Prospect Evaluation & Recruiting, Michigan State Football

Steve Wiltfong, 247 Sports (

The best evaluator in college football can typically be found inside the Duffy Daugherty Building on the campus of Michigan State grinding with his staff.

You can also call him one of the nation’s best developers of talent.

“You’re a product of who you have with you,” Dantonio told 247Sports.

Harlon Barnett (co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs), Mike Tressel (co-offensive coordinator/linebackers), Dave Warner (co-offensive coordinator/running backs) and Mark Staten (offensive line) have been with Dantonio for all 75 wins over the course of nine seasons in East Lansing. Prior to their arrival, MSU suffered three-straight losing seasons and hadn’t won double-digit games since Dantonio was an assistant in East Lansing working under Nick Saban back in 1999. All those guys came with Dantonio from their previous job at Cincinnati.

Brad Salem (quarterbacks/recruiting coordinator) has been with Dantonio for the last six years, Terrence Samuel (receivers) for five, Ron Burton (defensive line) and Jim Bollman (co-offensive coordinator/tight ends) for three and Mark Snyder(linebackers) is the new man on staff in his first season replacing former long-time defensive coordinator and Pittsburgh coachPat Narduzzi.

The thing about these people, starting at the top with Dantonio, all the way through a talented off-field recruiting staff led by Curtis Blackwell and Matt Mueller, they’re all just normal guys. Easy-going, they have fun together, they’ve raised their families together, and it’s certainly rubbed off on the football team and culture within the walls of the facility. There’s no arrogance, no football snobbery, just a bunch of guys that love working with each other.

The Wolverines have gone through two coaching changes since Dantonio arrived at Michigan State and recruited the right players for his program. Countless other schools should have extended a scholarship to prospects like Le’Veon Bell, Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes and Shilique Calhoun who in hindsight were five-star recruits. Dantonio and his staff knew that at the time.

“I think highlight films tell you part of the story, game films tell you another part of the story, but I think the in-person evaluation that you see, a player and how he reacts when things go negatively for him, how he reacts with his players, how hard he plays, what he does between the whistles, those are things you have to see and feel personally,” Dantonio explained. Jackson for instance ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at Michigan State’s camp. A high school quarterback that also fills it up on the hardwood, Jackson is the dynamic multi-sport athlete that’s coveted by the MSU staff. “We’ve been able to do that. Guys like Darqueze Dennard, we’ve seen play when he was in high school. Guys like Le’Veon Bell we saw him play basketball. Some of the guys that weren’t maybe as highly recruited that came here, it wasn’t like they were all of a sudden developed, they were good players when they got here, they played as true freshmen.

“I think that we just saw something in them that made them a little bit special, and they fit our system, and they fit our system as people. I think one thing you can’t underestimate is the value of what’s the person, who’s the person behind that physical ability and how does he handle problems and how does he handle adversity, and that’s a hard thing to gauge.”

Michigan State evaluates at an elite level. They trust their observations. They’re very resourceful on the recruiting trail. The brand new facilities on campus are awesome. Then the culture and system once a player arrives allows the Spartans staff to get every bit of juice in the tank out of a young man.

“I think when you look at NFL rosters there are guys from all over the country on those rosters so we’ve sort of taken that approach,” Dantonio said. As an assistant he was a strong evaluator and recruiter, landing guys like Julian Peterson. “It’s not all guys from big schools that make the NFL. They’re all different types of players. It’s the same here. So we’ve built into people, I think they come here and they get involved in a culture and that culture really helps them grow. We get the most out of our players. I think we always talk about our players overachieving, but the culture of winning, the culture of work, our seniors have done a great job of cultivating our young players. I think that’s really ultimately been the difference maker, and then I think our coaches have done a great job. We have continuity here in coaching so if you have the same teacher teaching the same class five years in a row, that player is going to get better and better and better because there is not a lot of change in his life. I think that’s one of the things that’s happened and been a big positive.”

There are plenty of good high school football players to go around. Picking the right ones isn’t easy. Dantonio says picking the right ones for your system makes it even harder. Toughness and hunger are two traits the Spartans staff is scouring the country for. Look all over Michigan State’s state-of-the-art locker room and you see a group of young men ready to battle…in practice. There is plenty of hitting during the week and an occasional scrap or two.

““Oh it gets chippy,” Staten said to 247Sports in the past.

“We’ve always gone after the same players everybody else has gone after, we’ve just always found those guys at some point,” Dantonio said. “We didn’t worry about well he only has two stars or he only has three stars. The difference between three star players and four-star players in my mind is how are you going to get them better? The process. The process you take them through is going to take them to this level. There is a process here. I just feel like guys that come in a three-stars may come out a five star like Shilique Calhoun.”

“You talk about recruiting and our evaluation process I think it’s a thorough as you can make it and that probably comes from Nick Saban and things that we were doing when I was an assistant for him,” Dantonio said. “I think what I took from Nick in terms of the evaluation process, you evaluate tangible things relative to the position he plays. What you think, what we think are the tangible things he needs to have, and then you go deeper and try and find the intangible things. You have to see them play.

“I think from Coach Tressel we built into the player,” Dantonio said. “We really built into the player. Why are we succeeding here? Because we believe in our players and our players believe in us. I think that energy is created and that chemistry is created, and when you have a piece of clay, and everyone has a piece of clay when they come in, but what you’re able to do with that differs. A lot of that is continuity and consistency and then we do a good job of evaluating the player while he’s here, and structuring it so he can have gains, strength gains, (strength and conditioning coach) Ken Mannie does a great job. Our position coaches do a great job, I think we do some different things socially to try and help our players mature. Everybody comes here as a 17-year old young person, but when they’re 21-22, you have a whole different person from when they come here at 18. Three years later you have a different person so it’s what you do in those three years that I think really defines who they become.”

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