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Moe Wagner is earning John Beilein's trust on defense. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
The Block Is Hot
I wasn't planning to do another Basketbullets before the UCLA game until I sat through John Beilein's presser after Tuesday night's win over Texas. Beilein is coming around to the idea that Moe Wagner is, in fact, his best all-around big man, and a big reason for that showed itself on the game's deciding play:
We got done what we had to get done. Moe’s block at the end was big. Moe’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life. His first blocked shots last year I think were in the Tulsa game. He’s learning when he should leave his feet, when he shouldn’t, to be a bigger presence at the rim. Really pleased with his development, as with DJ.
Beilein's memory is pretty good: Wagner had two blocks in last season's late-November win over Charlotte, then didn't record another before his four-block breakout against Tulsa in the NCAA tournament. Wagner has always possessed the requisite length and athleticism to be a good rim protector; now he's developing the necessary timing to challenge and alter shots without picking up fouls. That was on full display with Wagner's game-sealing block, which came after he and DJ Wilson seamlessly executed a switch. Wagner stayed vertical and waited until the last moment before swatting the ball away:
After recording blocks in two of his 29 appearances last year, Wagner has six in nine games. DJ Wilson has 14. Those two almost entirely account for Michigan's team block rate rising from 6.1% (308th nationally) last season to 8.4% (189th) this year, the team's highest mark since Beilein's first season, when Ekpe Udoh had 92 of the team's 160 blocks. Incidentally, that's the last time Michigan started two bigs. While there's still plenty of room to improve, those two have added a new dimension to the defense.
[Hit THE JUMP for Billy Donlon's clutch veto, a look at the game-winning bucket, and more.]
Billy Donlon's behind-the-scenes influence is already producing results. [Campredon]
Bless You, Billy Donlon
Heading into this season, we gathered that Billy Donlon would have perhaps-unprecedented levels of control for a Beilein assistant; he spent much of media day trying in vain to convince the press corps that he wasn't a de facto defensive coordinator even though Beilein had said as much just a few minutes earlier. If there was any doubt that Donlon wields an unusual amount of power for an assistant, here's the most telling Beilein quote of the year:
I thought [Wagner]’s making major steps defensively right now. I was shocked when I wanted to make a defensive substitution at the end and put Mark [Donnal] in for Moe, and Billy [Donlon] said no, Moe’s really hedging the ball screen well. So we stayed with him down the stretch. He has been, he’ll ask me questions, we joked about the language barrier. There’s a lot going on in that huddle that is English, and he’s very good in German, but I think we take it for—he misses some things here and there that I’m picking up more on, that we’ve just got to sit and explain it more. The growth, offensively he was probably here, and defensively he was here. Well he’s rising here but this is rising too.
1. fwieaojranwebfuadfonadfkl /aneurysm
2. Thank you, Billy Donlon.
3. I'm not necessarily saying the program should invest in a translater but I'm also not not saying that.
Donlon is probably picking up on stuff like this, where Wagner—guarding 6'8", 275-pound Texas big Shaquille Cleare—maneuvers around a screen, gets his body on Cleare, denies the pass, and forces Cleare to try to post up so far away from the basket that he ends up setting a high screen instead, to which Wagner reacts by cutting off the baseline drive before getting back to his man.
The following clip is a better example of Wagner's developing pick-and-roll defense. Michigan is utiziling a wider variety of ways to defend the high screen; in this case, Wagner does a soft hedge, stringing the ballhandler out to the sideline while Derrick Walton fights over the screen and recovers.
As Walton gets back to his man, Wagner slides back to the center—note how DJ Wilson pauses in the paint instead of following his man to the perimeter to give Wagner time to get back—and then does a beautiful job of denying post position. Despite a couple attempts to establish better position against a lighter defender, Cleare catches the entry feed with both feet well outside the paint and has little choice but to kick the ball back out.
Not to shamelessly brag or anything, but I'm feeling pretty good about the timing and content of this post.
Bless You, Billy Donlon, Part II
Quick, somebody fetch my fainting couch.
via KenPom, obviously
Oh, thank goodness, I'm already sitting on a couch. Close call, you guys.
Michigan is in the top 100 in all four defensive factors, a feat they've never accomplished over a full season under Beilein. During his tenure, Michigan hasn't finished better than 148th in eFG%; they're 86th right now. Other than an anomolous 36th ranking in the 2009-10 season, they haven't finished better than 134th in turnover rate; they're 99th. That rebounding mark would be the second-best of Beilein's tenure to last year's team. The free-throw rate would be highest of Beilein's tenure by a decent margin; it's still well above average.
Three more defensive stats leap off the KenPom page. Opponents made 51.1% of their two-pointers last year, a mark that put Michigan 264th nationally—second-worst among power conference teams. This year opponents are connecting on 45.2% of their twos, good for 77th in the country. That only becomes more impressive when you notice that Michigan is doing a remarkable job of preventing opponent three-point attempts. They're ranked 12th in that stat—only 27.8% of opponent field goal attempts come from beyond the arc—after never falling in the top 100 under Beilein previously.
The third eye-opener is opponent assist rate, which sits at just 44.1%, the 26th-lowest percentage in the country. Only one under Beilein, in 2013-14, has Michigan held opponents below 50%. Despite working with essentially the same set of players as last year, Michigan has dramatically improved in pretty much every regard on defense. The vast majority of the credit, of course, goes to Donlon, but don't forget about the Saddi Washington hire—Washington is the assistant in charge of the big men.
MAAR has been frustratingly inconsistent on both ends. [Campredon]
Beilein didn't mince words when assessing Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman's performance after the Texas game:
He’s got to be a better player than he’s playing. He’s just got to continue to work. He’s lost a little confidence right now. With all our guys, if you’re having a bad offensive game, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a bad defensive game. Muhammad’s not alone. It affects his defense. The first play of the second half, the first time in there, man, they just took him right to the basket and scored right over him. You’ve got to be able to play defense better than that. That bigger lineup without him, you know, is something you’ll see more as we try to figure out what’s best for this team.
MAAR's defense has been noticeably poor for much of the year with the most frustrating stretch coming late in the Virginia Tech game; he was late to rotate back to an open shooter who drilled a three to cut M's lead to one with 2:16 left, then committed the cardinal sin of going under a screen against a shooter—or trying to, anyway, as he ended up running smack into the pick:
Michigan never quite recovered.
While much of the focus has rightfully been on the offensive struggles of M's two senior leaders, MAAR's season-long play is also worrisome. He's making a career-low 46% of his twos, is only 8-for-32 on threes, and his turnover rate has nearly doubled from last season; meanwhile, he's playing often-porous perimeter defense.
As Beilein mentioned, Michigan could go to a bigger lineup if MAAR's problems persist. While Duncan Robinson isn't any better on defense, he provides a whole lot more offense at the moment, and Michigan did well against Texas when they played Robinson at the three, Irvin at the two, and Wilson at the four—a lineup with more size than any in recent Michigan memory, and one that doesn't sacrifice anything in the way of shooting ability, especially if Wilson continues to knock down the occasional corner triple.
I noticed some heroball accusations thrown Zak Irvin's way regarding the game-winner against Texas. While Irvin had a couple heroball possessions in that game—one a made three when he found his sweet spot at the top of the key, the other an ugly midrange miss—the game-winner wasn't one of them.
Irvin played within the flow of the offense, got a step on his man off the screen from Wagner, and drew extra attention by getting all the way to the rim. Wagner probably doesn't get that rebound if his man doesn't leave him to contest Irvin's layup. That's a legit Kobe assist and a good play in an otherwise underwhelming performance from Irvin.
Marc-Gregor has been snapping so many excellent shots of DJ Wilson that I felt compelled to feature a handful of them in this post's final section.
It's gotta be the shorts.
I planned to get to Brendan F. Quinn's examination of home attendance this season but I've rambled long enough:
According to updated number provided to MLive by the university, U-M's student season ticket sales are down 44 percent year over year, falling from 2,515 in 2015-16 to 1,743 in 2016-17.
It marks the second significant drop in student ticket sales, dating back to 2014-15. That year, a season that came on the heels of a run to the Elite Eight, Michigan sold 3,193 student tickets.
Thus, all told, U-M's student season ticket sales are roughly half -- 1,743 compared to 3,193 -- of what they were two years ago.
As anyone who's been to Crisler this season can tell you, the attendance sitatuation isn't any better in non-student seating. Team performance from the last couple years and a home slate largely consisting of cannon fodder will do that; I'm guessing there's also a lingering effect from Dave Brandon reorganizing the seating chart and booting a bunch of loyal season ticket holders into the upper bowl right as the program got really good.
Despite the lagging student ticket sales, I still believe dedicating more courtside seating to students would provide further incentive for them to show up in force; while the overflow seats are often left unoccupied, the courtside Maize Rage seats are almost always packed.
Bruh you gotta take that ring to Mount McDoom
enjoying the fact that this picture's filename is 0_0.jpg [Scout]
4* CA OL Aaron Banks is announcing in a few hours. The recruiting world's expectations: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is one invisible four-star recruit. Until yesterday he had got one Crystal Ball, that a year old from the weirdo who puts in a pick for every recruit in the country way early and then forgets about most of them.
One thing we can probably deduce from Banks's visit schedule: it's Michigan or Notre Dame. He took officials to those two schools and Oregon, which just imported a new staff. If Oregon was still in it he'd delay his announcement to catch up with the new guys. Cal and Stanford, the local-ish schools, aren't in it. There was some UCLA chatter after Jim Mora had an in-home, but he hasn't been to Westwood since this summer. Apparently that was the first time Mora had ever met Banks. That would be a weird way to pick up a commit.
FWIW, Lorenz says Banks is take and that he doesn't know what'll happen; Brandon Brown first said Michigan would pass but then backtracked on that; Wiltfong notes that ND has really been putting on a full court press, while Michigan sending Jay Harbaugh to close the deal instead of the head man could be construed as something other than all-out effort.
The most definitive opinion is from Scout's Greg Biggins, who feels pretty strongly that it'll be Michigan since "it's the only school he talks about" to the point where coaches from other schools on official visits mostly hear about Seoul Street's Korean street food, renovations to the IM building, and Stadium Boulevard being closed until spring. We have put a crystal ball for Banks to Michigan mostly because that's the most definitive take out there. Tom Loy, naturally, put one in for Notre Dame. Neither outcome would surprise.
[UPDATE: we've now flipped our CB to ND as Biggins reports that Michigan passed.]
The perils of naming any visit list ever: CA CB Darnay Holmes and PA S Paris Ford will not be on campus. That's a minor bummer. Sam Webb says that Michigan is focusing on ND commit Elijah Hicks as their fifth DB at this point. As of a few days ago Hicks's imminent flip from ND had been downgraded to "up in the air" after a hard ND push. You'd think that 4-8 and not having a defensive coordinator would make it hard to push.
Brad Hawkins can get up
4* NJ WR Brad Hawkins is a rare prep-and-follow guy for Michigan who actually came through and joined the next recruiting class. I was surprised, and now I'm not.
You know it's a good WR highlight video when the wide open touchdowns are in the second half; that is a man who can go get footballs.
The above and news that Michigan might not have room for one of the four very good WR prospects they're pursuing means we can shelve Hawkins-to-safety talk for the time being. Wiltfong told the ND 247 site that Michigan had removed itself from pursuit of 4* IA WR Oliver Martin because they were more or less full at wide receiver, which is a very good sign for the three names other than Martin currently on the board. 4* CT WR Tarik Black announces in a week and 5* MI WR Donovan Peoples-Jones is an early enrollee whose last visit before a decision is to Michigan this weekend; only 4.5* AL WR Nico Collins looks set to take it to signing day.
Obligatory Najee Harris section
5* CA RB Najee Harris told Bleacher Report that he wanted to take all five officials before deciding, which... uh... probably not since that would mean two visits in addition to Michigan before the 12th. Cal is feasible because it's nearby, and it appears that the Bears did indeed host Harris. They sent him a party bus and everything. USC is maybe less realistic.
Anyway, that Bleacher Report article is yet another in which Harris's quotes about Harbaugh are eyebrow-raising, especially in direct comparison to Nick Saban:
"He's a legend in my area in a way," Harris said. "What Harbaugh did—to go to the NFL and do that, then go to college at Michigan and do that again—that's one of the best coaches."
He acknowledged Harbaugh and Alabama head coach Nick Saban are "extremely" different coaches but noted "they're both good people."
Harris observed Saban operates with a "straight business" approach, while Harbaugh is "juiced" and "full of energy." Most importantly, they share a penchant for developing winners.
That's the third article where the reserved Harris says some effusive things about Harbaugh. Will it be enough? Like Banks, nobody knows. Harris's mom has a twitter account that is very heavy on 'Bama stuff; Sam Webb's gut declared that people inside Schembechler think they lead. But nobody really talks to Harris outside the odd BR or newspaper article, so nobody's got a read.
You go to hell and you die, Georgia
Sometimes crystal balls are silly, like when Rutgers led on Isaiah Wilson's for four months
Georgia was a thorn in Michigan's side last year and they may be again. Unlike last year, location plays in Michigan's favor for 5* NY OL Isaiah Wilson. Alabama is perceived to be the main competition, but with the primary Bama 247 guy flipping his crystal ball to Michigan a couple days ago it appears the only thing standing between Michigan and Wilson is this weekend's official visit to Athens.
Nobody is talking about this outside of the Georgia sites because nobody expects much to come of it. Wilson told Adam Friedman* that his mind was just about made up a few days ago:
“The school I’m thinking of just seems perfect. That’s the best way I can put it. I’ll leave it at that. People can go on an do their guessing. I think I pretty much know where I’m going."
Always some small danger, but I'd be much more worried about Bama for an out-of-region recruit. To Wilson they probably look the same except one has Nick Saban and the other has Bootleg Nick Saban.
*[Yes, the guy who said Wilson was an OSU/Clemson battle earlier this year. This is a direct quote so Friedman's tendency to say CLEMSON EVERYTHING does not interfere.]
Meanwhile Michigan has a road game against Georgia (and Alabama, and apparently the rest of the SEC) for 4.5* GA DT Aubrey Solomon. Solomon just announced that he's going to spend that fifth official on the Bulldogs. Or not, and instead they'll spend it on Auburn. He's already been to Bama and M; his January schedule will take him to USC on the 13th, Georgia or Auburn the following week, and Florida just before Signing Day. Right now it seems like Michigan is where he wants to go, but they've got to dodge a ton of bullets to get to the finish line. UGA 247 reporter Kipp Adams has it about right:
This is an all-out war. Every school should be worried about everyone.
I dunno, man. Auburn—which has not been involved so far—kind of seems like another southern option that might be a compromise between Michigan (where Solomon wants to go) and Somewhere Close (where mom wants him to be). USC does not fit this narrative, admittedly, but I go back to that recent interview where Michigan seemed to be the choice.
I though that about DaShawn Hand, too, so don't take that too seriously.
Reitmaier set to stick with Oregon?
There's a poster on Rivals's board who is clearly connected with TN DT Rutger Reitmaier; he asserts that after Willie Taggart's hire at Oregon Reitmaier looks set to stick with his commitment. Message board rando discounts apply but this guy in particular seems consistent and credible.
I wouldn't write him off just yet, since it seems clear where his parents want him. Reitmaier's dad talked with Sam Webb for a very long piece, which is usually a good sign. In it he's pretty open:
When Coach Harbaugh and Coach Mattison reached out to us and once I started talking to them and doing the research I'm like, ‘oh boy, this is a really good school, and obviously, the program is great.’ But I didn't realize how (great) on the academic side it is. So (what you’re) kind of trying to figure out as a parent is, you want to have him play where he wants to play, but also give some (perspective) to the youth that doesn't have experience.
Michigan probably doesn't have room for all four of the DL currently on the board but they really need at least one NT type, and Reitmaier is in the Glasgow mold. 3.5* MI DE/DT Deron Irving-Bey probably tops out as a three-tech. Getting at least one and preferably two of Solomon, Reitmaier, and 4.5* UT DT Jay Tufele is neck-and-neck with a ready-to-play tackle as the most pressing need remaining in the class.
FL LB Jordan Anthony has set a commit date of 12/22 per this Epic Oskee-level video on Hudl. Speaking of!
Lorenz reports that Anthony will visit Ann Arbor on an unofficial this weekend instead of taking an official to Maryland. If so that is game over, man. Anthony's announcement will have zero suspense, which is the way I like my announcements.
MS LB Willie Gay is at one of those State versus State All Star games and sounding like a pretty good Peppers analogue: "Gay is really fluid and speedy from his linebacker position and he's got safety cover ability to go with his heat-seeking run support style." Michigan is still after him hard.
Lorenz also reports Michigan thinks 3.5* OH DE James Hudson's senior film is really good too. He and Stueber are probably the most underrated guys in the class.
4* 2018 MI LB Ovie Oghoufo is a Notre Dame commit but sounds very open about listening to Michigan, as you would expect after Notre Dame went 4-8. 4* 2018 GA LB commit Otis Reese just got a trio of heavy-hitting offers: Bama, Georgia, and Florida. If there's going to be wobble in his recruitment it'll start now. He sounded very committed just a couple weeks ago.
30 minutes—shorter due to Warde Manuel preceding
- Florida State did not miss Don Brown being in their conference, has a good DL and one of the best RBs Michigan has ever faced.
- Michigan sends off an NFL DL, returns one
- Baskethooops takes: is the offense bogging down, or do the threes just have to fall? Getting used to playing with Mo.
- Brian goes full Craig Ross re: ticky-tack fouls on Michigan’s best bigs.
- Who can create on the offense?
- Michigan can win this Big Ten
- Comparing Beilein Michigan to Dantonio MSU
You can catch the entire episode on Michigan Insider's podcast stream on Audioboom.
Segment two is here.
THE USUAL LINKS
WOOP [Eric Upchurch]
Exit Shane Morris. Per Tom Van Haaren, Shane Morris will pursue a graduate transfer. CMU is the most likely destination.
Morris never lived up to the titanic hype that his arm strength generated when he was a high school junior. First, a bout of mono his senior year put him behind the development curve; second, Al Borges finished the job. An inexplicable start against Minnesota in 2014 resulted in a probable mild concussion, setting off a firestorm of controversy Dave Brandon's incompetence stoked until it resulted in both his and Brady Hoke's firing.
Morris will, but shouldn't be, remembered mostly for that. He was a Michigan kid through and through, to the point where he played slot receiver in the spring and was happily a lead blocker on sweeps. It didn't work out at M; here's hoping he goes Thomas Rawls at CMU.
We were already banking on Morris's departure in our recruiting calculations, so that won't affect the size of the class.
PFF's All Big Ten team. Michigan folks:
- Offense: Amara Darboh ("highest-graded run blocker among Big Ten receivers ... 2.65 yards per route run average ranks second in the conference"), Khalid Hill, Erik Magnuson (2nd), Mason Cole (2nd).
- Defense: Taco Charlton ("absolutely dominant force in Big Ten play"), Ryan Glasgow("posted four sacks and 14 total pressures to go with nine total defensive stops" in final four games), Maurice Hurst(2nd), Mike McCray("24 total pressures on just 77 reps"), Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling (2nd), Jabrill Peppers (as a slot corner), Delano Hill(2nd).
Peppers was obviously the punt returner; Jordan Glasgow was their All Big Ten special-teamer. Entertainingly, OSU punter Cameron Johnston was the ABT punter and was graded out at –13.8 before the Michigan game. PFF hates specialists, like any red-blooded American.
You'll notice a few omissions: Mackey winner Jake Butt, Chris Wormley, and Ben Gedeon. Wormley scored around +31(!), basically level with Charlton and Hurst and a hair behind Glasgow. He got left out because of Jake Replogle's existence and some guy named Steven Richardson from Minnesota. Butt got a bunch of pass blocking minuses(?!) and didn't have the same kind of receiving impact he did a year ago. (If we're being honest, he should have won the Mackey last year; getting it this year is a bit of a lifetime achievement award.) Gedeon was +12, so he was on the verge. There were a ton of good linebackers in the league.
So you're saying there's a chance. Jabrill Peppers made an appearance on the Dan Patrick show ("THAT'S RIDICULOUS," exclaim Ohio State fans, "MALIK HOOKER SHOULD HAVE MADE AN APPEARANCE ON THE DAN PATRICK SHOW"), and on that show he denied that he'd made an NFL decision:
During an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, Patrick asked Peppers -- who is eligible for the NFL Draft this year -- why he would stay at Michigan?
"To get a degree, to try to finish some unfinished things here, to keep getting better at my craft," Peppers said. "I don't know, man. I've got a tough decision to make."
I... no. I am not taking this seriously, but I appreciate Peppers making it sound like a hard choice. FWIW, Peppers also said he'd vote for Deshaun Watson for Heisman.
This is probably fine. Buried at the end of an Ole Miss press release about Hugh Freeze dumping his offensive coordinator:
Ole Miss announces OC/QB coach Dan Werner will not return. Also, at the end of the release, Asst. AD Barney Farrar no longer part of staff.
— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) December 8, 2016
No word about the "assistant athletic director for football operations," John Miller, who directed Tunsil to talk to Farrar about getting some more money.
I throw many shades at uniformz so only fair to acknowledge the flipside. These are gorgeous.
— Nanooks Hockey Blog (@NanookHockey) December 7, 2016
I miss playing Alaska-Fairbanks, for the 8-0 wins Friday and inexplicable 2-1 losses Saturday, and for the two free games Michigan got whenever they went up there. Also I cannot figure out how to buy this jersey.
Knives out for Butch Jones. 247's Travis Haney has a feature article featuring an absolute ton of people slamming Butch Jones as not up for it:
“You talk about the time and place to say something like that - and that is not what our fans wanted to hear,” one Tennessee administrative source told 247Sports, referring to the “champions of life” comment. “That will never go away. That soundbite will never go away.” ...
“It’s like he doesn’t think he should be there,” [another] source said. “It’s like he doesn’t think he belongs. And that permeates through the program. Everyone feels that.” ...
“The culture is a disaster,” said someone who works in the football building.
There are many more quotes from different people; even the supportive folk on the record are mostly talking about how Jones's accomplishments, such as they are, have not been fully appreciated. Add in Jalen Hurd's highly unusual midseason transfer and it looks grim for the future of the Jones regime. Regardless of the veracity of the claims in the article the number of people saying those things, even anonymously, for publication gives off a strong Rich Rodriguez vibe. He has problems of his own making, and now that he's down in a hole the rest of the program is digging for him.
This is of tangential interest to Michigan fans because of two things: Marcus Ray's bizarre insistence that Jones should have been the man instead of Harbaugh and Jones topping that hot take by hiring Michigan Olympic sports administrator Mike DeBord as his offensive coordinator. The parallels between Tennessee's breakdown of culture and discipline and those of the late Carr era are obvious.
More Butch Jones. Tennessee just got a commit from Trey Smith. Depending on who you listen to Smith is the top OL and possibly the top player in the country. Tennessee's sales pitch?
— Rhiannon Potkey (@TennesseeBeat) December 6, 2016
As Get The Picture points out, their real sales pitch was "we will give your sister money to be executive assistant to the head coach." At least Michigan hires actual football coaches.
Also knives out for someone you may know. Also in bad-idea coordinator hires:
Wow. The Oregon president is out here taking shots, says the only advice he can give is to "Go out and find a great defensive coordinator."
— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) December 8, 2016
I confess that I thought hiring Brady Hoke might not have been the worst idea in the world—look at his track record with under-recruited Michigan DL. It turned out to be... unhelpful. At least. It's possible that he took over a unit so far away from competence that he was doomed either way; it is extremely unlikely anyone will take that chance. Tell you what, though, whoever hires him as a DL coach is not wrong.
The Counterfactual. The #1 alternate universe of the past ten years in college football: what if RichRod takes the Alabama job? Nick Saban goes... somewhere. Michigan hires... somebody. He probably still fails extensively. John Talty looks back at one of the most fascinating coaching searches in CFB history.
Etc.: Excellent scouting report on Will Lockwood, one of the bright spots on the hockey team. A major reason Willie Taggart got the Oregon job: Jim Harbaugh. Lane Kiffin still the frontrunner for the Houston job. Me, I'd just hire their DC. Assistant salaries skyrocket, they have the money to pay players, etc.
Rather athletic. [Left: 247Sports; Right: Bill Rapai/MGoBlog]
Four-star Detroit King cornerback Ambry Thomas, the #2 player in the state, committed to Michigan last night via video announcement.
An Army All-American and two-time state champion, Thomas chose the Wolverines over Michigan State in a recruitment that was very reminiscent of that of his former King teammate and current Michigan corner Lavert Hill. While the Spartans made a late push to try to convince Thomas he could be a program savior, Thomas chose a tougher path to the field and everything else that comes with being a student-athlete at Michigan:
"Grew up a Michigan fan," Thomas told 247Sports shortly after announcing his verbal. "I'm willing to accept Coach (Jim) Harbaugh's challenge and you can't go wrong with the life after football there."
Thomas is Michigan's 21st commit in the 2017 class and their second at cornerback, joining four-star Canadian prospect Benjamin St-Juste. Thomas also joins his cousin, Cass Tech safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell, whose commitment to Michigan played a big role in Thomas's decision. Michigan now has four of the top five in-state recruits in the class, and they're expected to land the fifth, five-star Cass Tech WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, who will take his official visit to Ann Arbor this weekend.
4*, #5 CB,
4*, #17 CB,
4*, 81, #22 CB,
4*, 93, #3 CB,
4*, #11 CB,
There's quite a split between the bullish Scout/247 rankings and the bearish Rivals/ESPN ones, and I've seen enough of Thomas in person and on film to confidently side with the former. I'd understand the Rivals/ESPN rankings if Thomas were being evaluated as a wide receiver, a position for which he's a bit undersized but still excelled playing at The Opening against the nation's top competition—and he's been quite a two-way threat for King over the last few years.
Thomas is a superior defensive prospect, however, and while 247's ranking may be a little lofty—he does need to fill out and improve his run support—I don't get how you can keep a player with his ability and versatility out of the top 100. If Thomas reaches his potential, he could be a lockdown cornerback who contributes in all three phases.
The sites are in general agreement on Thomas's size, listing him between 5'11" and 6'0" (Scout and 247 put him at 5'11.5") and 165-174 pounds. The consensus is Thomas is on the heavier end of that range; he'll still need to bulk up before he's an effective run defender at the college level.
There's a ton out there on Thomas, who first emerged as a promising two-way player as a sophomore at King. He was listed ahead of older Power 5 players like Demetric Vance among top performers at the 2015 Pylon 7-on-7 tournament by Rivals's Josh Helmholdt, and he was barely edged out by Lavert Hill as the best DB at that spring's RCS Cleveland camp:
Thomas showed some quick footwork during position drills and he was able to get in and out of his breaks with a strong burst. During one-on-one competition, he was at the top of his game. He was blanketed receiver after receiver. He was able to stick with the quicker guys and he was able to handle the physical play of the bigger guys. He had a few pass break-ups and made a very strong push for the defensive back MVP award.
He impressed at that summer's Friday Night Light's camp at Ohio State, where Tim Sullivan concluded that with more experience "his physical skills will allow him to be a special player."
Thomas excelled in his junior season, catching the eye of Scout's Allen Trieu in a major way in the season opener against Warren De La Salle:
King's four-star junior Ambry Thomas had the big play of the day, an electrifying touchdown catch where he made numerous players miss in the open field. He's gotten a little bigger himself and his length and blazing speed make him an elite prospect.
He was instrumental in King's state championship, playing both receiver and cornerback. This spring, he earned an invite to The Opening finals by proving he could hang with the best of the best at the Columbus regional, per 247's Steve Wiltfong:
247Sports Director of Scouting Barton Simmons’s favorite player was Detroit (Mich.) King cornerback Ambry Thomas, who not only was invited to The Opening but also received his invite to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The day started off for the 5-foot-11 ½, 174-pound Thomas who posted one of the fastest 40-yard dash marks of the day, a laser-timed 4.48. Thomas was ready to go during 1-on-1s checking the top receivers at the event and it carried over to 7-on-7. Thomas has big-time make-up speed and went back and forth with five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Scout's Bill Greene, at the same event, called Thomas "wiry and combative, never giving an inch in coverage"
Before heading to the finals, Thomas participated in June's Sound Mind Sound Body camp at Wayne State, where the MGoBlog crew was present. I thought Thomas was the best college prospect in attendance:
Thomas was the most physically impressive player on the field. He's got solid height for a corner—perhaps a shade under six-foot even—with long arms, and he uses that length to play a physical brand of man coverage even in an unpadded setting. Even though he was bigger than most of the other corners, he had the smoothest backpedal and hip turn in drills—it wasn't hard to pick out the best athlete of the bunch even before one-on-ones began.
Thomas lost an early rep to [KJ] Hamler, then battled him to a relative draw in their next matchup; Thomas used his hands well to disrupt the route before Hamler broke free for a tough catch—one that probably doesn't get made in a game setting because the quarterback couldn't wait that long on one read. Thomas jammed another receiver so hard at the line of scrimmage that the QB didn't even bother with a throw, a rarity in that drill. He displayed great recovery speed and ball skills when a receiver got off the line—both are on full display in this video.
While cornerback is his future, Thomas also took a couple reps at receiver, torching the corner for an easy long completion on the first rep and high-pointing an underthrow on the second. He's got the potential to be as good as any corner from the state in recent years. Yes, that includes Jourdan Lewis—Thomas isn't quite as twitchy, but he's got better size. Like Hamler, he was itching to get back onto the field after each rep.
Steve Wiltfong agreed; while he had Hamler as the camp's best performer, he singled out Thomas as the best college prospect on the field:
Thomas is another with fantastic speed, moves very well laterally, a fluid, long athlete that plays with toughness and confidence.
Wiltfong suggested Thomas may be a five-star talent; of the four sites, 247 is closest to bestowing him that honor.
Thomas didn't plan to participate in Michigan's Bright Lights Big House camp in June, but his competitive spirit won out when he saw that top-100 AL WR Nico Collins was taking part, per 247's Isaiah Hole:
Collins also got to go up against Detroit (MI) Martin Luther King CB Ambry Thomas -- who was attending the camp as a spectator, but decided to lace up his cleats once he saw Collins there.
His competitiveness stood out all summer; he only wanted the top matchups at SMSB, took as many reps as he could, and clearly relished testing his ability against the very best receivers he could find.
At the finals of The Opening, Thomas made spectacular plays on both sides of the ball. The camp named him one of the six all-tournament defensive backs in a loaded field. Scout named him to their defense "Super Team" while their writeup focused on his offensive exploits:
Thomas was one of the more reliable targets of any team at the Opening, able to work the underneath routes with quickness before breaking out during deep shots with his top end speed. The 4.43 he clicked Friday was no hoax.
247 put him on their "Dream Team" as an all-purpose defender:
He's on here on the defensive side but Thomas made his mark as our best two-way threat. He was a lock-down guy at cornerback but on a [team] hampered by injuries on offense, he was one of the day's top deep threat at wide receiver too.
Notably, Thomas was catching those passes from Dylan McCaffrey, Michigan's 2017 QB commit.
After that performance, ESPN listed him first among prospects who improved their stock over the summer:
Thomas tore up The Opening, especially in 7-on-7 play. The Detroit prospect is well-known around the Midwest and is an ESPN 300 prospect, but he wasn't talked about as much nationally as other recruits. Normally a defensive back, Thomas played both offense and defense at The Opening and he scored multiple touchdowns for his team. He showed off his speed and athleticism that most around the state of Michigan knew he had.
Then they didn't move him into the top 200, because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. 247, in stark contrast, shot Thomas up from #113 to #32 in their post-Opening re-rank, and he's remained in that range ever since.
The Wolverine's Brandon Brown caught Thomas in a preseason scrimmage setting, where his reputation preceded him:
Thomas was not thrown at virtually all day. His length, speed, and quickness made it very tough for any receivers to get separation and quarterbacks did not want to test the four-star cover man even in a scrimmage.
Even though he's slight at 165 pounds, Thomas showed an ability and an eagerness to come up and help against the run. He'll never be a big-time hitter or a physical presence, but he will keep contain and tackle in space when he needs to.
Thomas was featured twice in Future Blue Originals posts on this here site this season, first after his Prep Kickoff Classic game against Southfield A&T. Adam's takeaway from that game:
Thomas has been lauded for his camp performances over the summer, and it seems that the skill he showed on that circuit is translating well to the field. He’s excellent in press man and off coverage, and as a receiver he ran great routes; he’s a technician. He has the football IQ, speed, and athleticism you’d want in a CB who, should he commit to Michigan, will likely spend his college career primarily as a press man corner. As for his downside, it seems to be nothing that a college strength and conditioning program can’t fix.
His subsequent performance against Cass Tech had Adam convinced he could be a two-way player in college:
All told, he’s incredibly athletic and seems to be a more legitimate two-way threat than I thought he was after our first viewing. Thomas is talented enough as a receiver to at least merit experimenting with him on offense if he eventually chooses Michigan.
I wholeheartedly agree with Sam Webb's assessment from after Thomas's commitment last night:
To say Thomas has the highest ceiling, coming out of high school, of that whole group [of Detroit defensive backs], is not a stretch.
"I’ve watched a number of big time defensive back prospects come out of Detroit over the past 15 years, and Ambry Thomas has the talent and heart to be the best of them all," said The Michigan Insider's Sam Webb. "I think he is a taller, faster version of Jourdan Lewis. He is an excellent bump and run defender. He has great feet, loose hips, recovery speed, and tremendous ball skills. Lewis was better technically at the same stage of development, but Thomas is more physical. Jourdan grew into being physical and is now one of the best tackling corners in the country.
"I think Ambry can make the same leap with his technique. Once he does that I think you’ll see him start impacting the game on offense. He told me his wants to immerse himself in the defense for a season or two before trying his hand at receiver. When he is ready Michigan will definitely give the opportunity because he has shown himself to be a big play threat every time he touches the ball.
Thomas should be able to make an early impact at cornerback and he's got the potential to do a whole lot more down the road. Despite his lofty composite ranking, I think he's a little underrated; he's in the top handful of prospects I've seen in the state in the last six years.
Thomas holds notable offers from Arkansas, Arizona State, Auburn, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisville, LSU, Miami (YTM), Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Oregon, Penn State, Pitt, South Carolina, Tennessee, UCLA, USC, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, among several others.
You're probably well-acquainted with Detroit Martin Luther King, which has developed quite a rivalry with Cass Tech in the PSL. The Crusaders repeated as Division 2 state champions this season, albeit in less dramatic fashion than last year. Notable recent King recruits include four-star 2016 CB Lavert Hill (Michigan), four-star 2016 WR/CB Donnie Corley (MSU), three-star 2016 RB Martell Pettaway (West Virginia), four-star 2015 OL Kyonta Stallworth (MSU), three-star 2015 OLB Tyriq Thompson (MSU), four-star 2012 RB Dennis Norfleet (Michigan), four-star 2008 DE Nick Perry (USC), and four-star 2002 DT Larry Harrison (Michigan).
As you can see, MSU has done quite well recruiting King in recent years, in no small part because two prominent recruiting staffers—Curtis Blackwell and Butler Benton—are MLK grads. Michigan has grabbed a lot of momentum back by winning head-to-head battles for Lavert Hill and now Thomas, though losing out to State for Donnie Corley is going to sting for a couple years.
None that were easily googleable.
FAKE 40 TIME
Thomas ran one of the ten fastest 40s at The Opening finals, posting an electronically timed 4.43, which gets zero FAKEs out of five. He also posted one of the better shuttle times (3.90), a measure of agility that is of particular importance for a cornerback, and a solid 35.9-inch vertical leap.
Junior highlights and single-game reels can be found on his Hudl page.
PREDICTION BASED ON FLIMSY EVIDENCE
Thomas will get the opportunity to see the field at cornerback immediately upon his arrival, especially if Jeremy Clark isn't granted a sixth year of eligibility. He'll have the chance to prepare both physically and mentally by enrolling early. At the very least, I expect him to get his feet wet like Lavert Hill did this year, and he's more college-ready than Hill was coming out of high school. With Hill, Thomas, St-Juste, and David Long, Michigan has some very exciting young prospects at cornerback. The battle for playing time between them will be fun to watch.
As Sam mentioned in his evaluation, Thomas should ease his way into an expanded role as a potential triple-threat: cornerback, wide receiver, and return man. While it may be hard to crack the receiver rotation with the talent Michigan is bringing in there, Thomas is skilled and athletic enough to earn snaps on offense anyway.
UPSHOT FOR THE REST OF THE CLASS
Michigan sits at 21 commits in a class that is projected to get up to 32 or so. They'd like to take one more cornerback. Darnay Holmes, who cancelled a planned official for this weekend, looks likely to end up at UCLA, so Michigan will probably move on to other options like Notre Dame commit Elijah Hicks. Other positions of need include wide receiver, a few more offensive linemen, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker. Here's the class as it currently stands:
MI CB Ambry Thomas, the #2 player in the state, just announced his commitment to Michigan:
Thomas is the #3 CB and #31 overall player in the country to 247; he's 5th and 58th, respectively, on Scout. The other two services have him around 200th. Sam Webb on Thomas:
"I think he is a taller, faster version of Jourdan Lewis. He is an excellent bump and run defender. He has great feet, loose hips, recovery speed, and tremendous ball skills. Lewis was better technically at the same stage of development, but Thomas is more physical."
Michigan now has commits from 5 of the top 8 players in the state and hopes to add Donovan Peoples-Jones and Deron Irving-Bey in the near future.
A full post is coming tomorrow.