Donnie Corley signaled his arrival as a playmaker in big-time college football in just his second game.
The Michigan State freshman turned a sure interception for Notre Dame defensive back Cole Luke into a touchdown by leaping up and over Luke to snare a 38-yard pass from quarterback Tyler O’Connor in the end zone. It was the first six of 36 straight points Michigan State would score in a 36-28 win on Sept. 17.
Corley’s talent has never been in question. His catch against Notre Dame was reminiscent of the game-winner he made on the final play of the Division II state championship game last November for Detroit Martin Luther King High School.
He is so talented that Michigan State coaches talked to him during recruitment about playing both offense and defense if he were to come to East Lansing. And he’s doing that as a freshman, adding cornerback duties to his wide receiver playing time.
Corley is one of 48 players from the state of Michigan on the Michigan State roster, 25 of whom are from metro Detroit. He is one of six players for the Spartans who played high school football in the Detroit Public Schools League.
Detroit is a hotbed of football talent and a must-stop when it comes to recruiting. That’s not just the case for Michigan State, but for teams throughout the Midwest and nationally.
“It’s very big because there’s a lot of talent in Detroit,” Corley said. “As you can see, a lot of Detroit guys are making a lot of plays. There’s guys at Michigan, there’s guys at Ohio State making plays, there’s guys everywhere making plays from Detroit. It’s amazing to see.”
Coaching stands out
Detroit’s status is more than just having talented players.
“The coaches are passionate about developing players and helping kids get to that next level educationally and using football to do it,” said Tom Lemming, editor of Prep Football Magazine and co-host of the Lemming Report on CBS Sports Network.
Lemming points to Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher as the leader of that approach of all-around development, but he’s not the only coach having success. And it’s not just the inner-city public schools, either.
“When you talk about the country, the South seems to have all the top players, or a good number of them, so in the Midwest you have to go into Ohio, Detroit and Chicago,” Lemming said. “There aren’t as many good players in Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana. Detroit is exceptionally important to the Big Ten, just to keep your head above water, because a number of the Big Ten schools are recruiting in Florida, Georgia, Texas, California. You have to have places like Detroit and Chicago that develop players.”
Detroit players will have a heavy influence in the Michigan State-Ohio State game Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Ohio State has four players from Michigan, all from the greater Detroit area. Three of them are from Cass Tech – redshirt freshmen running back Mike Weber and defensive tackle Joshua Alabi, and junior safety Damon Webb – while freshman Michael Jordan from Plymouth High School is the starting left guard.
Start them young
The development doesn’t start at the high-school level, said Belleville High School coach Jermain Crowell. It’s in the youth leagues around the city.
“Our kids can play,” Crowell said. “I think Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League) is one of the best youth organizations in the country. Period. I would venture to say that I have not seen anything like it, and I travel across the country.”
Crowell just finished up his second season at Belleville, leading the Tigers to the playoffs both years after taking over program that was 3-6 before his arrival. Belleville hired him after Crowell spent seven years as the defensive coordinator at Cass Tech under Wilcher. He echoed Lemming’s belief that Wilcher is a driving force behind the overall success of Detroit football.
Wilcher was a star football player and track-and-field athlete in high school at Detroit Central. He went on to play running back at Michigan and continued his track career, including earning a berth in the 1988 Olympic Trials. Cass Tech won Division I state titles in 2011 and 2012 and was a state finalist last season. Cass Tech plays Utica Eisenhower Saturday in the state semifinals, its seventh straight season of reaching the semis.
“He’s taught me so much; hopefully, I’m an extension of him,” Crowell said.
Said Lemming: “He’s got a lot of attention of the ball players because he came from there. Everyone knows who he is, everyone knows what a good coach he is. But he’s also got credibility as a player. When you’ve got credibility as a player, kids listen. He’s a no-nonsense type coach with his players, and he’s done a great job developing them.”
Detroit’s importance to Michigan State
Of the 25 players from metro Detroit on the Michigan State roster, 13 are listed on this week’s depth chart for the Ohio State game. That doesn’t include junior linebacker Jon Reschke, who is out for the season with an ankle injury, or junior defensive lineman Malik McDowell, who didn’t play last week against Rutgers because of injury and whose status against Ohio State is unknown.
Reschke went to Brother Rice in suburban Bloomfield Hills. McDowell, from Southfield, is one of two 5-star recruits Michigan State has landed in Mark Dantonio’s 10-season tenure. The other 5-star recruit was defensive lineman William Gholston, from Detroit Southeastern, who is now playing in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But it isn’t just the big-name recruits who make a team. Cole Chewins is a redshirt freshman from Clarkston, which is north of Detroit. He helped Clarkston win consecutive Division I state titles in 2013-14 before joining Michigan State as a walk-on. He made his first career start last Saturday at left tackle against Rutgers.
“I think there’s a great amount of coaches in the state of Michigan that help the kids work hard and get to where they want to be,” Chewins said.
Sophomore tight end Matt Sokol is from suburban Rochester Hills. Sokol said he began playing flag football when he was in the second or third grade, and then advanced to tackle football in the sixth grade.
“Growing up in Rochester Hills, almost all of the kids in our classes played football,” Sokol said. “I feel like we have a lot of great competition in high school football in that area, a lot of great coaches in metro Detroit. When they go to schools like Michigan, Michigan State, there is a big-time football expectancy.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo