The Michigan State staff found itself in unfamiliar territory this January.
The Spartans typically land the vast majority of their recruiting classes by the time the season has ended. In the 2017 class, they looked to be headed that way with 16 verbal commitments before August. Then they hit a drought.
For the next four-plus months, Michigan State did not pick up a single commitment. In December, 3-star athlete Connor Heyward came aboard. And from January until National Signing Day on Feb. 1, the Spartans added seven more.
Director of college advancement and performance Curtis Blackwell, a recruiting guru for Michigan State, sat down after the class had been signed to reflect on the 2017 cycle.
In several ways, it had been different from years past. In others, it had shown to be indicative of how the Spartans have always gone about recruiting.
Q: How do you feel after this last month? Have you been able to get much sleep?
Blackwell: “It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind, but I’m glad I got a chance to experience the other side of this. We win every year. It’s kind of different. This is the most guys we’ve visited after the season, so it was a little bit different. And then some of the guys that you’re recruiting later on, they’re a little more indecisive. So it was a little different element.”
Q: January brought a few unexpected turns, but none of the 17 players who committed to Michigan State in 2016 signed elsewhere. Is that a source of pride, and what does that mean to you?
Blackwell: “What that means is just that we did the same thing the last year and the year before, and so it means that we’re consistently identifying players, and the players that we identify for the right reasons, it’s mutual. If they would’ve wavered, it would’ve maybe been a sign that we didn’t have the right players. But the fact that they stayed firm means that we identified the right players for the right reasons.”
Q: How do you go about identifying the right type of player, and how do you ensure that they’re committed to the level that you want them to be?
Blackwell: “The No. 1 thing is they come to campus multiple times, so we get a chance to know them and they get a chance to know us. And by us getting a chance to know each other, we can make sure that the people we have in this program are a fit for our program. And the guys that don’t get a chance to come around as much, we don’t know them as well.
“So for us, the No. 1 thing we do is, the more time we can spend — come up for a football game, come up for a basketball game, spring practice, see you at camp, then you commit — that means that we all know each other very well. And so we know that you’re coming to us for the right reasons. If you come up and spend time with our staff, you know who we are and what we’re into. You’ll see that we’re not that type of staff that does the other stuff.”
Q: Although January serves as a crucial month for recruiting seniors, your staff picked up a few big pieces in the 2018 class. How do you find time to recruit younger players as hard as you do when this is also an unusually busy month for the 2017 class?
Blackwell: “That’s the reason why I got hired, and that’s the reason why we do what we do. We have to make sure that we continue to take advantage of every opportunity to bring people on campus. And when we bring people on campus, we like to tell them who we are and what we’re doing, and we like to show that you have an opportunity to make your own imprint.
“Sometimes people might look at things a lot of different ways, but a lot of those, you had people who came up here and saw what we were doing this year and looked at it as an opportunity for them to come and be a part of it. They liked the fact that we held ourselves together in spite of our struggles. I know that for a fact had a lot to do with two guys committing.”
Q: As this team struggled through a difficult 2016 season, did you ever have to sit down with guys to make sure they remained committed, or did they seem to remain locked in to their commitments?
Blackwell: “I just think they understood that we are a program and there’s ups and downs in life, and life experiences are the same on the field and off the field. They liked the honesty, the transparency. They still got a chance to come in the locker room. They still sat and talked to the players even though things weren’t as good.
“So I think them being able to see us carry ourselves in that way — our staff, our head coach — meant more than anything else because it’s not really how you carry yourself when you’re on top that matters. It’s how you really manage things when things are not going as well. I think a lot of parents said that that was something that they don’t see a lot.”
Q: You had two guys in Darien Clemons and Weston Bridges who suffered ACL injuries after committing. Did you have to explicitly state that you would stick by them or did they already know?
Blackwell: “That’s Coach D (Mark Dantonio), man. That’s who he is. He tells them that when he takes a commitment: ‘I’m with you, ride or die.’ ”
Q: Does that come from an understanding between both parties that you’ll stick with each other?
Blackwell: “Oh yeah. And that helps you in the years to come, because future generations of kids or the next year’s class sees that, and then they want to be a part of the class because they know what they’ll get.”