Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin goes from overlooked to can’t-miss

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nothing says desperation like sending a waterskiing video to Ron Zook.

Somewhere in their fruitless attempts to get a serious look from a major college coach, Darren and Jack Conklin heard Zook, then the coach at Illinois, was a big water-skier. Jack was up to 6-foot-5 and about 280 pounds by then, the summer before his senior season, yet still able to slalom — stay up on one ski — with ease.

So they shot a video and sent it along. A little fun with a personal touch, and a chance to show off the size and athleticism no one else seemed to notice.

Mike Carter | USA TODAY Sports Images
Conklin struggled to get scholarship offers.

“Maybe he’ll see this and do something,” Darren, football coach at Plainwell High School in Michigan, said to his son at the time.

Zook didn’t. Neither did Michigan, Darren’s alma mater, where he played the 1986 season as a walk-on tackle for Bo Schembechler and later took a coaching class that still benefits him — taught by Lloyd Carr, Gary Moeller, Les Miles and Cam Cameron.

Maybe Saturday’s game would look a little bit different if the Wolverines (3-4, 1-2 Big Ten) and not the No. 8 Spartans (6-1, 3-0) had Jack Conklin at left tackle. The third-year sophomore is in his second season as a starter, and he still hasn’t given up his first sack.

He’s the most talented MSU offensive lineman in many years — “I mean, he’s dominant,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said — and is likely at some point to be MSU’s first drafted offensive lineman since Chris Morris in 2006, and first picked so high since Flozell Adams went in the second round in 1998. At 6-foot-6, 303 pounds and with quick feet, he is obliterating opponents and anchoring a line that has yielded four sacks, tied for fewest in the nation.

And before Conklin decided to spend the fall of 2012 at Fork Union (Virginia) Military Academy to improve his chances of a scholarship, he had one offer. Wayne State was willing to give him $2,000 per semester toward his tuition.

“I was extremely frustrated with why I wasn’t being recruited,” Conklin said. “I had a faster 40 time than most of those other guys [5.2 in high school, 4.9 now]. I’d see these Rivals things and see these guys [on video] and say, ‘I’m as big as them and on film I’m doing the same thing.’ Luckily, Michigan State found me — I couldn’t be happier.”

Mark Dantonio’s program has reached national prominence in part because of a staff that has been able to identify and develop underrated talent. Thorpe Award-winning, first-round pick cornerback Darqueze Dennard heads the list of examples. Conklin can’t be far behind. But in his case, luck might deserve a bit more credit than usual.

“It’s good fortune!” Dantonio said this week when asked if the Spartans got lucky with Conklin.

The question, given how Conklin has excelled from the start at MSU, is how it ever got to this. The answer starts with the position itself — look at Eric Fisher, the No. 1 pick of the 2013 draft out of Central Michigan, previously an overlooked recruit out of Stoney Creek High School in Rochester, Michigan.

Teenagers grow at different rates, and it’s especially difficult to project how offensive linemen will grow into their bodies. Conklin was 6-foot-2, 235 pounds as a high school sophomore, and he was 6-foot-4, 240 during his junior season. The spurt — 2 inches and about 50 pounds — happened after that, which is late in the recruiting process.

And the Conklins didn’t really hit the camp circuit until that summer before his senior season. And the west side of the state isn’t heavily recruited. And college coaches are hesitant to embrace the footage they get from a school like Plainwell (12 miles north of Kalamazoo), considering the weekly competition. And on and on.

“I couldn’t get anybody to listen to us,” Darren Conklin said. “I couldn’t get anybody to look at him.”

Not seriously, anyway. Wisconsin, an offensive-line factory, did take notice and got involved. During Conklin’s senior season of 2011, the Badgers told him they had one offensive line spot left, and that he was No. 3. It never got to him.

Meanwhile, nearby Western Michigan somehow whiffed. This despite Conklin’s heritage — his late grandfather, Ron Jackson, is known as one of the best athletes in Kalamazoo and WMU history. He was a 6-foot-7 basketball star who chose pro baseball and played in 1954-60 with the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox.

Conklin’s aunt Teresa Knoechel played and coached volleyball at WMU. His mother, Jennifer, was a swimmer at U-M. There was plenty of evidence to suggest future athletic success for Conklin, but it took some last-minute investigating from Dantonio to get him to East Lansing.

The Conklins visited Fork Union, which produced former MSU receiver Plaxico Burress among many other prominent football players, in February of Jack’s senior season.

[Dantonio] said, ‘What’s the difference between [Conklin] and the three guys we’re bringing in?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’
— Mark Staten, offensive line coach

The Fork Union people “couldn’t believe Jack didn’t have offers,” Darren said, and a plan was devised. The Conklins would pay for Jack to play at Fork Union in the fall of 2012, and he’d surely have a full ride somewhere to start the following semester.

Meanwhile, back at MSU, the 2012 class was full on offensive linemen. Tackle Kodi Kieler and guards Zach Higgins and Benny McGowan all had committed before the 2011 season. Conklin’s film from the 2011 season was in MSU’s “walk-on file,” and it was impressive.

“I kept looking at him, watched his film numerous times,” said Dantonio, who told Staten he thought the class was one offensive tackle short.

“[Dantonio] said, ‘What’s the difference between this guy and the three guys we’re bringing in?’ ” Staten said. “I said, ‘Nothing.’ “

Dantonio’s next question: “Will he walk on?”

MSU increased contact and had Jack and Darren up during spring break. They met in Dantonio’s office, and he gave them an offer — come as a walk-on in the fall of 2012 and go on scholarship by the start of the second semester in January 2013.

“They came out all smiles, and Dad threw away his maize and blue,” Staten said, “and here we are.”

Dad’s transformation was swift. Like Staten, whose father played for Schembechler at Miami (Ohio), Darren holds the legendary coach and his ideals in the highest regard. Through Jack’s high school existence, Darren was the kind of U-M fan who knew the names of the school’s football and basketball recruiting targets.

“Now he can’t even name a player on their team anymore — it’s funny to see,” Jack said of his father.

“I’m getting used to the winged helmet as the enemy,” Darren said. “And a lot of people around me have converted — some more reluctantly than others. There’s a lot more green in Plainwell than there was a couple years ago.”

That was nothing compared with Jack’s transformation. He had a 7-foot wingspan by the time he arrived at MSU and was a force on the scout team in 2012 — defensive end Shilique Calhoun refused to believe it when told Jack wasn’t on scholarship that semester.

He had stellar freshman season in 2013, but he is at a different level now, having cut sugars, starches and about 30 pounds off his body. MSU has him for 53 1/2 knockdowns of opponents this season in seven games. By comparison, MSU’s most dominant lineman last season, Blake Treadwell, had 70 in 14 games.

“We were playing against Wyoming, and we were in pass protection and he comes back and literally puts this guy on his head,” senior left guard Travis Jackson said of the soft-spoken Conklin. “And I’m just like, ‘Whoa, nice job.’ Being next to him, you see stuff like that all the time. You see guys flying onto the ground and you’re like, ‘Where’s that coming from?’ “

And it’s more than feats of physicality. This son of a coach thinks the game.

“He gets better as the game goes on,” Staten said. “He starts picking up keys that maybe you don’t pick up on film. A little tweak, a little extra weight on the hand. He’s able to pick that stuff up.”

In the second half of MSU’s 45-31 win at Purdue on Oct. 11, Calhoun watched Conklin for a series, then came out to meet him before he got to the sideline.

“I grabbed him and said, ‘They don’t know what to do with you,’ ” Calhoun recalled. ” ‘You’re gonna be a first-round draft pick. You know that, right?’ “

That is the plan, though the Conklins won’t even entertain such thoughts until at least after Jack’s junior season of 2015. Darren is fully aware, though, that the calls he couldn’t get a few years ago from college coaches will someday be calls from agents he can’t avoid.

“This is kind of like winning the lottery, and they reveal one number each year,” Darren said. “It’s all strange and kind of surreal.”

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