June 17, 2009

Dot Comp: Measuring the Gholston Magnitude

EAST LANSING - The morning after Will Gholston's stop-the-presses commitment to Michigan State, we're left measuring the magnitude of this recruiting earthquake.

What does Gholston's commitment mean? What is the impact on MSU's future roster? What is the historical significance?

Here are the answers:

In short, I see Gholston as one of the top handful of recruits that Michigan State has attracted in the last 15 years, or more.

Secondly, he was a recruit that Michigan State absolutely had to land.

Thirdly, he doesn't simply play a position of need. He plays a position every program needs. He plays a difference-making position.

Roll it all together and, yes, the commitment of Detroit Southeastern LB/DE Will Gholston to Michigan State is reason for MSU fans to walk a little taller at the water cooler today. Call the casual MSU fans that you know and tell them that the weather on the Spartan football bandwagon just got a little sunnier, and climb aboard.

But first, let's realize the guy just finished his junior year in high school. He alone will not take MSU to the Rose Bowl. Be patient with him. He will need time for proper seasoning.

My point is that he is the latest ingredient to a potential championship mix for the future. He's a big, strong, pass-rushing ingredient. That's a difficult ingredient to find.

Back to point No. 1: Gholston is one of the top recruits in recent MSU memory.

Michigan State has had only a handful of recruits with the talent and promise of Gholston over the last 15 years. I'm thinking T.J. Duckett in 1999, Charles Rogers in 2000, and Amp Campbell in 1994.

You could argue a couple of other names - like Plaxico Burress and Sedrick Irvin - but Duckett, Rogers and Campbell strike me as the most noteworthy incoming recruits of the 85-scholarship era.

Duckett and Rogers were national Top 10 prospects. Gholston won't quite be in that category, although some would argue that he deserves to be. Campbell was just outside of the Top 20.

The main difference with Gholston is that he is joining a stable situation, a solid Michigan State program that seems to be doing everything right, seems to be on the rise as a perennial New Years Day factor and Rose Bowl contender.

Rogers signed a few weeks after Nick Saban left town, a few weeks after MSU made the emotional decision to hire a head coach (Bobby Williams) who had never so much as been a coordinator. In 2002, Rogers won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top WR, set an NCAA record for TDs in consecutive games and became a first-round draft pick. But he never played for a real good team.

Duckett signed as a dominating linebacker and played a little bit of defense in September of his true freshman season, but Saban figured Duckett could have more impact as a ball carrier, and moved him to tailback. Williams kept him at tailback in '00 and '01. Duckett churned out great numbers, and went pro a year early.

Campbell signed a few weeks before MSU president Peter McPherson declared that head coach George Perles was expected to have an "outstanding" season in 1994 - or else termination would be considered. Perles made the long-term decision to redshirt Campbell, but Perles was fired in the short term. Campbell decided to stay in town when Saban was hired. He gained a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his neck in 1998, and eventually served as a cornerstone cornerback for the '99 defensive backfield, overseen by Mr. Dantonio.

Rogers, Duckett and Campbell all faced challenges of volatile times at Michigan State. Gholston has committed to a new Michigan State that is far more stable.

Campbell had to wait years for the big wins to come. Duckett had them early, but the good times faded quickly.

MSU had trouble putting good players around Campbell, Duckett and Rogers on a yearly basis, and had trouble with assistant coach continuity, much less head coach stability.

Things can change for better or worse in a hurry in college football. For now, however, it looks like Gholston will benefit from being a part of a quality roster and a constructive environment.

The mere fact that the Spartans gained a commitment from Gholston is emblematic of a new MSU. The Spartans had Gholston at MSU's football camp last summer, prior to his junior year. The Spartans were already strong in the hallways of Detroit Southeastern after signing two players from that school in February of 2008.

Gholston was an honored guest at several MSU games in the fall of 2008.

The Spartans continued to recruit Gholston well during the winter and spring while national powers like Alabama, Florida and USC mobilized to try to steer him out of the Great Lakes State.

But Dantonio was there, for the '08 camp, for the '08 unofficial visits, for the winter junior days, for the spring visits.

Five years earlier, when Gholston's cousin, Vernon Gholston, showed up at the MSU camp and stood out, he did so without the audience of then-head coach John L. Smith. Smith was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro when the older Gholston camped at MSU. Weeks after Smith returned, MSU still hadn't offered Gholston a scholarship, partly because the head coach had yet to see the Detroiter in person. Gholston's high school coaches claimed he was an MSU fan, but he committed to Ohio State, and become Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 for the Buckeyes.

Those type of oversights are not happening anymore at Michigan State. The Spartans are showing up. They're measuring up.

CHANGING ANGLES

If this Gholston commitment had happened last summer, or the summer before, I would have written about the importance of beating Michigan for an in-state recruit, or an any-state state recruit. It happened only eight times in the 10 years prior to Dantonio's arrival. But it's happened six times in the last 21 months alone. It's still a bullet point. But it's not the lead angle that it used to be.

The point now is that MSU's blue chip recruits are joining a healthy roster. They aren't being asked to carry it.

Point No. 2: Gholston is a recruit MSU absolutely had to have.

The same could have been said about Duckett and Rogers, but for different reasons. MSU needed Duckett because of his family ties to the university. MSU had taken a step backward in 1998, failing to earn a bowl bid during Duckett's senior year in high school. Some believed Saban's program was losing momentum. Losing Duckett as a post script to the troubling '98 season might have created panic, or worse, apathy. MSU needed Duckett, out of near-desperation.

As for Rogers, the Spartans had been seen as the leader throughout the process. After Saban left, MSU's program needed signs that its football fortunes were still on the upswing. Rogers represented those hopes.

Was too much placed on these individuals? Absolutely. But that was symptomatic of the times. So much was placed on them precisely because the program was not in good health.

I contend that Gholston is a must-sign recruit, similar to Rogers and Duckett, but for different reasons. Gholston was a guy MSU had to have in order to maintain the Spartans' rising strength as an in-state recruiting force, and to maintain its progress toward building the type of defense Dantonio was known for at Ohio State.

He is a must-sign recruit because of the opportunity he represents for MSU.

MSU has been seen as the leader for Gholston for more than a year. He wore MSU apparel to MSU football games last fall, and to MSU basketball games in the winter, and even on prom night. If MSU didn't get him, it would have been a tough blow to the MSU football movement. It would have been an opportunity lost.

Michigan State has a good roster and seemingly a good future. There are good natural football resources fueling the MSU football train, led by the talent within the five-hour recruiting radius. However, top-flight edge rushers come out of Michigan high schools only about once every election year or so. The state of Michigan has good, underrated talent, but we all know it's not Ohio, Florida or Texas.

LaMarr Woodley, Brandon Graham, and now, presumably, Will Gholston. They are rare commodities as pass rushing prospects from the state of Michigan. And when MSU has the inside track for one of them, the Spartans can't trip over themselves like they did when they lost the lead for Woodley in 2002. MSU must capitalize. And this time, they did.

The fact that MSU finished this chase for Gholston is just the latest example of good, crisp contact hitting on behalf of Mark Dantonio and his staff. They just keep putting the ball in play. They show up, they work, they sell, they win, they sign. They aren't trying to reinvent the sport. They're merely making the most of Michigan State's football resources, something Spartan fans haven't seen done with such grounded efficiency in decades.

It's almost a shame that we are spending so much time talking about Gholston when the fact is that MSU beat Michigan (and Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri) for fellow Detroiter Mylan Hicks the day before the Spartans landed Gholston.

Beating Michigan for two Detroiters during the same week? You'd probably have to go back to the 1960s to find the last time that happened.

If you want the truth, Michigan didn't finish second for either player. Today, it seems less about beating Michigan. Today, it's more about adding elements to the roster similar to those that made the difference for Georgia, Penn State and Ohio State in their victories over the Spartans last year.

The biggest difference between Michigan State and the teams that toppled the Spartans in 2008 centered around the pass rush. Penn State, Ohio State and Georgia were able to pressure Michigan State's pocket. Meanwhile, Michigan State was unable to penetrate theirs.

This takes us to Point No. 3: It seems to me that spicing up a defense with a freaky edge rusher is one of the final stages of building a championship-caliber team.

Michigan State has had quality quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and defensive players from time to time in recent years. But things didn't come together for Saban, for example, until he shored up left offensive tackle with Tupe Peke as a juco transfer in 1999, and turned Julian Peterson loose as a designated pass rushing LB/DE that same season. Peko protected MSU's quarterback and Peterson terrorized the opponent's. A team that failed to earn a bowl bid in '98 became Top 10 in '99, even after Irvin went pro early.

The pure pass rusher might be the rarest commodity in college football, and therefore the most precious. There is no guarantee that Gholston will be a top pass rusher at Michigan State. He's a high school linebacker right now. At 6-foot-7 and natural weight gain on the way, he will probably be a defensive end in college. He seems aware of this. That's why he spent a lot of time at last week's Michigan State Elite camp working on techniques out of a three-point stance.

Gholston has a lot of coaching and development ahead of him. Heck, he has an entire senior season of high school ball ahead of him. So I don't want to make it sound like I'm ready to put him in the Hall of Fame just yet. I'm just saying that this is the type of recruiting victory that gives a program a chance to put a special team on the field in the near future.

Gaining a commitment from him is emblematic of the way Top 10 programs recruit. When there is a difference-making prospect in the back yard of a Top 10 program, that program lands him. It doesn't mean he's going to be great. But the more players you get like this one - and like last year's top Detroiter, linebacker Chris Norman - the better chance you have of attaining your autumn goals.

Simply put, there are quality QBs, WRs and RBs all up and down the Top 25. But you'll find great pass rushers only sporadically throughout the Top 20, with most of them making a difference for Top 10 teams.

Of course, part of having a great pass rush is putting opponents in third-and-long. And part of having a great pass rusher is making sure that your defensive tackles and outside linebackers are enough of a threat that they necessitate blocking attention as well. In other words, MSU will need to surround Gholston with good players in order for Gholston to get a chance to really shine.

And the moral of my story today is that the Spartans are well on their way to doing so.






 

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