Brady Hoke, Michigan recruiting at an elite level
Signing Day, like Groundhog Day, takes place each year in early February, and it's arguably just as repetitive. After a new group of teenagers gets done picking between baseball caps, the recruiting sites inform us which of the usual crop of warm-weather contenders -- Alabama, LSU, Florida, Florida State or USC -- claimed the nation's top classes for another cycle.
This year, however, there is a wintry mix of northern interlopers.
As of Monday, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State occupied three of the top six spots in both the Rivals.com and Scout.com rankings. And the latter two aren't entirely surprising. Notre Dame is a fixture among the national recruiting elite even when it's not coming off a BCS championship game appearance, while Urban Meyer is doing exactly the same thing at Ohio State that he did at Florida.
But Michigan -- currently No. 1 by a considerable margin in Scout's rankings and No. 6 on Rivals' list -- may well be the most noteworthy story of the 2013 recruiting season, primarily because Brady Hoke has proven a capable adversary to acclaimed recruiter Meyer. Last year, the uber-aggressive ex-SEC coach took Big Ten recruiting by storm, making enemies in the process. This year, in his first full recruiting cycle, many assumed Meyer would crush his conference competition.
Instead, the two rivals, Ohio State and Michigan, are separating from the pack together. Nebraska is the only other conference school currently sitting in the top 25 of Rivals' team rankings.
"If you look just at the recruiting rankings, it has broken down into the big two, little 10, like the old days," said Rivals.com Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt. "There is no doubt Urban Meyer has dominated recruiting the past two cycles. He is everything Ohio State fans expected him to be on the recruiting trail. It's been very important that Michigan has been able to keep pace, to not let Ohio State run away from the rest of the Big Ten."
The Wolverines' haul is shaping up to be the program's most heralded class since 2005 (No. 2 on Scout.com, No. 6 on Rivals.com). And if Scout's lofty ranking holds up, it would be Michigan's first No. 1 class since the pre-dotcom era, when, in 1998, various recruiting magazines and newsletters lauded a class that included quarterback Drew Henson, running back Justin Fargas, receiver David Terrell and linebacker Cato June. Coming on the heels of Rivals' seventh-ranked class in 2012, Michigan's formerly downtrodden program is assembling the talent necessary to reenter national contention.
That wasn't the case for much of the 2000s. Michigan last notched consecutive top 10 classes in 2004 and '05 under Lloyd Carr. Not coincidentally, it won 12 games in 2006. However, from 2006-2011, it cracked the top 10 just twice, bottoming out at 20th and 21st at the end of Rich Rodriguez's tenure. Not coincidentally, the Wolverines have reached just one BCS bowl since '07, and they looked thoroughly overmatched during the 2012 season opener against defending national champion Alabama. Michigan finished last season 8-5, losing a heartbreaker to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
But from the nearly day he arrived on campus in January 2011, Hoke, the former Wolverines defensive line coach and walking encyclopedia of Michigan football, has inspired confidence in Ann Arbor faithful with his prowess on the recruiting trail. One highly touted prospect after another speaks in gushing tones about the 54 year old, who has been helped by former Florida and Notre Dame recruiting ace Greg Mattison and 38-year-old recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski.
"They [recruits] believe he's the guy," Scout.com national analyst Jamie Newberg said of Hoke. "[A turnaround] wasn't going to happen overnight. He basically had to flip the roster offensively, and get better defensively. It goes back to kids in that region, they want to play for the Maize and Blue."
The Wolverines inexplicably lost that pull toward the end of Carr's tenure and throughout Rodriguez's stint. In 2007, Carr's final year at the helm, the Wolverines signed just one of Rivals' top 10 prospects in the state of Michigan. In 2009, rival Michigan State signed eight of the top 11. (Is it any wonder the Spartans won four straight games in the series?) But the script flipped last year, when -- in Hoke's first full class -- Michigan signed seven of the state's top 10 recruits. This year, the Wolverines have commitments from six, led by four-star quarterback Shane Morris (Warren, Mich.) and four-star cornerback Jourdan Lewis (Detroit).
Yet while Midwest natives account for all but a handful of the Wolverines' 27 commitments, some of the classes' biggest stars come from outside the region.
Last weekend, Derrick Green of Richmond, Va. -- the nation's consensus top running back and a top 10 overall recruit -- became Michigan's 2013 headliner when he chose the Wolverines over Tennessee and Auburn. According to MGoBlog.com, the powerful downhill runner will become the program's highest-rated signee at that position and the sixth-highest-rated prospect overall since 2002; among the few rated higher were current pros Chad Henne, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Mallett.
Meanwhile, Michigan's next-highest-rated pledge on Rivals, four-star defensive tackle Henry Poggi, hails from Baltimore. On Scout, it's five-star offensive lineman Patrick Kugler, who comes from Wexford, Pa.
"Brady Hoke's philosophy, he's said from his first day, his primary base is in-state and Ohio," said Helmholdt. "They've done a good job of getting the top kids from those areas and then cherry picking nationally."
While the state of Ohio produced two former Wolverines' Heisman winners (Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson), it's generally tough to beat Ohio State and Meyer head-to-head for Buckeye State recruits. But Hoke successfully lured away four-star safety Dymonte Thomas (Alliance, Ohio) and four-star linebacker Mike McCray (Trotwood, Ohio) in large part by establishing relationships early. Thomas received an offer and committed in September 2011, two months before Ohio State hired Meyer (who later offered Thomas a scholarship); McCray committed last March.
And although most programs have accelerated their evaluation processes, Michigan's is particularly early. Morris, the Wolverines' presumed quarterback of the future, received his offer nearly two years before he could sign. He committed in May 2011. This month, Michigan has reportedly extended offers to four prospects from the class of 2015.
"They do a great job recruiting in the offseason -- identifying kids early, making offers early, and that definitely pays off," said Helmholdt. "They feel very confident in their evaluations of kids."
Michigan fans feel confident Hoke can continue to match wits with Meyer. The Wolverines have not won a Big Ten championship since 2004, but a berth to the conference title game in Indianapolis now becomes a reasonable annual expectation. The bigger question is whether the storied Northern program will soon be able to compete with the current juggernauts in the South -- particularly with the four-team playoff only a year away.
Amidst the SEC's staggering run of seven straight national championships, there's been growing sentiment that there's simply too much talent in the South for Northern teams to keep pace. There are currently 10 SEC teams among Rivals' top 25 classes. But while elite recruits are at a premium in the Midwest, there's also less competition. Ohio State and Michigan are seemingly rationing the region's top talent between them.
The Wolverines were certainly not ready to compete with Alabama when the teams lined up last September. But will that change if they keep stringing top 10 classes together?
"Michigan's the interesting one," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell. "You look at what Ohio State's doing, they got a quarterback [J.T. Barrett] from Texas, a [linebacker] from Georgia [Trey Johnson], they're still dipping down South. Michigan's class, except for the defensive back from North Carolina [Channing Stribling], there's no Southern representation in this class at all.
"How's that going to play out? Will they still not be fast enough to compete with SEC teams? We'll see."
In the meantime, Michigan will gladly play the role of Signing Day party-crasher, albeit one that's been plotting its entrance for nearly two years.