ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Shilique Calhoun was a basketball player at heart until his senior season in high school. The fifth-year senior arrived at Michigan State as a three-star recruit and eventually blossomed into one of the best defensive ends in college football.
Cam Robinson came to Alabama in 2014 as the No. 1 recruit in the country and started at left tackle as a freshman. If the sophomore keeps progressing, one more season with the Crimson Tide should be enough to make him a first-round NFL draft pick.
Calhoun vs. Robinson is Michigan State vs. Alabama in a nutshell. The three-star vs. the five-star. The hidden gem vs. crown jewel.
The third-ranked Spartans (12-1) face the No. 2 Crimson Tide (12-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinals Thursday night at the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
The rise of the Spartans under Mark Dantonio has been all about exceeding expectations and player development.
In the last five years, Michigan State has never had a recruiting class ranked better than 22nd in the nation, according to the composite rankings compiled by 247 Sports. The Spartans’ average class rank in that time is 29th. By comparison, Alabama has had the No. 1 class in the country each of the last five seasons under coach Nick Saban.
"When it comes down to it stars don’t matter for anything," Michigan State senior offensive tackle Jack Conklin said Tuesday during Cotton Bowl media day at AT&T Stadium. "You can’t tell with an 18-year-old kid how he’s going to play when he’s 21 or how he’s going to develop. If he’s going to be able to take coaching."
Conklin, from Plainwell, Michigan, has gone from walk-on to a potential first-round NFL draft pick during his four seasons at Michigan State. Star quarterback Connor Cook was a three-star from Hinkley, Ohio, whose other scholarship offers were from Mid-American Conference schools.
It’s become a familiar story in East Lansing, Michigan, during Dantonio’s nine seasons leading the Spartans.
"Le’Veon Bell or Darqueze Dennard, a lot of people didn’t want them but our coaches saw something," Conklin said, referring to two NFL players.
The Spartans love being overlooked. They view themselves as a team that cannot be outworked because no team has worked harder to get here.
"I always joke with Riley (Bullough) and Jon (Reschke), we work in the weight room to get the bodies we have, we weren’t just born with them," said linebacker Darien Harris, a three-star recruit.
Three stars put a player way down the list in a typical Alabama recruiting class. The Crimson Tide has 18 five-star recruits on its roster, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, defensive end A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reuben Foster.
The only player on Michigan State’s roster who was a consensus five-star recruit is sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell.
All that talent is enviable, but it does come with some issues to be managed by Saban and his staff.
"Even though a great expectation is created for them by (recruiting rankings) . we try to emphasize development, that football is a developmental game," Saban said. "You’re going to be a better player three years from now than when you’re a freshman. You need to focus on what you can do to be the best player you can be, and that’s what we’re going to help you do."
Over the last five years, Alabama has had 37 players selected in the NFL draft, more than any other school.
While it seems that every top recruit wants to play for Alabama, Saban’s process is not for everybody.
"A lot of these kids when they’re looking at a school they want to go right where they’re going to play the most. Competition scares them away," said freshman quarterback Blake Barnett, a five-star recruit who has spent this season playing on the scout team.
Stepping onto the practice field with the Crimson Tide for the first time can be both overwhelming and humbling.
"I definitely think it takes a certain type of person. To come here and compete with these guys. It’s not guaranteed that every guy is going to start as a freshman or come in and have an impact as a freshman," Cam Robinson said. "Unless you’re willing to work for everything that you want and bust your butt day in and day out, this place is not for you."
Cam Robinson was one of those players that had the right stuff. The 6-foot-7, 324-pound tackle has been on the radar of recruiters since he was a freshman in high school back in Monroe, Louisiana.
For Calhoun, the basketball player from New Jersey who didn’t even pay attention to college football in high school, the one-on-one matchup with Robinson is another chance to show how far both he and Michigan State have come.
"I don’t feel based off of my stars or his stars I need to make him look bad," Calhoun said. "I just feel a need to go out and compete."