Photo: James Bodanis with Toronto before his transfer. Below, Bodanis at a Michigan State practice.
Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp enjoyed an edge spotting hidden Michigan State talent simply as an alum, but that is being chipped away with Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl victories and Top 10 attention.
Popp, recruited in the George Perles era out of Mooresville, N.C., had two Spartans on his roster last year, cornerback Mitchell White and linebacker Kyler Elsworth, and this year drafted offensive lineman James Bodanis in the fourth round. They were backup players at Michigan State, but Popp had seen enough of them to know they could have started at other schools. The three Spartans' on the Als' roster is a reflection of Michigan State's improving depth.
“James didn’t get on the field a lot, but in the film of when he did, he did a good job,” Popp said. “He’s got the body for the offensive line – big thighs, big butt and he’s strong. His best days are ahead of him. He’s on a developmental track now, but he could become a starter.”
But last spring much was made of the increased number of NFL scouts that attended Michigan State’s pro day, including head coaches.
“Most of the time when head coaches show up, they are there to see first-round draft picks,” Popp said. “They had Darqueze Dennard last year and Trae Waynes this year. They also like to see juniors being projected as first-rounders, and Michigan State has Conner Cook at quarterback and Shalique Calhoun at defensive end.
“When you’re winning major bowl games, you’ve got talent and it helps your roster in recruiting. Michigan State has always had talent with its starters, but schools like Ohio State and Alabama have second- and third-team players that can take over when a starter is injured. Michigan State has built its depth. A guy like Kyler Elsworth could have started at other schools, but he was behind Max Bullough. Mitchell White was behind a lot of defensive backs that Michigan State has sent to the NFL.”
Popp already knew about Elsworth, but Elsworth attracted NFL attention when he started in place of the suspended Bullough in the Rose Bowl and made the game-saving tackle on fourth down. He signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins.
Popp wasn’t able to bring Elsworth to Montreal until after Elsworth was released. By then, the CFL was two months into its season. Montreal signed him to its practice squad.
“I’m an alum and I follow the team closely,” Popp said. “I see some of these guys and know they just need some development time because of a lack of playing time. They don’t always work out, but sometimes you get a guy or two that way. People say, ‘Where did they get that guy?’ Well, they were behind good players.”
CFL teams are already in camp this week in preparation for their openers at the end of the month. Montreal opens June 25 against Ottawa.
The Spartans signed Bodanis as a defensive lineman in the 2013 recruiting class as a transfer from the University of Toronto. At the time the Spartans returned a mix of untested promising talent, Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, Damon Knox and Joel Heath; a talented player moved back and forth between offensive and defense, Micajah Reynolds; and overachievers, Tyler Hoover and Mark Scarpinato.
When then-Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi learned about Bodanis through old coaching friend Keith Willis, the Spartans were quick to recruit him to improve their depth. Willis, who is now a Montreal assistant, had been recruiting Bodanis as North Carolina State assistant. However, NC State head coach Tom O'Brien and his staff was let go and Willis subsequently tipped off Narduzzi.
But there didn't turn out to be much playing time for Bodanis with so many returning Spartans on the depth chart turning in strong seasons. Then, in 2014, the defensive line depth chart included true freshmen Malik McDowell, Montez Sweat and Craig Evans and redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper. Bodanis was switched to the offensive line.
“When you’re a winning program and recruiting well, there are new players coming in that can jump you,” Popp said. “James couldn’t get on the field. It happens to a lot of guys.”
Bodanis remained on the bench when Michigan State’s returning offensive linemen also turned in strong years. But it wasn’t a wasted year in Popp’s view.
“We only have 44 players on our rosters, so a guy that is versatile has value in emergency situations,” Bodanis said. “The other thing is he wants to be an o-lineman. The first thing you have to have is a guy who buys into being converted. It’s still new to him, so you don’t have to break bad habits.”
Popp said a fourth-rounder in the CFL is considered a development player and the Alouettes will be patient with tapping Bodanis’ potential. By the time he breaks into the starting lineup, Popp may have added some more Spartans to his roster.
“Mark Dantonio has done a phenomenal job building that program, and the athletic director (Mark Hollis) has done a terrific job marketing the whole athletic department,” Popp said. “They have tremendous coaches in football, basketball and other sports. Look at what the soccer, cross country, track and other teams are doing. Now they have four-and five-star recruits coming in. The program is recruiting itself.”