Recruits In Retrospect: 2008 Defense

Recruits In Retrospect: 2008 Defense

Submitted by Ace on June 11th, 2012 at 4:32 PM


The Ballad of Boubacar is brief and unfortunate

This is the second part of an in-depth look at the 2008 recruiting class, and more specifically Brian's recruiting profiles for that class. You can find part one, covering the offense, here. If you'd like to peruse the recruiting profiles yourself—a highly recommended time-waster—you can find links to each position group here. Without further ado, let's look back at the eight-member defensive class of 2008. This one's not for the squeamish.

Mike Martin Wrestles Not Mike Martin, Which Goes As Expected

Let's start with the good, yes? Mike Martin not only stands as the clear-cut best player in the class, but outside of two-star Patrick Omameh may very well be the only player to surpass expectations from when he hit campus. Those expectations, at least from Brian, were pretty high:

Guru Reliability: High.
General Excitement Level: High. The highlight reel is totally impressive, there are zero questions about work ethic or how in shape he is, and he's got pretty good guru rankings.
Projection: Will play in the DT rotation immediately, and will probably leap past Ferrara, Kates (if Kates remains on the team), et al to claim a starting spot once Taylor and Johnson graduate.

The remarkable strength that helped Martin excel for four years at Michigan was also on full display during his high school wrestling career, and fortunately there is video evidence of a young Martin perfecting his Hulk Smash. A Simmons-style running diary follows:

0:00 — Martin and his opponent—"Mo" is his name, judging by the cheers from people around the cameraman—jog onto the mat.
0:07 — Mo removes what appears to be an ankle tether, so maybe this is just an elaborate criminal punishment that almost certainly violates the 8th Amendment.
0:14 — Martin shakes Mo's hand. Martin releases his grip and Mo's hand goes limp, never again to function properly.
0:16 — The match begins. Martin begins stalking his prey, who ignores his coach's cries to "circle, circle!" and instead backpedals furiously to avoid Martin's grasp. Within seconds, Mo finds himself out of bounds.
0:36 — At the restart, Mo goes for an ill-timed high-five. Martin ignores this desperate plea for peace and immediately dives for a single-leg takedown.
0:44 — Mo manages to ward off the takedown, but once again backs himself out of the ring. When facing Mike Martin, this is not cowardice, but simply a display of proper survival instincts.
0:56 — On the second restart, Mo lightly pats Martin on the head. If you consult page 56 of your Worst Case Scenario handbook, you know this is the last thing you want to do when encountering a Mike Martin in the wild.
1:12 — Martin gets his hands on the back of Mo's head then explodes for a takedown, knocking Mo to the very edge of the mat. Mo sees an opportunity for escape and frantically crawls for the exits. Mike Martin is having none of that:

1:20 — As Mo's compatriots cackle at his misfortune, Martin assumes control and pins his convulsing opponent, ending this match with relative humanity.
1:50 — The two shake hands as Martin is declared the winner. Martin goes on to star at Michigan. Mo reattaches his ankle tether, vows to straighten his life out, and hastily seeks both physical and emotional therapy.

This Did Not Go As Planned, Part I

The first, and highest-ranked, of the Cass Tech Lollipop Guild line of cornerbacks was Boubacar Cissoko, a top-50 overall recruit to every site save ESPN, where he was outrageously(!) pegged as the nation's #28 corner. Regrettable statement goes here:

Guru Reliability: Maximal. The unified chorus: this is a perfect cornerback except he's 5'8".
General Excitement Level: High. Obvious physical limitation aside, the perfect corner.
Projection: Plays as a freshman and is starting next to Warren by his sophomore year.

Cissoko flashed promise as a freshman in 2008, even starting two contests. Then Michael Floyd and Golden Tate lit him up again and again in 2009 before Cissoko went on a crime spree that quickly found him off the team and then incarcerated. While Cissoko obviously never reached anything close to the potential that had Brian so excited, his recruiting profile did feature one bit of eerie foreshadowing [emphasis mine]:

A couple years ago, I watched [current Detroit Lions CB Chris] Houston and Arkansas play South Carolina. Redshirt sophomore Sidney Rice was the Gamecock's big star and Houston lined up nose-to-nose with Rice in eff-you press man on every single play. Spurrier went after him again and again; sometimes he won and sometimes he lost, but usually because Rice reeled in a perfectly-thrown fade. It was a fantastic individual battle and I came away impressed with both players. So did the NFL: Houston went with the eighth pick in the second round; Rice went just four picks later.

Maybe this isn't the most reassuring comparison, as Rice did end up with 7 catches for 128 yards and Arkansas lost, but... hey... free second round pick!

Michael Floyd vs. Michigan, 2009: 7 catches, 131 yards, and a touchdown. Somehow, the Wolverines won anyway.

Instead of 3-4 years of Cissoko stardom, this was the guy who ended up as a multi-year starter at cornerback:

Guru Reliability: High. No reason he'd be under the radar; offers about commensurate with ranking.
General Excitement Level: Meh.
Projection: Though he's being brought in as a corner a move to safety is likely given the above, where he'll probably end up buried behind Stevie Brown, Artis Chambers, Stewart, and maybe Brandon Smith until his junior year, at which point he might develop into a contributor.

If you read that and went "sounds like J.T. Floyd," give yourself a cookie. At least, "meh" was most everyone's general impression of Floyd until last year's Illinois game; his emergence as a reliable starting corner means he's surpassed most reasonable expectations for his career.

The final secondary recruit was safety Brandon Smith, whose guru ratings took a Marvin Robinson-like dive for very similar reasons:

Smith looks like a prototypical collegian at a strapping 6'2", 210, but the lack of big time offers is telling. It's easy to believe Smith could lure the gurus in with his impressive frame at various combines and inflate his ranking while leaving college coaches relatively unmoved.

Excitement level was only "moderate" and a move to outside linebacker predicted. Smith moved to linebacker, then announced his intention to transfer before the end of the 2009 season. He landed at Temple and is not listed on the 2012 spring roster.

This Did Not Go As Planned, Part II

Michigan's recruiting haul included four linebackers rated as four-stars by Rivals, providing promise of much-needed depth and versatility for the position group going forward. The class included New Jersey's Marcus Witherspoon (Spoon!)...

An explosive edge rusher who's probably too small to be a fulltime defensive end in college? Add four inches and some chicken legs and that sounds like Shawn Crable, who actually spent quite a bit of time as a defensive end anyway.

...as well as Youngstown product Taylor Hill:

What does Michigan have in Hill? The comparison above, Larry Foote, is a strong one. Like Foote, Hill is an undersized WLB who played his high school ball as a defensive end and specialized in getting into the backfield.

As you know, the Wolverines did not end up with new versions of Crable and Foote. Instead, Witherspoon hit a snag with the NCAA Clearinghouse and eventually signed with Rutgers, while Hill was on the team for all of one game before transferring to Youngstown State.

Fellow linebacker recruit J.B. Fitzgerald—"a good bet to be a multi-year starter"—also joined the ranks of the disappointing. Kenny Demens is the only class of 2008 linebacker to make a significant impact despite being pegged as a "low upside sort" and getting a less-than-complimentary player comparison:

Chris Graham may not be the most appealing comparison, but the elements are all there: a little undersized (I am of the belief the 6'1" frequently thrown around as his height is overstated), has difficulting getting through traffic, praised for his short range burst and thumping tackling. Graham never figured out how to play in control or get to the right place at the right time and was thus a disappointing starter; if Demens can play smarter he could be anything from a decent starter to a borderline all Big Ten pick.

Admittedly, that's a pretty accurate assessment. Now let's try to forget about the carnage of this class, which featured the legal adventures of Justin Feagin and Cissoko, not nearly enough Sam McGuffie YouTube magic, transfers from several critical commits, the hope that Witherspoon could mitigate the loss of Nick Perry to USC, and no Terrelle Pryor. Though, on second thought, that last bit turned out just fine.

2008 Recruiting: Linebackers And Defensive Line

2008 Recruiting: Linebackers And Defensive Line

Submitted by Brian on February 25th, 2008 at 8:12 PM

Taylor Hill

Youngstown, Ohio - 6'2" 190
Scout 3*, #25 WLB
Rivals 4*, #21 OLB, Rivals 250
ESPN 75, #70 OLB
Others NR
Other Suitors Oklahoma, LSU, Michigan State, Pitt
YMRMFSPA Larry Foote
Previously On
MGoBlog
Taylor Hill Commits?
Notes Glenville-Mooney scrimmage video,

If you want to add Taylor Hill to the snake-oil bonanza, feel free. At one time Hill was committed to Oklahoma, and he had just committed to Rodriguez at West Virginia when Rodriguez left for Michigan. So he's a quasi-decommit. Even odder: Hill committed to Oklahoma before visiting the campus and didn't meet Bob Stoops until October. He promptly decommitted. (Joking!)

It's hard to decipher the split between Hill's offers and his ranking. He originally decided in June between the four suitors listed above, which means he had early offers from both LSU and Oklahoma. Normally when LSU and Oklahoma offer a kid from Ohio that's a strong indicator he's elite. In this case, both Bob Stoops and Bo Pelini are both Cardinal Mooney alums who had reason to know about Hill's existence, and when Hill told Oklahoma he was going to look around they yanked his offer. They weren't exactly desperate to hang on to him.

After Oklahoma and Hill parted ways, Hill verbaled to Rich Rodriguez two days before he took the Michigan job. He decommitted again, promising to open things up. A visit to Michigan State later, he committed to Michigan. So... do we believe the early LSU and Oklahoma offers or his second-wave recruitment, during which the big candidates were second-tier schools like West Virginia and Michigan State? Two of three gurus say the latter; Rivals is more optimistic.

What does Michigan have in Hill? The comparison above, Larry Foote, is a strong one. Like Foote, Hill is an undersized WLB who played his high school ball as a defensive end and specialized in getting into the backfield. A Scout.com report from Mooney's game against Pennsylvania power Gateway:

Taylor Hill is another player that helped change the game early on. He got a ton of pressure on the Gateway quarterback off of the edge. The Gators just never could get it going offensively due to the fact they could not establish a passing attack, and Hill played a huge role in the disruption.

His athletic director echoes the thought in a piece from late in Hill's junior year:

While several other Cardinal defenders have got a lot of attention this year — specifically, junior linebacker Michael Zordich and senior defensive tackle Ishmaai'ly Kitchen — junior defensive end Taylor Hill has flown under the radar despite a terrific season.

"This kid causes a lot of havoc," said legendary Mooney coach Don Bucci, now the school's athletic director. "When you talk about that junior class, people always name the big three of McCarthy, Zordich and [running back Brandon Beachum], but he's in their class as far as an athlete."

A local columnist summed up Hill's season after Mooney's one-point loss to Coldwater in the state championship game: "Coldwater's game plan in the state finals was, basically, to get rid of the ball so quickly it wouldn't have to block Hill."

On the other hand, ESPN's scouting report notes that he's playing out of position and has some praise for his athleticism but spends most of its length saying things like "can be undisciplined" and "can run, but needs to improve instincts and feel for the game." It's an uncommonly negative piece for ESPN. Unsurprisingly, their rating of Hill is significantly lower than that of either Scout or Rivals.

Guru Reliability: Moderate. High profile player, but playing out of position.
General Excitement Level: Moderate. A project that requires a lot of development both mentally and physically before he's ready to play, but Oklahoma and LSU offers are Oklahoma and LSU offers. High upside, high bust factor.
Projection: Obvious redshirt candidate what with the position switch and being 180 or 190 pounds and all. After that will try to find a role as a blitzing linebacker a la Foote or Shawn Crable.

Marcus Witherspoon

Absecon, New Jersey - 6'2" 210
Scout 4*, #14 WLB, #212 overall
Rivals 4*, #20 OLB
ESPN 80, #23 OLB
Others #91 overall to Takkle
Other Suitors Rutgers, Tennessee
YMRMFSPA Shawn Crable
Previously On
MGoBlog
Spooooon(!)
Notes Video.

By the time Marcus Witherspoon committed in early June, I had a couple articles in which he claimed offers from BC, Florida, Georgia, Notre Dame, and 25 others... unfortunately, those have evaporated and I think maybe a couple of those are iffy. In any case, when Carr retired and Rodriguez was hired there was a minor panic as Witherspoon re-opened his recruiting, seriously considered Tennessee, and seemed headed there for a moment or two before re-committing.

Witherspoon was rated and recruited as a linebacker, but with no defensive ends in this class and just one in the previous year's, someone's likely to move. Witherspoon seems a likely candidate. Check it:

The Michigan commit definitely looks like a top DI prospect physically. Although he's listed as a linebacker, he spent most of the day at defensive end, and used an assortment of moves to harass the Immaculata quarterback and running g ame. He'll likely start off as a linebacker with the Wolverines, but don't be surprised if he grows out of that position after a year or two in their strength and conditioning program.

Witherspoon in the wild:

Last year Witherspoon racked up 27 sacks as his team went undefeated, winning the state championship as Witherspoon wreaked havoc on the edge. Witherspoon's coach before his junior season:

"We still consider him raw, so this (season) is going to be interesting," Holy Spirit coach Bill Walsh said. "At the high school level, he has the ability to take things into his own hands. We're looking forward to see what's going to happen this season. He's one of the special ones that make everyone else better.

"His first three steps are explosive and for a kid that big to run a legit 4.5 (seconds in the 40-yard dash), there are not too many kids who have his weight and size that run that legit speed. When you watch him on tape, he gets after it. But he still has a lot of growth."

An explosive edge rusher who's probably too small to be a fulltime defensive end in college? Add four inches and some chicken legs and that sounds like Shawn Crable, who actually spent quite a bit of time as a defensive end anyway. ESPN's scouting report reinforces that belief:

Natural pass rusher, who possesses the quick first step and lean to effectively get by offensive lineman. This excellent, vertical attacking ability is also evident in the run game. Very difficult to block him when trying to get the edge.

Concerns are expressed about Witherspoon being the product of an "attack-style defense" who might need some serious technique and responsibility work as a collegian... again, Crable.

Guru Reliability: High. They're all in the same ballpark; no sleeper marks.
General Excitement Level: Moderate++. Michigan's probably better off if Witherspoon doesn't see serious time for a year or two and then develops into a weakside defensive end. He won't have to be an enormous guy if VanBergen, a much larger guy who projects on the strongside, works out.
Projection: Obviously, this blog is projecting a move to DE. Or, rather, a non-move from DE.

JB Fitzgerald

Princeton Junction, New Jersey - 6'3" 225
Scout 4*, #10 SLB, #152 overall
Rivals 4*, #18 OLB, #145 overall
ESPN 80, #14 OLB, #141 overall
Others NR
Other Suitors Florida, Rutgers
YMRMFSPA Victor Hobson
Previously On
MGoBlog
Shamefully, nothing.
Notes Greg Schiano followed this dude around in a helicopter.

Only CB Boubacar Cissoko has a set of guru ratings as consistent as JB Fitzgerald's: three separate services have Fitz from around the 140th to 150th-best player in the country, and all say he's an outside linebacker. Despite that the tentative plan is to play Fitzgerald in the middle.

Fitzgerald picked Michigan over Rutgers and a legit Florida offer in late August, then picked Michigan over Rutgers again on Signing Day. Other offers came from Cal, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech, and a wide variety of other school.

Why did he get those offers? Well, you know what they say about a guy with huge hands...

"Coach Smith had told me that at the end of his sophomore year, he took J.B.'s hand and put it on a photocopier machine," said David Fitzgerald, J.B.'s father. "He mailed it out to all these schools."

..."boy, those guys make good linebackers." And lo, the offers flowed. ESPN($):

Possesses the flat-out speed to turn and chase down backs to the sideline, rare and very impressive for size ... His overall read-and-reaction skills need improvement. We have yet to see great reactive athleticism and a good initial jump to the football. He is such a good short-range athlete that these weaknesses are often masked.

So he's a bit raw as a linebacker, but nowhere near as raw as either Hill or Witherspoon. In marked contrast to the sack-heavy statlines of Michigan's other linebacker recruits, Fitzgerald's numbers actually look like those of a linebacker: 125 tackles, six forced fumbles, two interceptions, and two sacks. He was picked the Gatorade player of the year and Newark Star-Ledger defensive player of the year in New Jersey over OMG shirtless Florida recruit Will Hill. (Side note: the "hands" article is enormous and enlightening.)

You'd think there would be more out there on Fitzgerald, but unfortunately that's all the info I could dig up. At least it's positive.

Guru Reliability: High. Not much of a position move, three-year starter, no injury concerns, consistent rankings.
General Excitement Level: High. A good bet to be a multi-year starter.
Projection: Gives Johnny Thompson a run for his playing time in the fall; ends up a frequently-used backup and is groomed for a starting spot starting his sophomore year. Ezeh will probably head out to SLB.

Kenny Demens

Beverly Hills, Michigan - 6'1" 220
Scout 3*, #23 WLB
Rivals 4*, #23 OLB
ESPN 78, #35 ATH
Others NR
Other Suitors Michigan State, Nebraska
YMRMFSPA Chris Graham
Previously On
MGoBlog
 
Notes The only youtube hit for "Kenny Demens" is so awesome. And Scandanavian. Commitment presser.

The high school teammate of top-ranked instate running back Jonas Gray, Kenny Demens found himself similarly ignored by Michigan for the first half of the recruiting year. By June he had picked up offers from West Virginia, Nebraska, and most of the Big Ten outside of Penn State and Ohio State.

Michigan didn't get serious about offering until Demens attended their summer camp and put in an impressive performance; the late-developing interest had them temporarily behind Nebraska and Michigan State.

ESPN spends much of its scouting report discussing his potential as a fullback; when they finally get around to the idea of Demens as a linebacker they note that his short-range closing speed "can match most of the elite linebackers in this 2008 class" -- it's too bad none of Demens' film was released into the free areas of the internet, because it's mostly him laying wood to people -- and that he has some trouble moving through the muck but is a "tough, physical tackling machine" before referencing his lack of ideal measurables and giving him about the same grade everyone else does: on the three-four star borderline.

Chris Graham may not be the most appealing comparison, but the elements are all there: a little undersized (I am of the belief the 6'1" frequently thrown around as his height is overstated), has difficulting getting through traffic, praised for his short range burst and thumping tackling. Graham never figured out how to play in control or get to the right place at the right time and was thus a disappointing starter; if Demens can play smarter he could be anything from a decent starter to a borderline all Big Ten pick.

Guru Reliability: High; they all agree and there's no reason he'd be particularly underrated.
General Excitement Level: Moderate--. Offers and ratings are pretty much in agreement; Demens is a low upside sort.
Projection: Think he's a little less likely to contribute than any of the other linebackers in the class, but not by much. It'll depend on how smart he is about maximizing his abilities.

Mike Martin

Novi, Michigan - 6'1" 285
Scout 4*, #12 DT, #196 overall
Rivals 4*, #16 DT
ESPN 80, #8 DT
Others NR
Other Suitors MSU, PSU, Notre Dame
YMRMFSPA Terrance Taylor
Previously On
MGoBlog
Say Hello to Mike Martin, Crabman
Notes Don't blame me. ESPN said it.

Martin committed in early June, about a month after picking up his Michigan offer. By that time Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, and a dozen other schools had offered, but there weren't any heavyweights on his list. IIRC, he was a late-emerging sort that no one mentioned until around April or May, at which point people began to catch on. Notre Dame offered and attempted to sway Martin after the coaching change, but Martin canceled a planned visit and stuck with his commitment.

In Martin, Michigan appears to have a player almost identical to current NT Terrance Taylor. Both are mildly undersized nose tackles who were terrifying heavyweight wrestlers and powerlifters with multiple state records to their credit. Taylor was generally ranked higher (IIRC, anywhere from around #60 to the tail end of top 100 lists) and entered college much larger.

Martin doesn't look much like your stereotypical pot-bellied defensive tackle; check this video of a Martin wrestling match:

That is a slab of muscle Mike Barwis would be mildly impressed with.

This extensive highlight reel covers Martin's senior season; it often features him running ballcarriers down like he's Shawn Crable (you might want to skip the first minute, which is all still shots):

Martin is the platonic opposite of Gabe Watson, a penetrator reminiscent of USC terror Sedrick Ellis. Ellis was an All-American because he can do the sort of things Martin does in the clips above at 305 pounds and hold up at the point of attack when doubled. Martin's usually listed at 280 and is obviously way more advanced in the tao of weightroom than 99% of high schoolers: there's a chance he's just not going to get any bigger.

Guru Reliability: High.
General Excitement Level: High. The highlight reel is totally impressive, there are zero questions about work ethic or how in shape he is, and he's got pretty good guru rankings.
Projection: Will play in the DT rotation immediately, and will probably leap past Ferrara, Kates (if Kates remains on the team), et al to claim a starting spot once Taylor and Johnson graduate.

 

Position Grades

Linebacker: B+. Michigan picked up its share of athletes and did well in an area they had to after a disappointing 2007 class with just two sleepers, but some immediate impact sorts were needed and other than maybe Fitzgerald there doesn't appear to be a guy who can compete for serious playing time as a freshman.

Defensive Line: C-. I really like Martin and think he's very likely to be a productive starter and eventually an All Big Ten sort. But... uh... that's it. A year after picking up just one DE, Michigan got zero; the position now looms as the far and away #2 area of need for the 2008 class (quarterback, obviously, is #1 ). Losing Nick Perry hurt badly on a Signing Day otherwise full of pleasant surprises.

We'll see if Witherspoon or Koger or both end up at DE, but given the way the class was announced this is the biggest issue with the class outside of the understandable QB fiasco.