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Couch: 3 quick takes on MSU football recruiting, Jonathan Smith’s first season and the hiring of Saddi Washington

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1. MSU football fans may never again feel alive about recruiting the way they did just two years ago

In Michigan State football years, two years seems like just about forever.

Two years ago this week, I led my column with this assessment of MSU’s program and coaching staff:

“It’s way too early to call Mel Tucker a $95-million bargain. But this is the sort of recruiting that might one day get him there.”

And a few graphs later …

“Tucker and his staff have created recruiting momentum in a short burst beyond anything this program has ever experienced. That’s not hyperbole.”

Not hyperbole, perhaps. Just didn’t age well. It didn’t last. He wasn’t worth it.

The Tucker era crashed and burned last September. But the height of it spanned from Miami in September 2021 through about this week in 2022. And while nine four-star high school prospects did ultimately sign with MSU the following December — and five of them remain with the program (offensive lineman Cole Dellinger and Stanton Ramil, linebacker Jordan Hall, tight end Brennan Parachek and defensive lineman Jalen Thompson) — it’s hard to imagine MSU fans ever again being as fired up about football recruiting as they were two years ago in June, as one high-profile prospect after another posed at Spartan Stadium with fancy cars and flashy gear.

The fading buzz over the months and year that followed, coupled with a changing college sports world, killed June for MSU football fans — and many college football fans. The sport changed on Tucker, too. His glitzy style of recruiting might have worked when the Lamborghinis were for show and didn’t have to actually be a gift upon enrollment. Nowadays, swagger is less important than cold, hard NIL collective cash, which MSU wasn’t quite ready with when that first became the currency of college football.

I still don’t know that the Tucker era couldn’t have worked at MSU, had it begun say in 2017 — and had he made at least one decision differently.

But if you’re going to spend on a coach and staff these days, it better be a coaching staff that maximizes roster talent and creates a culture that sustains in a more transactional landscape. In recruiting, it’s as much about managing a roster — and having the resources to pay for it — as it is trying to lure prospects to campus. That’s Jonathan Smith and Co.’s challenge ahead.

They’ve got pledges from seven three-star recruits for 2025 — including two added in the past week. Some of them might turn into important players in the years to come. But given the fluidity of rosters, the temptation of the transfer portal, the flightiness of committed recruits and the scars of fallen hope from two Junes ago, I’m not sure much in the recruiting space could stir MSU’s fan base these days. Not in June, at least.

2. History points to a satisfying Year 1 for MSU under Jonathan Smith

If you’re looking for optimism for this football season — in Year 1 under Smith, coming off a dismal 4-8 season — just look at most of modern MSU football history.

When Mark Dantonio replaced John L. Smith, following a 4-8 season in 2006, Dantonio’s first team won seven games and reached a bowl game. When John L. Smith replaced Bobby Williams’ staff after a 4-8 season in 2002, his first team won eight games. When Nick Saban replaced George Perles after a program decline and a 5-6 season in 1994, Saban’s first team went 6-4-1 in the regular season and offered the sort of thrills and moments of hope that I think most fans are hoping for this fall.

No one of proper mind expects this MSU football team to contend. Folks are hoping for competence and competitiveness and a few flashes that make the world take notice.

At a place like MSU, where the previous staff is rarely allowed to sink to the depths of a complete rebuild, the energy and focus that comes with a new staff has often been enough to elevate the roster to a level that, for Year 1, is largely satisfying.

3. Saddi Washington hire should bring Izzo fresh perspective and a seasoned recruiter

It would have been shame if somehow the eight seasons spent at Michigan prevented Saddi Washington from being hired on Tom Izzo’s staff at MSU. A shame for Washington, who has deep Lansing and in-state roots and whose family is comfortable here. And a shame for Izzo and MSU, who probably couldn’t have done better than someone with Washington’s experience and pedigree.

First, if you’re hung up on the rivalry thing, understand that Washington is the son of an MSU all-time great, the late Stan Washington. He’s a Lansing Sexton grad, who then became Western Michigan’s all-time leading scorer and cut his teeth in coaching for a decade with Greg Kampe at Oakland before joining Jon Beilein’s staff at Michigan. His roots are too varied to be described as a Michigan Man.

That he’s worked under three different and distinct coaches in Kampe, Beilein and Juwan Howard should give Washington a seasoned perspective that a younger hire wouldn’t have. And that his experience with Izzo’s program is coaching and recruiting against it, should also provide valuable insight. He was prominent in building Oakland’s program and, at Michigan, recruited the likes of Isaiah Livers, Hunter Dickinson and Kobe Bufkin.

My understanding is that Washington will work with MSU’s big men, along with Austin Thornton, who’s been elevated to assistant coach. That group of players could use a fresh dynamic in their development.

The timing of Howard’s exit at Michigan, making Washington available, worked out ideally for MSU.

Contact Graham Couch at gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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