Michigan State’s Cotton Bowl win last month was the program’s first game in Texas in five years. The program has plans to strengthen its ties to the Lone Star State moving forward.
The Spartans' recent success, especially during bowl season, has helped open recruiting doors outside the Midwest. Three high school seniors from Texas are expected to sign letters of intent Wednesday to play for Michigan State. Another, four-star quarterback Brian Lewerke, is coming from Arizona. Prior to this year’s cycle the only Texan to sign during coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure at Michigan State was quarterback Nick Foles, who headed south to Arizona after his freshman season.
Texas is one the nation’s three most reliable exporters of football talent along with Florida and California. Michigan State has taken a more regional approach under Dantonio, filling its roster with overlooked overachievers en route to 42 wins in the past four years. The program is hoping to capitalize on its recent success on the field by expanding that footprint.
"I think we’ve finally reached that point where people have seen the product several years in a row," said assistant coach Terry Samuel, a Houston native. "You win four bowl games in a row, and the high school coaches start to get really receptive to what you’re doing."
Samuel said he’s been planting seeds in Texas since he joined the Spartans staff four years ago. The Rose Bowl win a year ago was a turning point for gaining some traction among high school players in the state.
Before that 13-1 season, Samuel said, Texas prospects were interested but would hold out for offers from in-state powers like the Longhorns and Texas A&M. By the time some of those players were ready to commit to Michigan State, their spots had been filled.
"Now they’re just jumping in. That’s the difference," Samuel said. "That’s the difference the exposure makes. Kids are seeing it’s a top 10 program instead of a top 20."
All four of the Texas and Southwest recruits expected to sign this year committed to the Spartans before the end of the 2014 regular season. Three of the four -- Lewerke, Josh Butler and Tyler Higby -- were on board before summer training camp began.
"They’ve definitely built their brand over the past few years," said Jeff Neill, who coached Butler at West Mesquite High School.
Neill has worked at West Mesquite for the past 10 years. His program produces three or four Div. I prospects each year, and this is the first time he’s seen Michigan State make a run at any of them. Neill said the Spartans no longer need to introduce themselves to most Texas football fans. Their growing reputation, along with their defensive philosophy (Butler is a cornerback) and their approach in recruiting attracted Butler.
Dana Zupke, who coached Lewerke at Pinnacle High in Phoenix, said Michigan State’s staff also made a good first impression in his area this season.
"They’ve been incredible, just awesome guys that are really successful and down to earth," he said. "Brian is a very high character guy and that definitely resonated. Their staff and the vibe he got at Michigan State really resonated with Brian."
Samuel said seeking players with the personality and character that fit Michigan State is still a top priority. The Spartans are still looking for the same fish, just trying to search in a larger pond.
The wider net is still in experimental stage. Samuel said the 2015 season will be the first time the staff gets to see how recruits from an expanded recruiting area fit in on the field. If all goes well, he said Michigan State plans to increase its presence on the recruiting trail outside of the Midwest. The addition of new defensive assistant Mark Snyder, who spent the past three years at Texas A&M, should help open more doors in Texas.
With the influx of new aggressive coaches in the Big Ten -- from Urban Meyer to James Franklin to Jim Harbaugh -- competition for the best players in Michigan and Ohio will continue to increase. Michigan State has always carved its niche by finding a different type of athlete to fill its roster, but if the Spartans want to continue competing for conference titles and top-10 finishes, they will need to continue to upgrade their talent. Looking beyond the Midwest can be an important part of that process.