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How Jonathan Smith envisions rebuilding Michigan State football amid complex NCAA changes

A four-day recruiting dead period allowed Jonathan Smith to “take a couple days and a deep breath.”

On Thursday, it was right back to work for the new Michigan State football coach and his staff. A new batch of high school prospects awaited at Wayne State, a chance to evaluate talent at the National Collegiate Showcase as part of the rotating summer circuit through Sound Mind Sound Body Academy, and continue to spread the gospel of his vision for his new program.

This week kicked off the next phase of the transition Smith is undertaking in replacing fired and disgraced former coach Mel Tucker. MSU's season opener is three months away, Aug. 31 against Florida Atlantic. The 2024 roster is close to being set, and a number of returning Spartans reported back to East Lansing on Tuesday to begin summer conditioning.

“Huge month of June with our guys getting in shape, back into the weight room, reinstalling some schematics," Smith said. "Got some new players coming in. We're excited about all that. And then you throw in the recruiting side, and it’s a busy, busy month.”

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Michigan State head coach Jonathan Smith looks on during the Spring Showcase on Saturday, April 20, 2024, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State head coach Jonathan Smith looks on during the Spring Showcase on Saturday, April 20, 2024, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

It already has been a busy offseason for Smith and the rest of the college football world, even more so as their sport shifts in the face of the NCAA’s multibillion dollar agreement to begin paying its athletes. The former Oregon State coach said the still murky details that are being ironed out don’t make much of an impact right now but will have an impact on how Smith builds the Spartans in the future.

“(I’m) into the into the idea of more opportunity for players,” he said. “I think this creates, in some way, a path forward. There's still a lot to figure out after that's final.”

The game-changer of allowing players to capitalize on their names, images and likenesses — along with the NIL collectives who have contorted that opportunity into a de facto pay-to-play salary structure — was among the many topics coaches broached during their speeches to prep players Thursday inside Wayne State Fieldhouse as they spent their morning moving between physical testing and drill work. While these camps historically have been about players showing off their skills to land college scholarships, they now are about coaches trying to build a foundation with high-end prospects whose decision-making process involves maximizing earning potential as much as, if not more so, than picking a major in a field beyond football.

“Yeah, there's definitely a difference,” Smith said about the summer camp circuit. “It still starts with the evaluation process and beyond. I think that's a piece of the pie. What we're looking for is guys that it is a piece of the pie as they’re considering their options. But then there's the education, the scheme, the staff, the fit, the area. All those are pieces of the pie.”

Michigan State coach Jonathan Smith talks the media on the first national signing day for college football recruits Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State coach Jonathan Smith talks the media on the first national signing day for college football recruits Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

That part of the fluid and fast-changing recruiting environment is where coaches continue to find some continuity, Smith said. Though he was not permitted by NCAA rules to recruit in April, his assistants “did a heavy amount of it” by visiting schools and watching tape on players to get their eyes prepared to focus on players at events like Thursday’s.

“Anything starts with evaluation and seeing them move around,” Smith said. “Some of these guys, we already have evaluated and want to add to that. And then yeah, it's a process with the individual, his family, his family network, those that influence him, get him around the campus, consistent communication, selling vision and what our places is. So that's all the same.”

Smith, in his first job east of the Mississippi River, said he has “been impressed with the amount of talent within the driving distance of our place.” He also said the reception he and his coaches have received in getting to know high school coaches also has been “refreshing to hear and exciting to hear.”

“I'm excited about the opportunity this month to get around more players,” he said. “We've got camps on our campus. Hopefully, we get a lot of in-state, local talent. I think we've said it from the beginning, we want to build this roster inside-out.”

Smith covered a number of other topics before zipping out to the fields to watch and evaluate prospects.

MSU roster update

Smith said the Spartans should be “full-go” by the end of June with transfers and incoming freshmen for the fall arriving in a bit of a trickle over the coming weeks. He said there could potentially be another addition from the portal — “Maybe one, maybe not” — and said the 85-man scholarship docket is “pretty close to final” after so much inbound and outbound transfer movement since his team’s final spring practice April 20.

“Clarity,” he said. “It helps to move forward. That's why I'm excited about this month, diving back into the weight room, reinstalling and getting around our guys with clarity of this is what the roster looks like.”

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On Jaden Mangham transferring to Michigan

Michigan State Spartans defensive back Jaden Mangham (1) runs the ball as Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Jordan Hancock (7) makes the tackle during the second quarter at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
Michigan State Spartans defensive back Jaden Mangham (1) runs the ball as Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Jordan Hancock (7) makes the tackle during the second quarter at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

One of those transfers, former starting safety Jaden Mangham, landed at rival Michigan. The Spartans then picked up former Wolverine linebacker Semaj Bridgeman from the portal.

It’s just something coaches, fans and players need to get used to, Smith said.

“In this landscape, in this day and age across the country, guys have opportunities to transfer,” he said. “I think it will become more and more common. … I'm not trying to downplay the rivalry part. Again, going back to the settlement, finding ways to maybe have more guardrails on it. I don't know if that's gonna be a possibility on rivalries, and I'm not trying to say it's going to be very, very common. But just in this landscape nowadays, it's gonna happen.”

How MSU is working the NCAA transfer portal

The portal also has altered the landscape over the past five years and does not appear to be going away, either. The term “recruiting” is starting to morph into something else.

“Player acquisition now is kind of the lifeblood of the program,” Smith said. “You got to have, talent and fit for your style of play and your program philosophy and all that. So the talent you bring in is still the lifeblood.”

However, Smith also said his goal is to maintain high school recruiting as the Spartans’ primary source of accruing those players.

“Still would like to build the roster from the high school level and supplement it from the portal, the long-term strategy,” he said. “It’s gonna be fluid. Like I said, I'd love to be majority high school and supplement. And whether that's 80-20 or is that 55-45 (remains to be seen).”

Michigan State football night games this season

Smith’s team will play two Friday night games this season: at Oregon on Oct. 4 and at home against Purdue on Nov. 22.

“I think the stage is pretty good if you look at some of those Friday nights on Fox,” he said. “Just speaking for the league, there's some TV windows that are pretty appealing, man.”

On biggest challenge so far

“Obviously learning and building trust with the roster over six months," Smith said. "It takes time to build some trust, that's been something. Knowing the landscape is continuing to change and having to navigate when there's still some uncertainty on your roster size and how this this thing's all going to work."

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him @chrissolari.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Inside Jonathan Smith's vision to rebuild Michigan State football