Thursday, August 4, 2011

Michigan's 2012 Recruiting Class is Stacked on Defense

Okay, okay, I know I said I don't normally cover recruiting, but there have been a few developments that I feel merit the attention of any Maize and Blue fans who wonder where Michigan is going defensively in the next few years. Suffice it to say that Michigan's incoming recruits for 2012 are given impressive ratings across the board, and that might be reason for Wolverine fans to get excited, but let's keep things in perspective as best we can.

For those of you who do follow recruiting, you already know what's been happening. For those just tuning in, it's been a pretty good (if not great) summer as Michigan and Brady Hoke's staff racked up commitment after commitment of the Midwest's best high school prospects. This comes after Hoke and his staff salvaged a respectable 2011 class before Signing Day on February 2. 

Now, Hoke has raised eyebrows, especially those of skeptical Michigan fans, by hitting the ground running and landing commitments for 2012 almost a year before. That's impressive.

It isn't just great players that Hoke has been recruiting: rather, it's been great players on defense. Anyone who followed Rich Rodriguez at Michigan may have some idea of how important this is. People watching the 2010 season were frustratingly trying to figure out why the defense was so bad. (It was the worst in Michigan history.) There were speculations that perhaps it was the scheme of 3-3-5, a scheme which defensive coordinator Greg Robinson had never before coached. There were also opinions, largely from Rodriguez supporters, that it Greg Robinson himself who was incompetent, despite the fact that Rodriguez stubbornly made him run the 3-3-5 because that's what worked for Rodriguez at West Virginia. Finally, and this was the hardest to swallow, there was the very possible notion that it was the players, that they were as talented defensively as Michigan had become accustomed. 

Rodriguez himself often went the third route, blaming the players, saying that they were young and inexperienced, and that's why Michigan's defense was so bad. However, Rodriguez might have had something to do with it, since several of these players had been recruited under his tenure. Was it that Rodriguez, an offensive-minded coach, simply put most of his recruiting base in offense? Since some would argue that Rodriguez was hired to do just that—innovate the offense—this line of thinking is certainly bears some weight. The question then became if Rodriguez, the head coach, neglected the defense too much as a result, and you know the rest.

In any case, Brady Hoke has taken steps to remedy every possible scenario for Michigan's defensive struggles. If it was the fault of the scheme or the defensive coordinator, Hoke has brought in the 4-3 defensive scheme and Greg Mattison, former defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, who has loads of experience coaching the 4-3 and coaching it well. There might be more to this than simply a new scheme (or technically an old one) because Hoke has said that the 4-3 is essential in the Big Ten. 

"You're playing in the Big Ten and to have four down linemen physically in the football game, I think when you look at who you play and our schedule and the types of offenses you're going to play against, I think it's more conducive," he said in an Alumni Association interview. "We'll be Multiple in a 4-3 at times because, when you do get in those third down situations, you're going to play a little bit more blitzing, more aggressive attitude, and play a little bit more coverage when you can."

If the problem with Michigan's defense was coaching, as several anti-Rodriguez proponents suggest, then Hoke is certainly the right hire, because he is a stoutly defensive-minded coach, which was exactly what athletic director Dave Brandon was looking for. Hoke has said that he is going back to basics with the players and will re-teach fundamentals—that means tackling, which Michigan's defensive backs could hardly do individually and in open space. He told the defensive coaches to "assume the players know nothing" and start at square one.

Interestingly, Hoke says that this isn't because of Michigan's defensive predicament. It's something you have to do every year. He learned that after Michigan went undefeated in 1997 and won the National Championship. "In `98, I had three starters back out of four on the defensive line, assuming those guys knew the expectations, technique and fundamentals, so I got a little more involved in scheme, and we lost our first two ballgames," he told reporters. "I blame myself for that to this day. You can't assume. In fall and spring, we will never assume. I don't care if they've played 35 straight games."

Thirdly, if Michigan struggled defensively because the overall talent on defense seemed lacking, then Hoke has remedied that as well. More than half of Michigan's incoming recruits for 2012 are defensive players. ( has a very good run-down of these recruits and rates them pretty high.) Mario Ojemudia is a four-star defensive end from Farmington Hills Harrison, typically considered a Michigan State stronghold. His recruitment, along with four-star tight-end Devin Funchess, also from Farmington Hills Harrison, drove the Spartans crazy. 

Michigan State were further sent into panic mode when the Wolverines landed commitments from Royce Jenkins-Stone and Terry Richardson out of Cass Tech High School, both four-star linebackers, as well as Matt Godin, a three-star defensive tackle from Detroit Catholic Central, Ben Braden, a three-star offensive tackle out of Novi, and most impressively James Ross, the #2 linebacker in the country and #1 in the state of Michigan—all of whom held scholarship offers from Michigan State but chose Michigan instead.

Ross and Royce Jenkins-Stone are the two best players in the state of Michigan, #1 and #2 respectively. Their commitments, along with all of those listed above, were a crushing blow to Spartan fans because Mark Dantonio had dominated in-state recruiting for the past three years. Furthermore, Ojemudia was considered a lock for Michigan State until he received a scholarship offer from the Wolverines. I would say that his and Funchess's commitments broke Farmington Hills Harrison as a Michigan State pipeline, and perhaps it has, but the Spartans nailed down a commitment from wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who reportedly had not received an offer from Michigan because his academic grades were low. 

To be fair, as much as Farmington Hills Harrison is a Spartan stronghold, Cass Tech is practically a Michigan fortress, and it's possible that the Spartans thought they had a legitimate shot at those recruits because of what Dantonio has done and because Rodriguez's recruiting had drifted away. As it turned out, they didn't. The commitments from these fantastic in-state players only served to remind the Spartan fanbase that they do not dominate the state of Michigan.

It's not just the in-state battle that Michigan is winning. Ever since Jim Tressel was exposed, Michigan has set its sights on Ohio, which the Wolverines and the Buckeyes have battled over for decades. (Jim Tressel practically put a wall around Ohio and Rich Rodriguez decided to primarily look elsewhere.) Brady Hoke has re-established "the lifeblood of Michigan's recruiting" in the states of Ohio and Michigan. The Wolverines have landed a host of impressive recruits from Ohio, including Caleb Stacey, A.J. Williams, Joe Bolden, Pharaoh Brown, Allen Gant, Kaleb Ringer, Jarrod Wilson, among others, all of which were three-star or better. 

However, the Ohio recruits who have created the most buzz are defensive end Tom Strobel, offensive tackle Kyle Kalis, and defensive end Chris Wormley, because they were considered heavy Ohio State leans. Yet those players have committed to Michigan, much to the Buckeyes' chagrin. (I had held off on writing this article until Wormley in particular committed.)

Strobel, a four-star recruit who held a scholarship offer from Ohio State, claims he grew up a Buckeye but committed to Michigan instead because he felt Michigan "will provide [Strobel] with both the best academic and athletic college experience possible." (Michigan fans around the country collectively went "Booyah!") Kyle Kalis, a five-star offensive tackle who is presumed to be the best player in Ohio, had originally committed to Ohio State but de-committed when Tressel resigned and Ohio State paced the possibility of NCAA sanctions. Kalis committed to the Wolverines on July 10 and said that "the Michigan-Ohio border is now open." To the Buckeye fans' surprise and fury, Kalis claimed that more players from Ohio were likely to go to Michigan. Finally, Chris Wormley, another defensive-end who garnered a four-star rating, was a high value target for the Buckeyes and even received a scholarship offer from them, but he decided to go to Michigan. The Wolverine Blog has an extensive look at Wormley's eventual commitment.

Not only is 2012 shaping up to be one of Michigan's best classes in recent history, but Brady Hoke and his staff have managed to secure such impressive commitments before having coached a single game and an entire season before next year's Signing Day. Michigan fans find it increasingly difficult not to be amazed by Hoke's actions. And for those worrying that the pendulum might swing the other way—that Michigan is focusing so much on defense that in a few years we might have nothing productive on offense—Hoke's 2012 class includes several offensive linesmen, two tight ends, and a fullback. He has also secured a very early commitment for 2013 from De La Salle's Shane Morris, currently a sophomore but who could be the best quarterback in the state of Michigan.

Now before we all go giddy with excitement, let's keep things firmly in perspective. While we can conclude that Hoke has a vast majority of recruits coming in on defense, there were plenty of highly touted recruits from Rodriguez's classes (yes, even on defense) that generated excitement but became nothing. Either they produced little on the field, transferred elsewhere, or did not gain admission into Michigan because they didn't meet the academic standards. These incoming players could be same or they could be what we're all expecting. Furthermore, depending on Brady Hoke's first season, and if the Wolverines perform horribly, several of these recruits could de-commit and decide to go elsewhere. Many of Michigan's rivals are anticipating this.

However, even this must be looked at objectively. While recruits are certainly free to de-commit any time they wish—because the actual deadline for committing to a program is not until Signing Day, where it becomes rock solid—typically when recruits commit to someplace, they do not de-commit. There are always exceptions, as was the case with Kyle Kalis, who de-committed from Ohio State because of the turmoil and instability surrounding its program, but as a general rule commitments are secure.

Regardless of what caused Michigan's defensive problems in past years, the Wolverines will have solid defensive players coming in either way, and the defense will be better. The only real question is when. If the defense was bad because of coaching, then Hoke and Mattison's teaching fundamentals will have an immediate impact and 2011 will show a visible improvement. If the defense struggled because it simply did not have the horses, then you will see a difference in 2012 when these stellar recruits come in and compete for early playing time.

The Michigan fanbase is waiting with baited breath for the 2011 season to start. We're only thirty days away. In any event, what Michigan fans can know is that Brady Hoke is making sure that the defense is secure for the future. Bo Schembechler would be proud.

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