Q&A: Saeed Khalif on Michigan State football recruiting philosophies, Mel Tucker and the Spartans' brand

Saeed Khalif, Michigan State football's general manager and executive director of player personnel and recruiting, was hired in 2021.

EAST LANSING – Michigan State football is recruiting at a clip unseen in its history. In a nine-day span earlier this month, the Spartans earned commitments from five four-star prospects in the 2023 class.

As of Friday morning, MSU's 2023 class ranks 14th nationally according to the 247Sports Composite. 

Though coach Mel Tucker is the face of the program, Saeed Khalif is the man responsible for directing the Spartans' recruiting efforts. Last year, he was hired as Michigan State football's general manager and executive director of player personnel and recruiting. It came on the heels of a four-year run (2017-20) as Wisconsin's director of player personnel. Prior to that, he spent four seasons (2013-16) at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, as the Yellowjackets' assistant director of player personnel.

A New Jersey native, Khalif was a standout defensive lineman at Georgia Tech from 1984 to 1986. As a senior, he earned first-team All-ACC honors and an honorable mention All-America accolade — the same year in which he served as a team captain and led the Yellowjackets in tackles.

His resume is a testament to his knowledge of Power 5 football.

Khalif sat down with the State Journal last week for a wide-ranging interview that touched on multiple topics, including the Spartans' recruiting philosophies, how name, image and likeness ties into recruiting today's top high school players, Tucker's influence growing the program's brand, and more.

Some of the questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Ryan Black: Since you began working in college athletics, what has remained a constant in recruiting? How much have you had to adapt your approach to remain competitive nationally? 

Saeed Khalif: Well, the one thing we're finding that works during official visits is, as much time as players can be with other players, it's a good thing. Because that's what it's ultimately about. They're either gonna be joining your team, or not, based on what kind of experience they had with other players. It's very rare that a kid identifies a program and says, "Ah, I didn't like those guys on the team, but I want to go play at that school." Our best recruiters are our players. Period.

RB: When it comes to deciding which players you want as hosts, do you try to make sure it's a guy who plays the same position as the visiting recruit? Or is it more about picking a player with a great personality?

SK: It's a combo. Ideally, you want to do position to position, but sometimes, it might be a kid who went to the same high school or they grew up in the same area, so they've got some commonalities. It might even be a kid who played with them in AAU basketball and didn't even play football against them or with them. The main thing is, they're just familiar with them.

But some of it is personality, too. There are some kids who are just really good hosts. No matter where they're from, they've just got a genuineness about them that makes it easy for them to relate and adjust to different people. They do a good job with the parents, explaining their situation and how they made their decisions, and then they do a great job interacting with kids. They're just good, genuine personalities who know how to get along with people.

RB: How much of what you do in recruiting is continuing what you saw work elsewhere versus wanting Michigan State to do its own thing? 

SK: Well, there are things that have been done at other places that make sense. There are things that match where we are. Then there are best practices. I mean, it's competitive. Some of us in the business will share what their best practice is. At the end of the day, it's still about people. So you can imitate all you want, but it's the genuineness and authenticity of the people who make it different. So you could be doing what somebody is doing somewhere else, but if the match isn't there from a personality or culture fit, it doesn't matter.

RB: And the other part of it is, these recruits know what they've seen. And they talk amongst themselves. They'll know if you are copying something from another school, right? They'll think you're not being authentic?

SK: Kids see everything and then they tell each other everything, so nothing you're doing is a secret. They're putting it out there on social media. They're sharing it with their friends. They're walking around with their phones. They might have IG (Instagram) Live. They might be on Twitter Space. It doesn't matter. They're out there doing it and sharing it. So you want to make sure whatever it is you're doing, you're doing it good and doing it right.

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RB: When recruits are on official visits, what kind of film does the coaching staff show them?

SK: It's a combination. We show them who we are and what we do, and that's through our film. We show them how we evaluate who they are and what they do. And then we talk to them about how they fit into what we do and how their skill sets and traits fit into what our coaching style is and what our style of football is, so they can see themselves doing this and making sure it's a fit — because fit is huge. When you start talking recruiting, it's probably the No. 1 component: fit. Poor fit leads to poor performance, poor performance leads to a poor locker room. Then you've got a problem.

MORE:  Couch: Mel Tucker's flurry of recruiting momentum is unlike anything MSU football has ever experienced

RB: You've mentioned that during official visits, talking about branding with prospects is important. Does that have to do with name, image and likeness? Or is that specifically discussing the branding of Michigan State?

SK: Well, it's specific to the Michigan State brand, but that conversation with NIL isn't taboo anymore, either. So you better be in the conversation. There are some programs that are pretending not to have those conversations. And those same kids are coming here and saying they were turned off by that negative approach to it. So we're right up front with it. We put it on the table. We let them know that that's part of what we do, part of the support for the players on our roster. And we feel like it's a good thing for people to be able to participate in, if done right.

RB: Is NIL the biggest change you've had to deal with since you started working in the recruiting space?

SK: No, the single biggest factor is social media. Social media spreads information so fast, it's like wildfire. There are so many mediums for it now that information gets out and you can spin it how you want to. Programs are using it for positive or negative propaganda and letting it fly. And then you also can tell your story. You can do some intentional messaging through social media.

And then the second-biggest change is NIL, but I'm a fan of it because I believe, as a former player myself, if I had the opportunity to earn some funds off of name, image and likeness and share some of what the school made off of our efforts ...  As a player, if you're playing and performing and you're filling stadiums to help sell tickets, then there should be some reward for that. So NIL is a big deal.

But I love the programs where everybody's getting something, because you manage your locker room better that way. You've got more people feeling like, "Wow, we're all in on this," and then everybody has the ability to earn. But you can't be consumed by NIL because it's not the main thing. The main thing is still education and performance. So we just got to educate the young people and their families on how to balance that."

CHANGING THE GAME: MSU trying to stay ahead of the curve with NIL

GRAHAM COUCH COLUMN: NIL, in concept, should be a win for athletes AND college athletics. But it's part of the mess.

Michigan State's football coach Mel Tucker talks about his time at MSU in his office on Monday, March 28, 2022, at the Skandalaris Football Center in East Lansing.

RB: It's easily discernible that Tucker is all-in on recruiting, whether it's showing off expensive cars, his vast shoe collection — basically his entire vibe. Kids seem to gravitate toward it. How much easier does that make your job?

SK: He's a leader. He's a trendsetter. He likes what he likes. He has great instincts, great foresight. There are things he comes up with sometimes and some of the staff will look around and go, "What was that? Are we sure?" And then at the end of the day they go, "Oh, man, this guy is a genius." The way it all comes together, it's because he has the foresight on a lot of these things.

He's interesting right now — I mean, he is our brand. He's the face of the program. He's meticulous and detail oriented. He's a confront-and-demand person. We have a standard that we have set very high, and he's set very high, and we fight to maintain it every day. Our culture is to stay active, keep chopping and don't get outworked.

Contact Ryan Black at rblack@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanABlack.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: MSU football: Saeed Khalif talks recruiting philosophies, branding