With his mom and younger brother seated by his side, Gateway star Montae Nicholson reached into his black bag and pulled out a green-and-white hat, announcing his intentions to become a Spartans player.
Nicholson, regarded by some experts as the top high school prospect in Pennsylvania, verbally committed to Michigan State Thursday at a ceremony at Gateway High School. He chose the Spartans over other finalists Florida State, Pitt, Virginia Tech and Oregon.
“I enjoyed myself up there a lot,” he said. “I felt like it was right for me, with the academics and the athletics.”
Rivals.com rates Nicholson as a four-star recruit. He primarily will play defensive back for the Spartans, but he said the coaching staff also has expressed a willingness to try him on offense, too. He had 41 catches for 810 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Gators this season. In the offseason, he plans to run track at Michigan State.
The Spartans originally appeared to be a long shot for Nicholson’s services, but they made steady gains over the past year. Nicholson took his first official visit to East Lansing, Mich., in September, and he began to develop a stronger bond with the coaching staff.
He said the Spartans’ Big Ten Conference title and Rose Bowl berth this season didn’t play a huge role, but they probably didn’t hurt, either.
“It evolved over the last couple of months,” Nicholson said. “Some things changed with my recruiting. I decided to take my first official visit up to Michigan State. Like I said, I just had a tremendous time up there.”
Pledging to the Spartans also meant saying no to Pitt, a hometown school that gave Nicholson his first real offer. Nicholson said the Panthers ended up third behind Michigan State and Florida State.
“Oh my goodness, it was ridiculously hard to say no just because I built that relationship with [Pitt defensive coordinator Matt] House,” he said. “It started over a year ago. They were actually my first camp I went to.”
Nicholson’s mother, Jackie Crawford, said she did not try to influence her son’s decision, other than reminding him to focus on academics as well as athletics. Nicholson plans to study engineering at Michigan State.
She said she would have appreciated having her son close by at Pitt, but she also is willing to make the road trips to East Lansing.
“It was up to him,” she said. “I told him, ‘I’m done, I have my degree.’ This is where he has to spend his four years and, really, a lot of time. It’s not like just a typical college student.”
While Nicholson is looking forward to his future as a Spartans player, the Pitt coaching staff is licking its wounds from another local recruiting loss. On Dec. 9, Aliquippa defensive back Dravon Henry verbally committed to West Virginia over the Panthers. Pitt gained some ground back by securing a verbal commitment Wednesday night from Mt. Lebanon offensive lineman Alex Bookser.
Washington running back Shai McKenzie will decide today with Pitt as one of his finalists.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG