Okay, I don't normally cover recruiting. Even for a Michigan fan, the whole process is so laborious and intricate that it's practically its own world. There are plenty of recruiting sites out there who make it their business to follow everything about high school prospects, and some sites are even devoted to entire states. Most Michigan blogs address recruiting as the findings come in, and some have their own staff writers who focus solely on it as a subject. It seems kind of odd to devote so much energy to people who haven't even donned the winged helmet yet—but hey, it's the offseason, and we have to talk about something.
Since the hiring of Brady Hoke as head football coach, Michigan has made noticeable strides in re-establishing its foothold for recruiting within the state of Michigan. Hoke's predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, was frequently criticized for not giving enough attention to the high school prospects in the states of Michigan or Ohio. Most Michigan fans maintain that he did not do enough to secure the top Michigan prospects from being recruited by Michigan State.
True, Rodriguez admitted that he preferred to recruit nationally. However, it would be wrong to suggest that he did not recruit in-state at all. He recruited quarterback Devin Gardner from Inkster, Michigan, for instance. Yet it is widely believed that Rodriguez did not make recruiting in the states of Michigan and Ohio a priority. Both states, especially Ohio, are renowned for producing stellar football talent. Since the days of Bo Schembechler, the Wolverine staff has had to battle Ohio State for many of the recruits out of Ohio—and recently, they have battled Michigan State for the recruits who are within of the state of Michigan.
Rodriguez's efforts in recruiting have largely been followed and documented, and he seemed to pursue players particularly from California and Florida, where he found Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, respectively. However, Ohio and Michigan are considered pipeline states for U-M, and for Rodriguez to not primarily focus on those put him in dangerous waters with the alumni and the fan base.
Brady Hoke, by contrast, said in his first press conference that "the lifeblood of [Michigan's] recruiting has to be in the Midwest and has to be and the state of Michigan." He is definitely intent on making that a priority. It's certainly shown for the class of 2012: among the top ten high school recruits in the state of Michigan, at least eight of them have committed to U-M.
One of the most notable of these recruits is James Ross, who is considered the number two high school middle-linebacker in the country. He may be the best high school prospect in the state of Michigan. His highlights are impressive. Scout.com has a pretty good profile on Ross: he's 6'1", 215 lbs, and has garnered as many as 83 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles as a sophomore at Orchard Lake St. Mary's (OLSM).
Ross committed early to Michigan on May 2, 2011 as a junior. He'll join the class of 2012, after finishing up his senior year at OLSM.
This is a solid get for Brady Hoke's staff. Ross also held offers from USC, Penn State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Ohio State. He was pursued relentlessly by MSU's Mark Dantonio, who made him an offer when Ross was a sophomore. Rodriguez's staff made Ross an offer shortly thereafter. This might come as a surprise to those who thought that Rodriguez did not recruit in-state. However, it is possible that Ross was so highly touted that Rodriguez could not afford to overlook him.
It is no secret that Rodriguez's decision to shift focus away from the state of Michigan allowed for Dantonio and Michigan State to dominate in-state recruiting for the past three years. When or if Rodriguez learned of his mistake can never really be known. There are plenty of examples to suggest that Rodriguez did eventually recruit in-state, but did he recruit heavily? After the second or third straight loss to Michigan State, it is possible that Rodriguez realized how important in-state recruiting was. There is also Fred Jackson, who has been Michigan's running backs coach for nineteen years and has very strong ties to the state's high schools: it's likely he kept those connections strong. Jackson was the only assistant of Lloyd Carr's that Rodriguez retained during the transition. He has also been retained by Brady Hoke's staff.
OLSM is a fertile ground for recruiting. It has produced players like Morgan Trent and Dionte Allen. Trent ended up going to Michigan, where he played under Lloyd Carr, and Allen went to Florida State. (He has since transferred to the Buckeyes.) While St. Mary's has long held strong ties to U-M, those ties supposedly fizzled during the Rodriguez years. The school's head football coach, George Porritt, reportedly expressed disappointment at the lack of scouts Michigan sent to observe his players, which allowed Michigan State to capitalize on recruiting OLSM's talent. Since then, Brady Hoke has worked to re-establish those ties. While Rodriguez may have shown interest in Ross because it was hard not to, it was apparently Hoke and his staff who closed the deal.
The deciding factor for Ross was likely Hoke's new defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who previously held the position for the Baltimore Ravens. Long before Mattison rejoined the Wolverines, Ross had said back in 2010 that the player he modeled himself after was Ray Lewis, who played for the Baltimore Ravens under Greg Mattison. "I emulate Ray Lewis on the field," Ross told the Detroit News. "I like how he plays, and I try to imitate everything that he does. It really fits me how he plays."
It may have been a coincidence that Michigan's new defensive coordinator happened to coach the player that Ross idolized, but it does at least draw a clear line of distinction between Hoke's staff and Rodriguez's—namely, how likely (or unlikely) Rodriguez may have been to recruit Ross if he still had the job. Hoke's hire of Mattison seems to be the difference, and it speaks to his skills as a head coach. Just as Denard Robinson arguably would not have come to Michigan if not for Rich Rodriguez, James Ross arguably would not have committed to Michigan if Brady Hoke had not hired Greg Mattison.
In a video interview with mgoblue.com, Mattison famously said that he would not have returned to Michigan for anyone except Brady Hoke. "It's like coming home," he said. "I would not have left professional football to go to college again, I don't think—I definitely wouldn't have done if it wasn't for Brady Hoke. I was at a great situation, but when it became Michigan and it became Brady Hoke, it was too hard to pass up."
During Rich Rodriguez's tenure, Michigan's defense became the worst in its history. Now, Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison are working to bring the defense back, and that means recruiting really good defensive players. Ross certainly fits the bill.
Spartan fans who desperately wanted Ross have now written off his commitment to Michigan, according to Genuinely Sarcastic, a Michigan blog. Despite Ross being only a junior in high school, Spartan fans consider his height to be unfitting of what they should be looking for anyway. This is pitiful logic. If Dantonio didn't see any value in Ross, he wouldn't have made Ross an offer. Furthermore, Michigan State fans argue that Ross was always going to commit to Michigan because he was supposedly a lifelong Michigan fan. This is also untrue. If anything, Ross was leaning towards Ohio State early in his decision process. Buckeye Planet, a discussion board obsessed with potential OSU recruits, followed Ross's recruitment extensively, going back as early as 2009 when Ross only started to appear on scouting sites. In the same Detroit News interview in which he said he emulated Ray Lewis, Ross also admitted that he grew up rooting for Ohio State.
"I was always an Ohio State guy," he said. "I kept it to myself. It wasn't really that big of a deal. My family always gets mad when I bring up Ohio State. They just say that I do not understand the success that Michigan has had."
Ross's father, himself a die-hard Michigan fan, said that despite his attachment to Michigan he did not pressure his son. He said that he did not see his son rooting for Ohio State during the Michigan-Ohio State game, but that Ross would root for Ohio State whenever the Buckeyes played in a bowl game. Ross even said he was excited when he finally received an offer from Ohio State.
Hearing that, Ohio State fans on Buckeye Planet were confident that Ross would commit to the Buckeyes. "Love it," one Buckeye fan said. "Ross will likely be the top prospect in that state up north next year and it sounds like the Bucks are the team to beat."
As it turned out, they were wrong.
Whether or not Ross's decision to commit had been influenced by Jim Tressel resigning from Ohio State is unknown, but I prefer to think that it was Ross's interest in playing for Greg Mattison that pushed him toward committing to the Wolverines.
An inside source at OLSM said that Ross's final decision "came down to either Michigan or Penn State." In the end, Ross picked Michigan.