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After whirlwind first 12 weeks at Michigan State, Smith building relationships ahead of spring ball

On3 imageby:Paul Konyndyk02/15/24


It has been close to 12 weeks since Jonathan Smith took over the Michigan State football program, and during that time he has burnt the candle at both ends in assembling a 2024 recruiting class, building a coaching staff, and getting to know his own roster.

During a recent appearance on the This is Sparta Podcast, Smith connected with former Michigan State players Jason Strayhorn and Jehuu Caulcrick, reflecting on his first 80 days as head coach of the Spartans.

“Everything was moving fast in December,” said Smith, “you’ve got the transfer portal open, your current roster you have to introduce yourself to. You are trying to sign a class in the middle of December. And I wasn’t going to allow that timeline to dictate the hiring of the 10 position coaches.”

Smith likes 2024 Michigan State recruiting class

Though hastily assembled, Smith is bullish on his first Michigan State recruiting class.

“With Signing Day, I felt really good about the high school talent that we were able to add,” Smith said. “Some of those guys we had deep-rooted relationships with already. Some were committed to the place already, and then we were able to find a nugget or two that were new, Michigan State-wise.”

Smith also likes the players that Michigan State added through the transfer portal. The Spartans were purposeful in their targeting of portal recruits. Several transfers – Aidan Chiles, Jack Velling, and Tanner Miller – played for Smith at Oregon State. Some transfers are coming back to their home state as is the case with Tommy Schuster, Luke Newman, and Jordan Turner.

“The transfer portal closes the first week of January and we were able to add some guys at positions of need,” Smith said. “I felt really good through those first 30 days in December. The staff where we got it at, diving into the current roster.”  

Michigan State addressed several positions of need in its 2024 recruiting class, none more critical than quarterback. When Smith took the job, the Spartans did not have a scholarship quarterback. Now, Michigan State has four scholarship QB’s in Chiles, Schuster, Ryland Jessee, and Allesio Milivojevic.

Chiles was one of the most sought-after QB’s in the transfer portal. Smith’s relationship with Chiles from their time together at Oregon State was instrumental in bringing him to East Lansing.

“He’s talented and football means a lot to him,” Smith said, “but he is really a good person. He did well in school and was well liked on that team. Feel fortunate that he felt it was best to come here and we are excited to be working with him again.”

Smith took his time and got his staff right

Smith has full confidence in his coaching staff, both the assistants he brought with him from Oregon State, as well as those that he is working with for the first time like defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, whose Big Ten background and Top 10 defenses at Minnesota have Smith excited about the future for the Spartan program.

“We put a lot of thought into it,” Smith said of his coaching staff. “Started with some core guys that I’ve been with for a while and knew that I wanted them to come over here. They know the expectations, speak the language, know the schematics. At the same time, I felt it was important to also fill the staff with some guys that had ties to the area, and had been in the conference before. Joe Rossi and Chad Wilt, both have coordinated in this league.

“It is also important to have guys who have been at the place, played at the place. I feel awesome that coaching (Courtney) Hawkins was willing to be a part and stay on. And then Demetrius Martin who played here back in the day.”

Building relationships at Michigan State

As Michigan State moves toward spring football, Smith and his staff are leaning into relationship-building with their current roster.

“Heavy recruiting during the first 60 days, but really looking forward to the day-to-day now,” Smith said. “They’ve been lifting and working, and I’ve been getting to know those guys, and moving toward spring ball.”

Run-pass balance on offense is a goal for Smith and his staff.

“We are looking for some balance offensively, and we want to make the thing physical, but it is ultimately about scoring points,” Smith said. “You’ve got to have multiple ways of doing that. Run to set up the pass. Pass to set up the run. With quarterback, you want to put that guy into good situations where he is comfortable. Building this thing with the quarterback’s skillset is something that we always try and do.”

Prioritizing in-state recruiting

Despite his West Coast background, Smith and his staff have made rebuilding Michigan State’s Midwestern recruiting infrastructure a critical early priority.

“The first day we could get out recruiting on the road, I was in Detroit,” Smith said. “Starting right there with high school coaches and meeting a lot of players. You have a lot of players in that area.”

Equal opportunity for walk-ons at Michigan State

Smith spent time reflecting on his formative influences as a player and then a coach. He also touched upon his coaching philosophy. As a college football coach, Smith believes he is ideally situated to help young people acquire the skills for success both on the football field and in life beyond sport.

“When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a high school coach,” Smith said. “After experiencing college football, I knew I wanted to stay at that level, and that age group that comes with college coaching. I’ve enjoyed every stop I’ve made, learned a lot, and there are a lot of great people in this thing. I like the idea of working with 18-22 year olds, and helping them will all kinds of things beyond just football.”

Smith’s football journey at the college level began with him walking on at Oregon State. He left as the program’s all-time leading passer. His success at the college level as a former walk-on has resonated with the preferred walk-ons that signed with Michigan State during the 2024 recruiting cycle.

“When I was pseudo recruited, Mike Riley promised me that everyone would be treated the same, and that the only difference was that you’d be paying for it,” Smith recalled. “He lived up to that with the opportunity, and how I fit in and the experience that I had as a player. I am trying to recreate that experience whether they are joining us this summer or on the roster currently. Equal opportunity. There are a lot of good players in the state, but there are only a certain number of scholarships we were able to hand out. But I feel serious value with every player we were able to add to the roster.”

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