Michigan State recruiting: Hits & misses from the Class of 2014
To have sustained success in college football, you’ve got to recruit like a champion. Whether you’ve got a nationally-ranked class or you’re pulling up the rear in your own conference, every class has hits and misses that ultimately define it.
Who have been the biggest surprises – good and bad – in your favorite school’s recent classes?
Related: Ohio State Class of ’14 Hits & Misses: Related: Michigan Class of ’14 Hits & Misses Related: Wisconsin Class of ’14 Hits & Misses Related: Iowa Class of ’14 Hits & Misses Related: Penn State Class of ’14 Hits & Misses Related: Nebraska Class of ’14 Hits & Misses
After six seasons of building in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio finally had Michigan State in the upper echelon of the college football world. The Spartans finished the 2013 season with a 13-1 record, knocking off Ohio State to win the Big Ten and then following that up with a 24-20 program-defining win against Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl.
The 2013 Big Ten champions were led by a number of the players that Dantonio signed in the best recruiting he’d had (until 2016), the unit he signed in 2010. That 2010 class finished at No. 21 in the national team rankings and featured eventual stars like Le’Veon Bell, Darqueze Dennard, William Gholston, Kurtis Drummond, Jeremy Langford, Marcus Rush, Tony Lippett and others, a core that has helped turn the Spartans into the program they are now.
The 2014 class was also one of Dantonio’s best. The group finished 25th nationally but thanks to the efforts of the groups before them, haven’t yet been relied upon too heavily by the Spartans coaching staff, but that’s bound to change in 2016 and beyond. The class included 22 signees and was highlighted by one of the nation’s top defensive lineman.
Here are three players who have stood out so far, and three others that have yet to live up to the hype:
Who has stood out
MALIK McDOWELL, defensive line: One of the most fascinating recruiting stories in the last ten years, Southfield (Mich.) defensive end Malik McDowell wanted to go to Michigan State. He committed to the Spartans on signing day, picking them over Ohio State, Michigan and others, and gave Mark Dantonio and his Spartans their first 5-star commitment since the aforementioned Gholston in 2010. Then something weird happened: McDowell’s parents wouldn’t sign his letter of intent and the future was in doubt.
It’s a good thing for the Spartans that McDowell didn’t budge. After two extra months of being recruited hard by the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Florida State, the 6-foot-7, 290-pound lineman got the green light from his parents and signed with Michigan State. The Big Ten has paid the price so far for that wait.
As a freshman McDowell picked up a modest 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks in very limited playing time. When he stepped back on the field as a sophomore, there was no slowing him down. He harassed quarterbacks – 4.5 sacks – and made himself a presence in backfields all around the conference, notching 13 tackles for loss on his way to 41 total tackles as a defensive tackle.
MONTAE NICHOLSON, defensive back: The second-ranked player in Michigan State’s 2014 class has definitely met expectations. Nicholson, out of Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa., was the country’s 13th-ranked safety and a Top 200 player nationally.
As a freshman at Michigan State, he played in 13 games and started three, ending up as just one of four true freshman to see the field that season. He led all the Spartans first-year players in tackles with 31 and was a demon on special teams on his way to All-Freshman honors in the league, per ESPN and BTN.com. He continued to improve as a sophomore and again made his mark on special teams and defense. In 2015, Nicholson finished third on the Michigan State roster with 83 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 202-pound safety enters 2016 firmly entrenched as one of the two starting safeties for the Spartans.
CHRIS FREY, linebacker: It’s not easy to make a name for yourself as a linebacker at Michigan State, but Columbus, Ohio native Chris Frey is doing just that. Mark Snyder’s group in East Lansing has become one of the country’s most competitive and productive groups and the 3-star prospect out of Upper Arlington High School did what he had to do to get on the field as a freshman, playing in all 13 games in 2014.
As a sophomore, Frey was one of a handful of players who were forced to step up in the wake up Ed Davis’ season-ending injury and helped out to the tune of 42 tackles while earning a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Academic team. This year, Frey will compete with John Reschke for a starting spot at outside linebacker. Even if he doesn’t win that competition, Frey has done the job so far in East Lansing.
Who hasn’t lived up to the hype
CRAIG EVANS, defensive tackle: As the third-ranked player in the Michigan State 2014 class and one of the four prospects ranked as a 4-star prospect or better, it’s impossible to describe Evans’ short career at Michigan State as anything other than a disappointment. As a redshirt freshman in 2015, the Sun Prairie (Wis.) defensive tackle actually performed pretty well. In fact, he earned Freshman All-Big Ten honors by ESPN for a first-year campaign that included 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Unfortunately Evans was unable to stay out of the Dantonio doghouse and left the program in April due to personal reasons. Talk about a career that went “up in smoke.”
MONTEZ SWEAT, tight end: The same day that Michigan State announced the departure of Craig Evans, they also announced another player, Montez Sweat, was leaving the program. A 6-foot-6 tight end turned defensive end, Sweat was poised to break out for the Spartans thanks to above-average athleticism that would’ve been highlighted in the MSU defense.
Sweat left East Lansing playing two games at the start of 2015 before being suspended after Michigan State’s big early season win over Oregon. Following his reinstatement, Sweat was suspended again and that was the virtual end of his time at Michigan State. He was a 3-star prospect as a tight end out of Stone Mountain, Ga.
ENOCH SMITH, defensive tackle: Another one of the higher-ranked players in Michigan State’s 2014 class, Chicago 3-star Enoch Smith, has not been able to make an impact during his two years with the Spartans. The country’s 31st-ranked defensive tackle out of high school, Smith redshirted as a true freshman and recorded just one tackle in three games as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
It’s unclear what role the 6-foot-2, 294-pound Smith will play this season for Michigan State, but he’s on the verge of being passed up by a very talented 2016 signing class that is now on campus. If he’s unable to stave of 4-star prospects like Josh King and Auston Robertson, Smith’s career with the Green and White may never get a chance to take off.