The 2016 National Signing Day has come and gone, leaving sports journalists exhausted and coaches relieved to finally have their players locked into their programs.
MSU probably wished they had a few more, as Michael Onwenu, a four-star offensive lineman lineup, chose University of Michigan over MSU Tuesday night and four-star defensive back Lavert Hill from Detroit Martin Luther King High School did the same thing Wednesday morning.
On the defensive line, another four star and promising target Prince Sammons committed to Auburn University Wednesday and MSU commit and highly rated prospect Auston Robertson did not sign his letter of intent for the Spartans and has pending criminal charges.
But don’t think for a second Mark Dantonio is nervous. Don’t think he is scared of the big names going to Ohio State University and U-M. Since 2007, Dantonio has been transforming two and three-star recruits to quality starters with NFL talent.
“We wanted to address our needs, that’s what we do in recruiting,” Dantonio said. “We always want to promote growth and continuity in what we are doing. I think those three facets are very very important in terms of what we are trying to accomplish here. As long as we continue to grow as a program and stretch ourselves, great things are possible.”
Only this year, Dantonio has the four-star recruits to go along with it. Players like wide receiver and defensive back Donnie Corley, one of the top recruits in the state of Michigan, arrives to East Lansing as a versatile threat on the outside looking to fill the role senior Aaron Burbridge left behind.
Defensive end Joshua King, the top player in the state of Illinois, is bringing raw power and potential that will impact the team immediately. Naquan Jones was a consensus top five player in the state of Illinois, and Mike Panasiuk was a fellow member of the Illinois first team all-state. Add Mufi Hunt, a player who gained nearly 50 pounds during the offseason and the possibility of Robertson, well, defensive line coach Ron Burton is pleased to say the least.
“(Defensive Line) has never been a concern because we will always have the ability to get guys on the field,” Burton said. “You want people to get up and be hungry for it, so we got guys who are hungry for the position. It starts with the guys who have already played the position ... then we got young guys behind them who are eager to play.”
MSU landed nine four-star recruits, nine counting Robertson, who still said MSU was his top choice. Three of those recruits are defensive lineman, and three are wide receivers, arguably the two positions MSU was hurt most by from departures.
The other would be offensive line, where they landed one four star and one three star, who happens to be the younger brother of Jack and Brian Allen. Everyone knows what Dantonio and offensive line coach Mark Staten has done with the Allen brothers and other offensive lineman, a la Jack Conklin, a two-star recruit turned potential first round NFL draft pick.
“It’s the guys now knowing that hey, Conklin’s gone, Jack Allen is gone, Donovan Clark is gone, and now there’s a fight to get those 500-plus reps and a fight to get those 200-300 reps that the backups are going to be guaranteed to have,” Staten said.
Dantonio is now a staple in Midwest recruiting, snagging eight players from the state of Ohio, five from Illinois, four from Michigan and the others scattered around. Being a defensive coordinator at both Youngstown State University and Ohio State has helped him develop a relationship with the state of Ohio, and it shows in recruiting.
“I’m from there originally, so I know where all the back corners of Ohio are,” Dantonio said. “I have a great deal of respect for the state of Ohio and really through the Midwest, Michigan and other areas around here. You know people, we’ve recruited Ohio well. We had 29 players from Ohio last year on our football team and I think this year we will have more.”
Obviously Dantonio can’t do it alone. Defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett was the main recruiter for multiple MSU commits, as was quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Brad Salem. In the case of MSU’s coaching staff, the glory deserves to be shared.
“We’ve always been a best player plays mindset, and that proved out last year, we started three freshmen at Michigan,” Barnett said. “Best player plays, and it’s on a weekly basis. We can bring in a new class every year, and you are always trying to compete and get better and play at a higher level so you can maintain your job.”
This has been Dantonio’s deepest and most skillful recruiting class since his arrival at MSU. The coaching staff might not have gotten the lucrative commitment on national signing like they did two years ago with Malik McDowell, but they didn’t need it. They already got them. They worked ahead of the game, got early commitments, and despite no five-star athletes, maintained a top 20 recruiting class.
Besides the fact, not many programs have the developmental program that MSU has. The strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie was coach of the year in that category. The track record of flipping amateur athletes into dominant professionals speaks for itself.
“I think signing day is a new beginning for a lot of people,” Dantonio said. “But I don’t think you can underestimate that everybody has high hopes when they come in, but it’s really about how they go is what’s important.”