A little more than a month removed from Michigan State's first Rose Bowl since before I was born, Mark Dantonio stood in front of the media Wednesday to discuss his eighth recruiting class as the Spartans head coach.
A number of factors contributed to that beautiful Rose Bowl win, the Big Ten Championship that sent MSU to Pasadena and the 13-1 season as a whole. The emergence of Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford and a much-improved receiving corps was huge. Having the best defense in the country and arguably the best defensive player in Darqueze Dennard didn't hurt either.
Perhaps, most importantly, week in and week out, the Spartans were more often than not better than their opponent up front on both sides of the ball. Sometimes, they were A LOT better.
So that brings me back to Dantonio and his recap of MSU's very successful National Signing Day. In my very scientific research process, I found out Dantonio used the word "excited" 16 times on Wednesday. (*Note: I pulled up the ASAP Sports transcript, searched for "excited" and came up with 16 matches. Like I said, very scientific.)
Certainly, there is plenty to be excited about when it comes to this 2014 class. MSU filled an upcoming need at running back with the signings of Madre London and Gerald Owens. T.J. Harrell was a big-time pickup who can play either safety or outside linebacker. Vayante Copeland is brimming with so much potential that Dantonio compared him to Dennard, and Montae Nicholson is a dynamic two-way guy who comes in as one of the best players out of Pennsylvania.
But when it comes down to it, this is the best class of the Dantonio era because of the talent coming in on both lines, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And that's even before including top-100 recruit Malik McDowell, who will hopefully officially be a Spartan very soon.
I'm not a recruiting expert, and I won't pretend to be one. However, I know enough to trust Dantonio, and when he's excited, we should all be excited.
Dantonio, via that ASAP Sports transcript:
"I think it's a dominant class on the defensive line. I think with this defensive line class, we'll continue to establish ourselves as one of the ‑‑ or continue to be one the top defenses in this country and in this conference."
Works for me.
Here's a closer look at all five defensive lineman who actually signed and sent in their LOI's on Wednesday:
Defensive tackle Craig Evans, Sun Prairie (Wis.) - 6-foot-3, 305 pounds
Outside of McDowell, Evans -- a former Wisconsin commit -- is the crown jewel of this defensive line class. And with the departures of Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover and Mark Scarpinato's decision to graduate this summer and pursue med school, Evans is a guy who will push for immediate playing time. For his size, Evans is really athletic with quick feet, as evidenced by the two rushing touchdowns he had in one game during his senior season. Ranked as a top-20 defensive tackle nationally by Rivals (No. 11), Scout (No. 16) and 247Sports (No. 18), Evans is a premier talent who should be a disruptive force up front.
Defensive lineman Enoch Smith Jr., Mount Carmel (Ill.) - 6-foot-2, 275 pounds
Smith Jr. can play defensive end or tackle, but he'll likely stay on the inside. Still, his versatility is a testament to his athleticism and quickness. I hate to sound like Mel Kiper, but that motor word gets tossed around quite often when talking about Smith Jr. In his case, it's for good reason. He doesn't quit, and he's relentless in pursuit.
Defensive tackle David Beedle, Clarkston (Mich.) - 6-foot-5, 290 pounds
Staying on the inside, Beedle is huge with room to get bigger. Beedle is fresh off a state championship with Clarkston, where he was simply stronger than pretty much everyone who lined up across from him. Size alone won't be enough at the next level, but he can also move pretty well and has shown a decent ability to generate an interior pass rush.
Defensive end Robert Bowers, Walnut Ridge (Ohio) - 6-foot-5, 215 pounds
Speaking of pass rush, Robert Bowers has the potential to be a big-time player on the edge. Although me missed all of his senior season with a shoulder injury, he showed his ability to get to the quarterback as a junior, when he recorded 13 sacks. That followed a sophomore season in which he notched 7.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. At 215 pounds, Bowers obviously needs to put on some bulk, but as long as Ken Mannie is around, that shouldn't be a problem.
Defensive end Montez Sweat, Stephenson (Ga.) - 6-foot-6, 220 pounds
Like Bowers, Sweat will likely need to put on about about 15-20 pounds to be effective. Also like Bowers, though, he already has the athleticism to compete on the edge. According to his Signing Day bio, Sweat will begin his MSU career at defensive end, but ESPN has him ranked as the No. 26 tight end in the country. This staff has displayed that it's willing to move guys around to find the right fit (see: Langford, Jeremy), but with MSU only bringing in one defensive end last season, there might be more of an opportunity for Sweat there in the future. Regardless, his ability to play both ways -- he's also a talented basketball player -- is an indication of Sweat's athleticism.
So yeah, that's as good of a defensive line class as you're going to get, and McDowell will take it to another level, assuming he ends up signing with MSU. Not much has changed on that front in the last 24 hours. According to his father, McDowell needs to convince his mother to (literally) sign off on his decision before he can make it official.
Via the Detroit News:
"I'm not legally able to do it because I'm not the custodial parent," Greg told the Detroit News, noting that Malik is only 17. "She has to sign it and I have to sign it, too. I don't know when it will happen. Malik has to handle that with his Mom. I'm willing to do whatever my son wants. it's been a long process and an uneasy process.
"That's something he'll have to deal with, because at the end of the day it's all about him and he has to work it out."
MSU is also waiting on a letter from JUCO offensive tackle David Hedelin, but the Spartans added fellow JUCO offensive lineman Miguel Machado, making it a total of 21 players signed -- for now.
All in all, Wednesday was a great day for Dantonio and the Spartans. Rivals currently has MSU's 2014 class ranked No. 23 nationally, behind only Ohio State (No. 3) in the Big Ten. Take that for what it's worth, because as we've learned the last few years, stars and rankings are meaningless when it comes to Dantonio recruits.
Before saying goodbye to National Signing Day 2014, Dantonio mentioned a few more players not on the defensive line who could contribute immediately this upcoming season:
Center Brian Allen, Hinsdale Central (Ill.) - 6-foot-2, 285 pounds
It was a bit of a surprise when Dantonio said Allen will push for playing time immediately next season, considering 2013 starter Travis Jackson is set to return. There's also Brian's older brother, Jack, who has played center and guard for the Spartans. The younger Allen is a stud, though, and is rated in the top five nationally among centers by 247 Sports (No. 2), Scout (No. 3), ESPN (No. 4) and Rivals (No. 5). He was also a captain at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, so he likely won't be shy about taking on a leadership role on the offensive line.
Defensive back Montae Nicholson, Gateway (Pa.) - 6-foot-2, 202 pounds
Nicholson is a prototypical Dantonio defensive back, in that he's physical and makes big plays. As a senior for Gateway, Nicholson intercepted three passes, forced a fumble, recovered four and scored twice. He also caught 41 passes, set a school record with 810 receiving yards and hauled in 11 touchdowns. To top it all off, he took two kickoffs to the house. It's that versatility that gives Nicholson the opportunity to contribute immediately at different positions.
Punter Jake Hartbarger, Anthony Wayne (Ohio) - 6-foot-4, 195 pounds
No, Hartbarger is not going to punt next year for MSU, not when Mike Sadler has a Heisman Trophy to win. But it wouldn't be very B1G of me to not include Hartbarger in this recap. The righty punter averaged 43 yards on 30 punts as a senior and dropped 11 punts inside the 20 -- seven of which he put inside the 10. I don't think I'm the only one who takes quite a bit of comfort in knowing MSU's punting game appears to be in good shape for years to come. For now, though, #Sadler4Heisman.