Amid turmoil, Michigan State’s Jonathan Smith retained key portal players

By Matt Wenzel
EAST LANSING – It was a simple question that produced a prompt response.
After Jonathan Smith was hired as Michigan State football’s new coach, which players on the roster he inherited helped bridge the gap to a different staff?
Defensive tackles Derrick Harmon and Simeon Barrow and offensive lineman Geno VanDeMark – all starters last season – were the names Smith rattled off without hesitation when asked on Thursday.
For a staff in transition, getting veterans to buy in to the change was critical. It’s also notable all three players Smith listed spent time in the transfer portal the last few months but are sticking with the Spartans.
After six seasons leading Oregon State, Smith took over at Michigan State on Nov. 25 and was formally introduced three days later. By that time, a half-dozen players on the team he inherited already entered the portal or publicly indicated their intention to do so. Amid so much uncertainty, 24 Spartans on the roster he took over went in the portal but nine pulled out to stay with the program – including Harmon, Barrow and VanDeMark.
“We did try to re-recruit them, just selling a vision, how we want to do things,” Smith said Thursday of retaining players. “A lot of those guys chose to stay here, I do think, because they love Michigan State and the tradition and what this place means. … A lot of those relationships with the current locker room was a huge factor for them to come back.”
There have been massive changes to college football in recent years with the advent of the portal and players being able to profit from their name, image and likeness. That was already part of the backdrop when former Michigan State coach Mel Tucker was suspended and then fired for cause in September, creating a chaotic situation for the team.
Harlon Barnett, who served as interim coach the final 10 games last year, kept the midseason attrition at a minimum. Five players entered the portal during the window opened in October due to Tucker’s firing, including Barrow, who pulled out his name two days later and didn’t miss a game. Harmon and VanDeMark fielded interest from top programs but will stick around in East Lansing – at least for now. The others who pulled out of the portal are offensive linemen Brandon Baldwin, Ethan Boyd and Kristian Phillips, linebacker Darius Snow, wide receiver Jaron Glover and defensive end Khris Bogle.
“It was awesome with some of the guys that did explore some options in the portal and chose to come on back,” Smith said. “We’ve got some leadership, some experience that came back, especially at the line of scrimmage – defensive line and O line – so you’re getting a feel. We’ll definitely have a greater feel getting through spring ball exactly what we’re working with. I’m excited about that.”
Michigan State lost key players to transfer but that’s almost always going to happen, especially with a coaching change. Smith and his staff managed to mitigate the losses with veterans returning.
“Yes, there was getting to know what we we’re going to be about,” Smith said. “I think that all was appealing to those guys.”
The Spartans on Thursday also formally announced nine scholarship transfer additions, headlined by quarterback Aidan Chiles, a former four-star recruit who played for Smith as a true freshman last season. The Spartans are two months away from the start of spring practice under a new staff but there’s critical carryover.
“We will definitely have a greater feel getting through spring ball, exactly what we’re working with. I’m excited about that,” Smith said. “We’ve got some younger players that, yeah, maybe haven’t played a ton but their time is coming. … It’s going to be all new scheme – offense, defense and special teams – but spring ball will be a great measuring stick of where we’re at.”

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