Michigan just signed a great class and is, again, hot on the recruiting trail. Covering it for SB Nation is Maize n Brew, which is under the new leadership of Zach Travis. Travis and his staff know recruiting, and I recently picked his brain about a number of Michigan recruiting topics.
On the perception that the Big Ten is going back to Michigan, Ohio State and nobody else, at least in terms of recruiting:
I think the 2012 class has gone a long way toward re-establishing Michigan and Ohio State as the Midwest's two most powerful recruiting programs. Of course Ohio State was always there, but had been slipping a bit lately as teams like Alabama were able to come in and poach some of the top talent (2011 LB Trey Depriest being the most recent example). I don't think that happens in the immediate future with Urban Meyer running the show in Columbus, and keeping the Midwest's best talent in the Midwest is good for the conference. As for Michigan, the Wolverines have recruited well the last few years, but there has been a significant decline in star power. With Brady Hoke taking over, Michigan has shown that it can recruit in Ohio. (Michigan teams don't win in the Big Ten without tapping into Ohio's talent base. Schembechler knew it and that is how he built the program.) This year Michigan had as many recruits from Ohio as from Michigan. One of the Ohio players was a five star while three were four-star players.
So with Michigan and Ohio State moving to the front of the line does this mean the Big Ten is back to the Big Two-Little Ten days?
Yes and no. Programs like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue have been very good for stretches over the last two decades because of savvy recruiting and talent development. Kirk Ferentz isn't going to be able to pull a top-five class to Iowa City, but he doesn't have to. His staff does a good job picking up a few highly rated players, uncovering sleepers and then developing them to run Iowa's system. This is enough to be a solid middle- to upper-class Big Ten team most years while competing for a conference title every few. Furthermore, it has the advantage of establishing the program niche, which further helps recruiting. Wisconsin will always have an easier time bringing in running backs and offensive linemen because of past success. Iowa can sell defensive players on the Hawkeyes' strong defensive profile. I think the same thing is beginning to happen with Michigan State. Meanwhile Purdue and Northwestern find the kids that don't fit at other programs or the kids that are really serious academically --- think Ifeadi Odenigbo this year.
Related: The idea of Penn State's collapse making Michigan and Ohio State stronger. Does it help OSU much more than it does Michigan?
The immediate future of Penn State is far from certain. Bill O'Brien has very little college experience, but in some cases that doesn't matter (see: the curious case of Pete Carroll). On top of that we can't even really make any judgment based on the 2012 class because of how incredibly complex the situation was. The administration had just fired Paterno, and meanwhile the hiring process was drug out before PSU finally settled on a guy who was still coaching through the Super Bowl. Could an established college coach (say, Al Golden or Dan Mullen) have held the class together and put together a strong finish? Would Tom Bradley even kept it together? Tough to say. It does seem like Penn State will have a harder time over the next few years. The product on the field isn't going to improve to championship levels for at least a couple years. In the long run I think this helps Ohio State more. Western Pennsylvania is nearly as talent rich as Ohio, and with PSU out of the picture, Ohio State should be able to pull the top talent from that region. Michigan may get recruits from Western PA, but it isn't a prioritized area.
What misses, if any, from 2012 must now be addressed in the 2013 class?
The 2012 Michigan class was big and deep enough that there aren't any real "misses" per se. However, certain roster deficiencies mean that Michigan should have looked to take more players at some positions. The quarterback position would be No. 1 on the list if it weren't for the fact that 2013 QB Shane Morris was already committed. This is a kid who could very well be a five-star prospect by the time all is said and done. I think Michigan should go after a second QB just for depth (it is really a position where you want four scholarship guys --- one in each class).
Past that, depth on both lines needs to be addressed. Rich Rodriguez had to do a lot of recruiting first for the offensive skill positions, and second for the defensive back seven because of what he inherited when he got to Ann Arbor. This meant that as Michigan struck out with players on the lines, the problems became more pronounced. Michigan needs another class of five offensive linemen, and one of them has to be a center. As of 2013 there will be one scholarship center on the roster, and the decommitment of OG/OC prospect Caleb Stacey this year in January could really be felt in two or three years. On the other side of the line Michigan still needs to build better depth inside at the 1-tech and 3-tech defensive tackle positions. This year's class did a good job bringing in a stud 1-tech prospect (Ondre Pipkins) but depth is sketchy at the position and only getting worse in 2013. Both lines need better depth, and the staff has already showed a commitment to building that.
Following that up, then, what positions that were not a need in 2012 (due to returning players) that will now be a need in 2013?
Wide receiver, wide receiver and wide receiver. Seriously. Michigan lost two very good receivers in Junior Hemingway and Martavius Odoms this year and replaced them with two good prospects (Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson) but the 2013 depth chart at receiver is going to have six scholarship players: two prototypical slot guys, two possession type guys and the two current incoming freshmen. A top priority for 2013 is to bring in at least one game breaking receiver that can play early. If you look at who the staff has offered thus far, it is clear that is a priority.
Other than that Michigan still needs to build depth at tight end. The 2012 class has two solid options with a mauler (AJ Williams) and a receiver (Devin Funchess). However, the offense Al Borges wants to run is heavy on tight ends and the roster just doesn't have much in the way of them. Look for Michigan to bring in two tight ends in 2013 (one, Khalid Hill, is already committed) and probably two more in 2014.
You've now seen a full class from Hoke. How is he going about recruiting differently than Rich Rodriguez did. Is it more Lloyd Carr, or a style all his own? Do you think Hoke learned any lessons from his first full recruiting cycle, and if so, how, if at all, will his approach change for the 2013 class?
I think Hoke's main focus in recruiting has been to establish a strong base in the Midwest and make sure that is clear to everyone in the area. Rodriguez recruited in Michigan and Ohio, but he also talked a lot about Florida and getting skill position players with speed. There is no better way to turn Midwest meat-and-potatoes-type football coaches against you than to devalue their players' athleticism. When Hoke was hired he immediately focused on rebuilding relationships around Michigan and Ohio, and was able to do that very well for a number of reasons (being a former Michigan coach, contacts from his Ball State days, not being Rich Rodriguez, hiring Greg Mattison). I think that is clear in the 2012 class that has nine Ohio recruits and nine Michigan recruits. This is Hoke's focus as of now.
I don't think he will change his approach, either. If you look at the 2012 class you will see that Hoke hit the ground running right away --- even while finishing up the 2011 class, he offered a ton of top level talent early, and focused on getting kids from Michigan and Ohio on board early. That strategy paid huge dividends, and I think for a program like Michigan it is the blueprint for recruiting success.
Is Michigan going to make more of an effort to get back into California?
I think Michigan will make more of an effort to recruit in California, but I see that as more of a return to the status quo than anything really new to Michigan. Michigan always went to California to pick up top-rated talent under Lloyd Carr, and had some great success with it. Rodriguez always focused on Florida, first and foremost. I think with Hoke's recruiting contacts in California from his days at San Diego State that Michigan is well situated to go back to California and get one or two highly rated players a year --- a good example is OT Erik Magnuson in the 2012 class. Add this to a strong Midwest presence and the Wolverines should consistently be a top-10 to 15 class, year in and year out.
Who are the top prospects on Michigan's board?
Right now I think the must gets are guys like WR Laquon Treadwell, OT Logan Tuley-Tillman (committed), TE Jake Butt (committed), RB Ty Issac, OG David Dawson (committed), DE Taco Charlton (committed), LB Jaylon Smith, and CB Jourdan Lewis. These are all highly recruited Midwest guys that have shown a significant amount of interest in Michigan. If the Wolverines want to keep the recruiting momentum going they will have to close out on top regional talent who has heavy interest in Michigan. There are other guys outside the region like CB Kendall Fuller, DT Eddie Vanderdoes and LB EJ Levenberry, who Michigan is going hard after, but the most important guys right now are the guys from the region.
You discussed building the defensive line depth. The major difference we've seen recently between the Big Ten and the elite Southern teams is the talent and depth along the defensive lines. Let's face it, the Midwest just does not produce elite defensive linemen with the frequency that the South does. Michigan, obviously, wants to compete on a national level, and to do so, it will need elite defensive line depth. From where will the Wolverines pull their championship-caliber defensive line?
The South definitely produces a larger number of elite defensive linemen than the Midwest, but I don't think that matters in the long run. The Midwest might not produce the kinds of kids that are going to project as high draft picks as high school players, but there have been few conferences that have produced better linemen over the past few years than the Big Ten. Guys like Jerel Worthy, Mike Martin, Kawann Short, JJ Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, John Simon, Brandon Graham, and Adrian Clayborn, to name a few, are all Midwest guys who you can build a great defensive line around. I think the biggest factors for Michigan are depth and coaching.
Michigan has gone hard after defensive linemen so far in Brady Hoke's tenure as coach. To play the kind of defense that Hoke and Greg Mattison want to play, you need to have eight or 10 guys who can go in the game at any time, and there has to be little drop off. If you have 10 fundamentally sound players who can go hard on every play, you can put together as effective a defensive line as having three or four elite guys backed by little quality depth. It is about numbers and getting positive contributions from the entire unit.
I think this is one area where Michigan is really set up to succeed. Greg Mattison has been coaching defensive line for decades, and if you look back at where he has coached his teams have always been very strong on the defensive line. Brady Hoke is also a defensive line coach from his assistant days and he takes an active role in positional coaching. Finally, Jerry Montgomery is a former Iowa defensive tackle and current UM D-line coach. He is a young guy who seems to really connect well with the kids and adds a lot to the coaching staff. Look at last year: Michigan was painfully thin on the defensive line and the coaches still got the unit to be one of the better groups in the conference, one of the best teams in the country on third-and-short defense, and turned former walk-on Will Heininger into an above average player at the 5-tech defensive end spot. Depth will still be a concern next year and possibly in 2013, but once the staff fills the position with its players there is no doubt in my mind that this will be the backbone of some very strong defenses for years to come.
Do you worry that, as many believe, Michigan was extremely lucky on the field in 2011 (see bounces and dropped interceptions) and might have a serious backslide in 2012? How much does Hoke need to balance his recruiting pitch between tradition and where the program is going to avoid the negative recruiting Michigan will encounter if it has a 7-5 type season in 2012?
I do think Michigan was to a certain degree lucky, but I am a firm believer in the old axiom "you make your own luck." Michigan recovered an enormous amount of fumbles, was one of the best defensive teams on third-and-short and came up with huge offensive plays at the right time. However, Michigan's defensive coaches expect everyone to run to the ball and 10 guys to be around the tackle (better odds at recovering fumbles), Mattison's defensive strategy is based on stopping the between-the-tackles run game first and foremost (where most third-and-short runs go) and Michigan made an incredible number of great game-theory decisions as for when to go for it and when to punt (taking the right chances). Like I said, you make your own luck.
Is this luck sustainable? Probably not at the level of 2011, but I think Michigan --- by nature of the way the team is coached and prepped for games --- should be above average in all those areas like most great teams are. But I don't think that will change the attitude of recruits. Hoke is able to sell Michigan on its own merits. There is an expectation that Michigan will win, but from everything I hear from these recruits they believe in the coaching staff and love the university. Kyle Bosch said after he committed last weekend that he would "do anything for coach Hoke" and Chris Fox said, "I knew I wanted to be a Wolverine since last summer." Hoke is selling the team (the team, the team) and the school and building trust.
How important is it for Michigan to crush Sparty on the recruiting trail and have right of first refusal over the vast majority of elite Michigan kids? Michigan State has had 20+ wins over the last two seasons and is well coached.
As for Michigan State, it is important that Michigan control in-state recruiting, but it isn't the most important goal. The state of Michigan produces a few very good players on a yearly basis, but championship teams in the Midwest are built on Ohio talent. Michigan, first and foremost, needs to make significant inroads into Ohio to steal some top talent away from Ohio State. Michigan has done a good job of that so far, and as long as that continues Michigan should be set up to compete at the highest levels of the Big Ten and in the nation.
Michigan lost out on a good deal of quality local kids under Rich Rodriguez because he failed to establish strong relationships with local coaches --- fair or not. Brady Hoke has come in and done a great job connecting with local coaches and re-establishing Michigan as the premier in-state recruiting destination despite the fact that Michigan State has put the best team on the field the last four years. The 2012 recruiting cycle saw Michigan take arguably eight of the top 10 players in the state of Michigan. This year Michigan has already locked down the state's best player (Shane Morris) and four players that should end up in the top-10 in the state.
Michigan State will succeed on a strategy similar to what Iowa does: finding solid three-star kids and coaching them to play well in a specific system. However, as long as Michigan is recruiting at a top-10 level and doing a good job keeping and coaching those recruits* then in the long run, Michigan should see the tide turn on the field.
*(The biggest argument I hear from MSU fans for continued MSU dominance in football is "Michigan has always recruited better and we still beat them the last four years." This argument doesn't take into account unprecedented levels of attrition from those Michigan classes, and a failure to develop the players by the coaching staff (i.e. Greg Robinson). So far Michigan has shown stability that should limit attrition, and the coaching staff has taken a team that didn't fit what it wanted to do and turned it into an 11-win BCS bowl team. Two good indications that player retention and development should be much improved from the last few years. If Michigan is recruiting at a high level and developing those recruits it will be hard for Michigan State to consistently win against Michigan on the field, which should further widen the recruiting gap.)
Thanks again to Zach and the excellent crew at Maize n Brew. Make sure to bookmark and check them out.