good luck was from Jason Witten," Jones says proudly.

Jones has gone to painstaking efforts to embrace Tennessee's traditions and reach out to former lettermen.

The first text I got this morning wishing me good luck was from Jason Witten.

-- Butch Jones

"Eric Berry flew to Atlanta to be there with his brothers [Tennessee signees Evan and Elliot Berry)," Jones adds.

Suddenly, there is a little drama right around 7:22 a.m. Jones knocks over his coffee.

"The first fumble of the class," he cracks.

The "fumble" was even replayed on the big screen in the war room, drawing the biggest round of laughter of the morning so far.

Told his "fumble" had already hit Twitter, Jones says, "You can say we recovered it."

Several of the players the Vols are waiting on are from the Nashville area, which is in the Central time zone. Many of them have yet to make it to school.

"You know what they say. A watched fax never rings," says Jones, leaning back in his chair and his ever-present cell phone close by.

Across the way, defensive coordinator John Jancek is talking to somebody on his cell.

It's Dillon Bates, one of several legacies in this class and an ESPN 300 linebacker. Bates' dad, Bill Bates, played at Tennessee before going on to stardom with the Dallas Cowboys.

At 7:35, Welton announces that Bates' fax is officially in, setting off a celebration among the Vols' coaches and staff members.

Jones, who's vowed to rebuild Tennessee's program brick by brick, steps over to the wall and adds another commemorative brick to the collection, this one with Bates' name on it.


Blackwell's official title is director of college advancement and performance, but he leads MSU's recruiting operations. A former high school coach in Detroit, Blackwell co-founded the Sound Mind, Sound Body Football Academy, a camp for top Midwest players that draws all the top college coaches from the area.

MSU hired Blackwell in August. He splits his time between East Lansing and Detroit.

[+] EnlargeSalem
Adam Rittenberg/ESPNIt's never too early to start working on next season's class.

"I'm like the commander of the city of Detroit," Blackwell says. "I'm expected to know everybody, so I work with the little leagues, all the way up. There's no way in the world that we can be behind on a kid in our backyard."

Walking through MSU's recruiting war room, which has players broken down by age, position and location, Blackwell says he has brought approximately 1,000 Detroit-area players to campus in the past six months.

"My No. 1 job," Blackwell says, "is to make sure the top guys in the state stay in the state."

But the top guy, McDowell, has yet to make it official with MSU. He needs a parent to sign the NLI and, not surprisingly, there's some hesitancy.

No faxes have come through since Matt Morrissey's at 10:58 a.m. Slade signs with Ohio State around 2:30 p.m., not needing to visit after all.

Salem sits at his desk, writing letters to 2015 recruits, as offers are going out. Several coaches exercise, while others gather to discuss their travels on the trail.

"This is the one day of the year that we're just hanging out in the office," Salem says.

"It's not structured at all," Dantonio says. "You're sort of waiting and talking."

Dantonio's signing day news conference is pushed by an hour to 4 p.m. because of the snow, although it also could buy some time for McDowell's letter to come in (NCAA rules prohibit coaches from discussing recruits publicly until they're signed). There's some talk that if McDowell sends in a signed Big Ten tender of financial aid, which guarantees a scholarship spot, Dantonio can discuss him, but MSU's compliance department says no. Dantonio tells reporters that some players are "not completely yet signed."

While he expects the letters to arrive, he adds that signing day should be a celebration and everyone should feel comfortable.

Despite the drama, Dantonio believes the 2014 class is his best at MSU.

"There's a lot that goes into this," Dantonio tells ESPN.com. "There's a lot of trying times, a lot of moments, obviously, where there's emotion. It's a long process. This sort of is the day that you finalize what your near future is going to be like."


Rashaan Gaulden's fax arrives in Knoxville at 8:22 a.m. He's one of three safeties in this class, along with Kelly and Cortez McDowell, who Jancek thinks have a chance to play right away. Tennessee was painfully slow in the secondary each of the last two seasons.

Even though the Vols signed players in this class ranked higher than Gaulden, it was obvious how much he meant to this staff.

"I can tell you that another high-profile SEC school sent him a scholarship in the mail, and he never even visited there," Jones says.

It's also no secret that Tennessee needs defensive linemen and pass-rushers and needs them badly.

[+] EnlargeTennessee coaches
Chris Low/ESPNCelebration was the theme in Knoxville.

So when the fax from ESPN 300 defensive end Dewayne Hendrix comes in just past 9 a.m., the mood is as festive as ever.

Of course, it helps that ESPN's Jeannine Edwards is doing a live television shot and interviewing Jones. Hendrix's fax is the ninth of the day to arrive, and he sends his papers in from his house. School is out in O'Fallon, Ill., because of snow.

A few minutes later at 9:25 a.m., the largest signee of the class, 360-pound Charles Mosely, faxes in his paperwork.

"Big fella," Jancek shouts.

The last two faxes to roll in for the Vols do so at 11:22 a.m., and they're from the Berry twins, who've been on Tennessee's radar seemingly since they were old enough to walk.

"We had them both in camp, and one ran a 4.41 and the other a 4.42 (in the 40-yard dash)," Jones tells ESPN.com. "The size, speed and explosiveness is what stands out about this class. We now have individuals who can run that are very explosive."

At the height of the day, more than 40 people crammed into the Vols' war room.

One of those was Hart, albeit briefly. He makes another appearance just prior to 11:30 a.m., making the rounds and shaking hands.

The big question about Jones when he was hired was whether or not he could effectively recruit in the SEC after previous head coaching stops at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.

Hart remembers having a similar conversation with Jones when they met in Kentucky the night before Jones was hired.

"He told me, 'If you can recruit and you're a relentless recruiter and have the right people around you, then you can recruit anywhere," Hart tells ESPN.com. "Here we sit a little bit more than a year later."

And while a No. 5 recruiting class nationally doesn't guarantee you anything, history suggests that you better at least be swimming in those waters if you want to win an SEC championship, something the Vols haven't done since their 1998 national championship season.

"In this league, when you look at the top 25 [recruiting rankings], the whole league is pretty much going to be in there," Hart tells ESPN.com. "So you say, 'OK, we're closing the talent gap. Where is the edge?' I think the edge is in continuity, and we hadn't had that here, and the edge is in coaching them up.

"There are a lot of edges. This [new football complex] is a heck of a foundation for us. Now, as we move forward with our master plan and get our new practice fields built, I think we're going to be here to stay.

"We're going to be in that neighborhood."


From snowy East Lansing, Mich., to wind-swept Knoxville, Tenn., the football futures of both Michigan State and Tennessee were on display Wednesday.

Those futures can be tricky, too.

Can't-miss prospects occasionally miss. Derek Dooley's first two classes at Tennessee in 2010 and 2011 were ranked No. 9 and No. 13, respectively, but that didn't keep the Vols from losing 25 of their last 32 SEC games.

By the same token, two-star players during the recruiting process occasionally blossom into five-star players on the field. Just ask Michigan State and Jim Thorpe Award winner Dennard.

All that matters now, at least with this 2014 class, is what happens going forward.

Both the Spartans and Vols are digging the paths in front of them.

Chris Low | email

College Football

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.