EAST LANSING - One of the biggest reasons Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio really liked the 22 student-athletes the Spartan program picked up on Wednesday, as he announced MSU's 2011 recruiting class, is because most of the players who sent in their National Letters of Intent were performers in positions that filled losses to graduation - positions of need.
And while MSU will enter the 2011-12 season with enough talent and firepower to earn a fifth straight bowl bid since Dantonio took over the reigns in 2006, there's something to be said for filling the spots on offense lost to the graduation of offensive tackles D.J. Young and J'Michael Deane, center John Stipek, wide receiver Mark Dell, tight end Charlie Gantt.
"(We've) got an opportunity to develop some outstanding football players,'' Dantonio said. "We addressed some concerns, some basic needs. Sometimes it's about need and sometimes it's about depth. This is another very, very strong class and quite frankly, it may be the strongest class we've signed.''
Junior college offensive tackle Fou Fonoti of Cerritos College, where he became a JC All-American, and Donavon Clark of Cincinnati may be the top gets on offense, filling the voids left by Young and Deane, while Hinsdale, Ill. native Jack Allen, a 6-foot-2 262 pound center fills Stipek's loss.
At 6-6, 295 pounds Fonoti may be the leading candidate to take over Young's role as a blindside tackle, whereas Clark, a 6-4, 305 pound anchor at the other tackle spot, is expected to compete for playing time as a true freshman. Allen gives MSU a true center and not a converted guard or tackle who has to learn the nuances of that position.
"(Fonoti) He should be an immediate contributor. He plays with great feet and great aggressiveness, and is an outstanding technician,'' Dantonio said. (Clark) is a very exciting and powerful player who should provide depth to the offensive line next season. He runs well and is an extremely talented young man who has both the size and speed to be a difference maker. (Allen) has a great motor and is an extremely explosive player with great lateral movement and power. When you're able to recruit a guy who's been a center, such as Jack, they have a tremendous upside.''
Gantt's spot will eventually be filled by Pennsylvania native Paul Lang, a 6-5, 235-pound from Pittsburgh. MSU will enter this season with one truly game-experienced tight end in senior Brian Linthicum, while hoping for the quick development redshirt sophomore Derek Hoebing. The Spartans should also see the return of senior Garrett Celek, who missed a good portion of last season after going down with a shoulder injury in MSU's game against Florida Atlantic.
"Paul has great hands, is very fluid, a very good blocker and is extremely tough,'' Dantonio said.
You could even surmise that quarterback Connor Cook a 6-3, 187-pound native of Hinckley, Ohio, fills the void left by departed quarterback Joe Boisture.
"(Cook) has excellent running ability, along with a great arm and accuracy. Connor makes great decisions down field and will be a quarterback of the future. He's an outstanding young man and shows excellent leadership ability, which will serve him well as a quarterback at MSU."
While Fonoti, whom MSU was able to add, in part, because of his connection to former Spartans and brothers Domata and Siitupe Peko - Siitupe was also a JC transfer from California, who played for MSU from 1999-2000 - is the only addition expected to come in pay immediate dividends, MSU other offensive additions, which include versatile offensive talent and Lansing Sexton grad Onaje Miller, wide receivers Andre Sims Jr. (Snellville, Ga.) and Juwan Caesar (Miami, Fla.), walk on offensive guard Kyle Lints (6-3, 275) from Traverse City St. Francis, give the program depth in areas of need such as the wide receiver spot vacated by Dell. Not to mention that wideouts B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Johnson and Keith Nichol will play their final seasons in 2011.
"Onaje Miller is a very exciting kick returner, punt returner, running back and defensive back. He plays at every position and makes plays all over the field. We saw him play over the past two seasons and he boasts track-like speed. He possesses outstanding ball skills, COD (change of direction) and tackling ability," Dantonio said "(Caesar) runs very well and his size and speed remind me a lot of Michael Jenkins. Juwan is very exciting to watch and has the ability to go up and make the difficult catch. Andre Sims Jr. makes plays all over the field. He is very explosive and has the ability to make people miss in space. Andre comes from a state champion in Georgia and has great pass catching ability in the crowd. We saw him play in 2010. He has great instincts as a runner and is very explosive with quick bursts as kick returner as a punt returner, kick returner and wide receiver.''
Miller, a 5-10, 180-pound running back may have to find his niche early on as a punt and kick returner because MSU has such a glut at the running back position with juniors Edwin Baker and Larry Caper, sophomore Le'veon Bell and second-year runner Nick Hill.
While Caesar is probably a season away from getting a chance at significant playing time, defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett, who assisted newly-minted offensive line coach Mark Staten in luring the 6-4, 205-pound pass catcher north of the Mason-Dixon line, believes the Miami Coral Park Senior High School product has a load of upside.
"When I laid eyes on him, I said, 'man, you're my No. 1 pick,' said Barnett, who worked the Lakeland-Tampa, Fla. route. "I had heard all of the coaches talk about him and I called coach Dantonio right away and said, 'you're going to like the way this guy looks. We need to offer this guy. I think he can be a big timer. I really do.''
Barnett agrees that Clark could push for time on the offensive line early in his career at MSU but he also thinks Clark will bring a little something extra before he departs MSU.
"He's a tough physical come-off-the-ball offensive lineman, which is what you need. The guy's going to come off the ball, smack you in the mouth and then line up and come do it again. Also, he's not only one of the leaders on his football team but he's a leader in school. By the time, he's ready to leave out of here as a senior, I wouldn't be shocked (to see him as a captain).''
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