Mel Tucker spent nearly an hour discussing the importance of recruiting, the intricacies of pulling together his 2021 class virtually and the way he wants to push Michigan State football’s recruiting efforts toward more of an NFL scouting model.
He didn’t mention his three highest-rated recruits in that time. He couldn’t due to NCAA rules – Rayshaun Benny, Audric Estime and Geno VanDeMark did not sign Wednesday.
Moments after Tucker wrapped up his new conference around 1 p.m., the first chance the first-year coach had an opportunity to talk about the players he had landed at that point, he added a 16th signee. One who leaped right over the three who did not put pen to paper to become the Spartans’ top incoming player.
Four-star linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote joined the Spartans, eschewing his previous commitment to Southern Cal. Tucker showed on his first signing day he plans to make MSU a player in the cutthroat recruiting realm.
“Recruiting never stops,” Tucker said. “It’s perpetual motion. It goes on forever.”
He wasn’t kidding.
A little more than a half hour after Tucker’s appearance on Big Ten Network, where he gushed about Gaoteote (pronounced now-TAY-oh-TAY), quarterback Anthony Russo announced he will join the Spartans as a sixth-year graduate transfer.
That’s pronounced com-pe-TI-tion.
A day after Tucker said redshirt freshman Payton Thorne would get his second straight start Saturday at Maryland, the 2021 quarterback situation does not clear. It was an example of everything Tucker has spent the past month saying, that he plans to overhaul MSU’s roster and infuse it with more talent, more depth – and not just from the high school realm, like Mark Dantonio did for almost all of his 13 seasons.
And this all happened less than eight hours into the three-day early signing window that opened 7 a.m. Wednesday and runs through Friday.
Tucker signed 15 of the 18 prospects who were committed going into the early period. Tucker and his staff addressed needs at linebacker, in the secondary, and along the offensive and defensive lines. MSU jumped more than 10 spots to No. 33 nationally , according to the 247Sports Composite, and No. 9 in the Big Ten.
“Our general goal in recruiting is to fill our needs while strengthening our roster from top to bottom,” Tucker said. “We’re not just collecting players or chasing stars. We are building a team. The question we ask ourselves of each player we recruit is can this player fit with our team, our culture, and help us win the Big Ten?”
It was not just players from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, either. Those players came from nine different states, with Russo representing a 10th. Tucker and his staff needed to rely on their connections from previous coaching stops around the country, in part because those high school hallways around the Midwest that Dantonio walked in January – as he was making his decision to retire – were closed.
The pandemic, both intentionally and unintentionally, forced the Spartans to expand their reach.
“A drastic change from Mark Dantonio,” analyst Gerry Dinardo said on BTN. “Mark Dantonio was the ultimate regional recruiter. And he would say, ‘If I don’t see someone on campus three or four times on campus during camp or if they don’t come to three of four games during the season, I really don’t want to recruit them.’ ”
Tucker also showed he is not afraid to put talent over loyalty. That means no current roster spot or job is guaranteed — if he can find someone better, even from another college program.
He has altered MSU’s recruiting approach and divided it into two branches: the traditional high school department and a new college scouting department. Tucker believes using the NFL model, where there are college scouts and pro scouts, can maximize the evaluation of college talent looking for new homes and how they might fit — from their size to agility to their mental acuity — with how Tucker wants his team to look and play.
“The portal is here. It is not going away,” he said. “We’re gonna embrace it. I’ve gotten players out of the portal, and I’ve seen guys go into the portal. That’s part of that’s part of college football now.”
Which also is a message to the three committed players who did not sign but appear to remain committed to MSU.
Benny, a four-star defensive tackle from Oak Park who had been the Spartans’ No. 1-rated recruit before grabbing Gaoteote, told the Free Press on Saturday he remains true to his MSU commitment and plans to sign in February during the traditional signing period. Estime, who emerged as a four-star prospect after committing to MSU and producing a monster senior season, told NJ.com he also likely would wait to sign until then but also is looking at other programs. VanDeMark, who lost a star from his four-star grade when he committed, remains a question mark if he will sign this week.
In past years, when a high school prospect would flip their commitment at the last minute, it typically would hamper a program like MSU for a year. Those decisions in late January or early February would come when comparable players were off the board.
Now, the early signing period and the portal allows teams to move on if a player doesn’t sign in December. Or coaches can wait for players they feel are special and the right fit for their program, knowing they could lose them come February.
“If you’re not talking to them,” Tucker said, “someone else is.”
Some prep stars may wait and find what feels like a better fit, particularly with Estime examining Notre Dame. But they do it knowing a program they had long-term mutual interest in can move on if the player is flirting with other schools.
There will be more attrition. Adding Russo along with incoming quarterback Hamp Fay — one of four January enrollees, along with offensive lineman Ethan Boyd and safeties A.J. Kirk and Michael Gravely Jr. — likely means one or more of the QBs currently on the roster will enter the transfer portal. How many leave remains to be seen.
Tucker would not specify how many players he expects the Spartans to add for 2021, either. He does not want to tip his hand.
“We have a very good idea, but it’s not to our advantage to talk about the numbers of guys we’re gonna sign,” he said. “That can actually be a competitive disadvantage in some situations. But we know exactly where we want to go and how we want to get there.”
Tucker talked Tuesday about Saturday’s game at Maryland being a “rubber meets the road” moment for his program. The same can be said for the Spartans trying to make their case to stay. And those who might be thinking of bypassing a chance to join his program.
It is his way or the highway right now. His only mission is to build MSU back into a consistent winner. Whatever path he needs to take to get there.