The highest-rated recruit rarely turns out to be the most important of his class at Michigan State.
Often times, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio’s most valuable player from any particular class ends up being some lightly scouted two- or three-star kid — somebody forgotten and/or discarded for one reason or another.
And more often than not, he’s of the defensive variety.
With that said, there could be a hidden gem buried somewhere within Dantonio’s 2017 recruiting class. He needs one, too.
Prior to a 3-9 tumble in 2016, the Spartans had forged an ironclad reputation by way of nationally elite total and scoring defenses. Such is no longer true, and they desperately need to reclaim their identity before things get worse.
One year ago, instead of leading the Big Ten in most major defensive categories, Michigan State was stuck in the middle of the pack. This season, the Spartans defense — coordinated by Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel (LB coach) — will have a new crop of freshmen to assist with a reset, a resurgence that could be led, or at least heavily influenced, by a trio of excellent and early-enrolled linebackers.
The No. 16-ranked outside linebacker of 2017, Antjuan Simmons, could be one of the Spartans’ next stars in the middle. The former Ann Arbor Pioneer standout — yes, from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s neck of the woods — comes with a 4-star label and notable position ranking, so he’s not exactly a “sleeper.”
But he’s perfect for Dantonio.
“It was never like a pitch. It was just a right fit,” Simmons said about MSU, per Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press. “They weren’t trying to sell anything to me like, ‘Oh, this is where you need to be,’ or anything like that. It was just, ‘This is us, this is what we do.’ And I fit in it.”
But failing to at least mention Simmons — a stout 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds — would be a mistake. Yeah, he’s not the under-the-radar two- or three-star kid (Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan wanted him), but he’s far from a superstar. He does, however, have some of those traits: 4.55-second 40-yard dash, 4.25-second shuttle and 400-pound squat (according to his Hudl profile).
Simmons should be considered the Spartans’ most important defensive recruit, regardless of position, of the 2017 class. Chris Frey, their best linebacker, is about to enter his final season. There are no Max Bulloughs — there is a Byron, though (he’s a junior) — or Ed Davises available, and Greg Jones is long gone.
Forget star power, the Spartans also lack experience at linebacker.
The early departure of a seasoned vet didn’t help their cause, either. In February, Jon Reschke — who played a reserve role, but was expected to emerge in 2017 — announced a transfer following an “insensitive and totally regrettable” comment directed toward a teammate, per MLive.com’s Kyle Austin.
Time to reload. Simmons might just be the one.
Or it could be Darien Tipps-Clemons, another equally important — in terms of position — recruit for Michigan State. Ohioans have been good to Dantonio, and Clemons has such a background: He’s Piqua High School product.
Tipps-Clemons enters East Lansing as the No. 72-ranked outside linebacker of his class. At 6-1, 214 pounds, he’s nearly identical — in terms of size — to Simmons. In terms of measured strength and speed, he’s right up there with Simmons, too: a 4.51-second 40-yard dash (no reported shuttle), 305-pound bench and 415-pound squat (per his Hudl profile).
At 6-3, 210 pounds, Noah Harvey stands to add length and lean athleticism to the Spartans linebacker corps.
Who’s Noah Harvey?
Ask South Dakota and Illinois State — they’re the ones who first noticed Harvey, offering him during his junior year at Arrowhead in Hartland, Wisc.
“They kind of opened my eyes like, ‘Wow, I actually have the capability of going somewhere for this sport,’” Noah said, per Luke Srolduski of Land of 10. “I never thought I would go to college and play football at this level. I really didn’t. I just played it because I enjoyed it.”
He could redshirt this year. It’s been discussed. Initially, he committed to Bowling Green, only flipping to Michigan State at the last minute. And by then, it wasn’t possible to get an official letter of intent. So, per Land of 10, Harvey signed a “mock” letter for ceremonial purposes.
Can you say “chip on the shoulder”? If not this year, Harvey will certainly contribute hard-nosed play in the future. It’d be wrong to assume that he doesn’t have a little extra motivation after joining a class with other full-ride guys.
Expecting all three to immediately contribute might be a stretch. But they’ve all been enrolled since July 5, giving them an equal opportunity to impress Barnett and Tressel, who’ve often seen their linebackers serve as team captains or highly respected members of the team’s recently formed 12-man leadership board, known as the Eagle Council.