Michigan now has 12 commitments in its 2012 football recruiting class, currently (by at least one measure) the top class in the Big Ten.
That #1 ranking is partly real, partly artificial. What’s real is that Brady Hoke has recruited some pretty good football players. What’s artificial is that no other Big Ten school has more than eight commits, and nine teams in the conference have four or fewer. That obviously won’t last.
When Michigan has 12 commits and Nebraska just 2, you can’t really say that Michigan is out-recruiting Nebraska. All you can say is that the Cornhuskers must not be particularly eager to get kids to commit this early. (I have no doubt that if the ’Huskers wanted them sooner, they could have them.)
The strategy of accepting so many early commitments has advantages and disadvantages. Clearly it tells the story that Hoke and his team are ace recruiters. When you haven’t coached a game yet, it’s about the only way you can show the world how good you are. It also makes positive news for a program that hasn’t had much of it lately. Nobody needs to be persuaded that great players will go to Nebraska. At Michigan, you couldn’t take that for granted anymore after three bad years.
Tactically, the strategy could push wavering players to commit sooner, fearing that if they don’t their spot in the class might at some point be no longer available. But the players you attract that way are probably not the very best ones. I never heard of a school that couldn’t find room for a five-star athlete (who was academically qualified). Obviously, every commitment takes the player away from other potential suitors, although only loosely, since other schools can still recruit the player between now and signing day.
It feels good to be cleaning Michigan State’s clock on the recruiting trail. But it also says a lot about the current state of Wolverine football that we even care. Five years ago, nobody worried about whether Michigan would have a better recruiting class than the perennial middle-tier team in East Lansing. It was simply a given—something like a sell-out at the Big House, that we hardly ever thought about, because it was expected.
The strategy could also have drawbacks. Michigan has made hundreds of offers for 2012, and it can accept no more than 20–25 (depending on the number of scholarships ultimately available). Every spot you fill early is a spot not available later on, either for players who don’t want to decide this early, or for players off the radar who might make a jump in their senior seasons. Likewise, players who look great based on junior-season film might regress as seniors.
It would be interesting to study whether there is any measurable advantage to accepting commitments early vs. waiting until the fall. A look through the Rivals database shows that there is a pretty wide variance among the elite programs. For instance, Alabama currently has 12 (same as Michigan), but Auburn has only 5. There are two widely different strategies there.
(I am assuming that no player with a chance at attending an elite program rushes to commit to Indiana or Vanderbilt, but that there are plenty who would eagerly commit at places like Auburn and Oregon, to the extent the coaches want them so soon.)
One would think, offhand, that you take the commitments of a four- and five-star kids whenever you can get them, since those players (when correctly rated) are the ones that usually go on to be multi-year starters, NFL draft picks, and so forth. That would also apply to the three-star or unrated kids whom you believe very strongly that the recruiting services got wrong. For a correctly-rated mid-level three-star, the advantages of getting an early commitment aren’t as clear. At that level, players are much more plentiful, and schools like Michigan should be more choosy.
I don’t claim to have the answer, nor am I uncomfortable with Hoke’s strategy. He’s a proven recruiter at places like Ball State and SDSU that are much harder to sell, and in the absence of more concrete data I’ll assume he’s getting it right. I do think it’s a point worthy of further research.