It’s an exciting time to be a Michigan fan. The program has gone from missing a bowl and firing a coach to landing Jim Harbaugh, and the offseason has been a roller-coaster ride well worth the cost of admission.
But the grace period is never long in college football. Even though Harbaugh will get his honeymoon stretch, fans and foes are looking to see what he is able to do now. With National Signing Day right around the corner, SI.com spoke with Ace Anbender of MGoBlog to evaluate the state of the Wolverines.
SI: What was the state of 2015 recruiting before Harbaugh took over?
Ace Anbender: The outlook got pretty bleak by the end of the Brady Hoke era. While the 2015 class got off to a very strong start, it suffered a number of notable decommits as recruits watched the '14 season and realized they didn't want to be a part of whatever that was.
Between Hoke's firing and Harbaugh's hiring, the class had whittled down to just six prospects, one of them a kicker and another the son of Michigan great Jon Runyan. There was still some quality in there, especially with four-star in-state athlete Brian Cole, but the numbers were very low even for a class that was expected to be relatively small, and several top prospects who had been strongly considering Michigan at one time or another had moved on.
SI: It seems like the Harbaugh hire has already paid dividends, with four-star quarterback Zach Gentry flipping from Texas to Michigan. What does Gentry bring to the table? Is this just one of many surprises leading up to Signing Day?
AA: Getting Gentry was huge. Not only does he bolster a relatively thin and inexperienced group of quarterbacks on the roster, but he's also probably the best fit for Harbaugh's offense. He's a huge dude -- listed in the 6-foot-7, 240-pound range -- with a strong arm and surprising mobility, and Harbaugh has always liked having quarterbacks who can pick up chunks of yards on the ground when called upon. Gentry has a ton of potential and could even compete for a spot this fall, though he may be a little too raw to make an immediate impact.
Michigan is in line to fill at least four or five more spots before Signing Day, though unless five-star cornerback Iman Marshall makes a shocking decision to pick the Wolverines over USC, there may not be a commitment quite on par with Gentry's. Harbaugh is targeting a lot of three-star recruits committed to other schools. He has already flipped a few, but it looks like we'll have to wait until the 2016 class for the full impact of the coaching change to take effect.
SI: You mentioned this being a small class, but who else do you see making an early impact out of the 2015 group? Are there any guys from the '14 class who are primed to make a big jump?
AA: Michigan has so many players returning on the two-deep that it would be a surprise if a true freshman made a huge impact. Cole could be an early contributor as a receiver who can really make things happen with the ball in his hands. That's probably it unless Gentry or four-star prospect Alex Malzone, who enrolled early, pull an upset in the quarterback competition.
It's impossible to talk about the class of 2014 without mentioning all-everything defensive back Jabrill Peppers, who missed almost the entirety of last season due to injury. He is moving from cornerback to safety, where he'll be able to make more of an impact against the run. Expectations range from "best Michigan safety since 1997" to "best safety in the history of man."
A couple of linemen have already made an impact from that class: Mason Cole started immediately at left tackle and performed admirably, while Bryan Mone worked his way into the rotation at nose tackle. I'd also watch out for wide receiver Freddy Canteen and tight end Ian Bunting this fall.
SI: Who do you see starting at quarterback coming out of fall camp? Will it be rising junior Shane Morris? Or one of the incoming freshmen?
AA: I think it'll end up being Morris, despite his considerable struggles under the previous regime. That regime was, let's say, not well noted for its quarterback coaching. I know from seeing Morris first-hand several times in high school that he has more than enough talent to be a successful starter. He even has the sneaky mobility Harbaugh likes in his quarterbacks.
It's not an ideal situation, but at least Michigan has options. In addition to the two true freshmen, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight could make an impact, though he seems to least fit the Harbaugh mold of all the quarterbacks on the roster.
SI: What constitutes a successful first year for Harbaugh?
AA: Harbaugh is very much set up for success. After four years under Hoke, anything that resembles watchable football has to be considered progress. The fans will be unusually willing to accept a few losses if the offensive line starts knocking guys off the ball and the quarterback doesn't look irreparably broken because of systemic issues largely beyond his control.
With all the hype, I'd say eight wins is still the floor for expectations, but the schedule sets up pretty nicely. Anything above that, especially if it involves an upset of Michigan State or Ohio State, would be a bonus. More than any win total, though, I think the fans want to see football games that aren't downright depressing. Even many of Hoke's wins -- last year's Northwestern game comes to mind -- were brutal to watch.
SI: Basically, if you avoid any more M00N games, that's a plus. Is it safe to say the 2016 class should really see the Harbaugh bump in recruiting?
AA: Definitely. While the staff has put most of its focus on piecing together the 2015 class in about a month, a lot of offers have been sent to top-tier '16 recruits, and those have been received quite well. Michigan would get an edge if it lands five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary; his high school coach is rumored to be taking a support staff job in Ann Arbor, and the guy replacing him at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic played for Harbaugh in San Francisco (ex-49ers linebacker Blake Costanzo). There is also a lot of in-state talent in this cycle, and Harbaugh along with Tyrone Wheatley, the new running backs coach, have made the rounds at several Detroit-area schools. That should pay dividends sooner rather than later.
SI: And regardless, we all win because we get Harbaugh on Twitter again.
AA: Attacking Twitter with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.