Big Ten Contender Emerging in East Lansing?

Johnny LawrenceCorrespondent IAugust 6, 2009

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is working to elevate the Spartans to elite Big Ten standing.

In 1999, he guided the secondary when MSU earned a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida, its last significant postseason win.

Since that famed year, the Spartans have redefined mediocrity. Posting a 49-49 record, they have reached just three bowl games.

But positive momentum is surging in East Lansing.

On the recruiting trail, Dantonio has transformed MSU into a legitimate option for high level recruits, bringing in talent typically destined for other locations. A number of local high schoolers who might have selected Michigan, Ohio State, or other BCS colleges earlier in the decade are now choosing the Spartans.

Why the sudden change?

To start, Dantonio believes to build a perennial contender, a team must first focus on the home front. After turning in seven and nine-win seasons, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, he is earning respect for turning around an historically turbulent program.

And, of course, positive momentum yields better recruits.

What also can not be ignored is the philosophy change Michigan instituted upon the arrival of new coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez prefers to scour the nation for players without focusing on one particular city or state.

This philosophy may push the Wolverines back into the limelight one day, but for now, it hands MSU a noticeable advantage in the battle for Michigan talent.

So, in a way, you can label U-M "enablers."

2009 proved a statement year on the recruiting trail, as significant strides to upgrade the Spartans roster were made.

According to Rivals.com rankings, MSU reeled in eight of the state's top 11 players.

Offensively, Dantonio added a few certified local weapons in running backs Edwin Baker (Oak Park HS) and Larry Caper (Battle Creek Central HS), along with quarterback prospect Andrew Maxwell (Midland HS) and tight end Dion Sims (Orchard Lake St. Mary's HS).

On the defensive side, Dantonio and staff compiled one of the nation's most impressive bundles of linebackers. Two of the most talented, Chris Norman and Jeremy Gainer, hail from Detroit.

While the bulk of his outline is centered around bringing in Michigan players, he also successfully dips into other Midwestern states, most notably Ohio.

As mentioned in a recent article by MSU writer Francisco Velazquez, Dantonio plucked this year's Preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Greg Jones, out of Cincinnati's Moeller High in 2007.

And the trend to bring talented Ohioans to East Lansing continues.

Mark Dantonio spent 17 years coaching football in Ohio. In 2002, he served as the defensive coordinator for national champion Ohio State. A year later, he headed south to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats for three years before returning to the Big Ten.

His tenures allowed him to build lasting relationships with Ohio coaches and community members.

On National Signing Day in February, six Buckeye State prospects inked with the Spartans. Leading the pack, Nate Klatt of Canal Fulton, OH ranked in the national top 10 on every major online recruiting service at offensive center.

The Michigan and Ohio recruiting momentum has carried into 2010's freshman class.

Legacy recruit Max Bullough became the first MSU commitment last October, a national top three linebacker from Traverse City St. Francis HS. His grandfather, Hank Bullough, played on MSU's 1952 Rose Bowl champion team.

Beyond Bullough, several other MSU's pledges are garnering serious national attention.

For the second consecutive year, the Spartans secured a Rivals.com four-star quarterback. Joe Boisture, of Saline HS, selected Michigan State after previously committing to Boston College. His addition brings necessary depth to the most important position on the field.

Isaiah Lewis, one of the country's most highly sought after safeties, pledged to MSU last week. From Indianapolis, Lewis models himself after Colts safety Bob Sanders and is rumored to deliver blows similar to his NFL luminary.

But perhaps the biggest signing thus far in the Dantonio era is William Gholston out of Detroit Southeastern HS.

Gholston held scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Southern California, and other elite programs, but his comfort level with MSU's coaches assured him they were serious about winning, and winning soon.

By now, most know he is a 6'7", 240 pound defensive end/linebacker who is the cousin of former Ohio State All-American and current New York Jet Vernon Gholston. Identified by ESPN.com and Rivals.com as the top prospect in Michigan, he reminds MSU coaches of former Spartan and 10-year NFL veteran Julian Peterson.

Though it was reported by the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press that Gholston would be visiting other schools because he wishes to play strictly linebacker at the next level, he has vehemently dismissed these stories as "inaccurate."

Gholston remains firmly committed to MSU, will not be visiting any other schools, and also addressed his misinterpreted linebacker quote.

"I didn't really mean it and I was just joking with him," Gholston said. "I'll play anything the coach needs me to play. I've said it before, if I had to play kicker that I would play kicker." (SpartanMag.com)

Dantonio's goal each season is to capture a Big Ten title, and piece by piece, he is adding exceptional talent inching them closer to contention.

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