Recruiting Mailbag: Roster Balance, On-Field Success, Five-Stars

Submitted by Ace on July 22nd, 2016 at 3:06 PM

Under Harbaugh's watch, Michigan is taking more versatile prospects like QB-turned-TE Zach Gentry. [Fuller]

This question was posted in the comments of Kai-Leon Herbert's commitment post, and I've been meaning to get around to it ever since:

It seems to me that right from the start, the Harbaugh staff hasn't been primarily focused on "roster balance" but instead--at least in the short term--focused on making 100% sure that they have solid players in key position groups.  

What I mean is--they seem to be adopting a "surge" strategy wherein they almost over-recruit certain spots to guarantee good performances.  QB and perhaps RB came to mind last year, and now perhaps this year OL and TE.

The theory I guess being that a few of the recruits will turn into diamonds under the pressure. Meanwhile the rest will either transfer (thus opening up roster slots to "surge" the next position group) or (more preferably) if they are athletic & amenable to it, switch to a different position group to help balance out the roster that way.

Is this a known strategy that they're following?  Or or is this just a wrong-headed & faulty observation on my part?

I believe the "surge" recruiting at certain positions reflects two things: first and foremost roster imbalance that Harbaugh is trying to fix, and second a change in emphasis in how this staff recruits.

There's one position where Harbaugh's recruiting stands in stark contrast to Hoke's: quarterback. Hoke took one per year and infamously skipped taking one in 2012 because he had Shane Morris in the fold for 2013—instead of promoting competition, Hoke seemingly wanted to avoid it. Michigan got only Russell Bellomy in 2011 and put a non-elite prospect (Wilton Speight, a three-star) on top of their board for 2014. This approach required the coaches to have an exceptional hit rate with their QB recruits; that obviously didn't happen.

Harbaugh, on the other hand, doubled up on QBs in his first class, adding Zach Gentry—a prospect versatile enough to shift to tight end, which he's since done—to holdover Alex Malzone. Instead of easing back after landing a top-tier QB in 2016 (Brandon Peters), Harbaugh grabbed another for 2017 (Dylan McCaffrey), and M's top targets for 2018 (Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Artur Sitkowski, Cameron Rising) are also of the high-four-star variety.

Hoke seemed to fear that his quarterbacks would leave if they felt they weren't preordained as The Guy. Harbaugh has no such fear; he recruits with future attrition in mind and, as mentioned, takes more position-versatile players than Hoke did—just look at Gentry for evidence. At certain positions, especially quarterback, I think Michigan is utilizing the strategy outlined in the question, and that general mentality drives how they recruit.

Other surges are more the coaches patching up holes in the roster. With Freddy Canteen's status in doubt, Michigan was set to have only three scholarship receivers back in 2017 (Ways, Harris, and Perry), so taking five receiver-types in the 2016 class made a lot of sense, especially since a couple can potentially play in the defensive backfield. After fixing the imbalance, the coaches are being much more selective at receiver in 2017.

Tight end recruiting, which spawned this question, is a combination of Harbaugh patching a hole—Khalid Hill, who's now a fullback, and Ian Bunting will be the only two scholarship upperclassman TE/H-backs in 2017—and putting together his preferred personnel. Harbaugh wants blocky/catchy guys of all shapes and sizes in his offense, and he had to jump-start that in the last couple classes; things should even out over the next couple classes as Harbaugh shapes the roster to his liking.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the mailbag.]

We learned the hard way with Hoke that on-field results matter, especially when it comes to closing on top prospects late in the cycle. While Michigan doesn't need to win a national title to close on their remaining top uncommitted targets, they need to show they're headed in that direction—there's no other option when trying to convince prospects to choose Michigan over the likes of Alabama and Ohio State. Recruits would probably understand a loss at Ohio State—single-game outcomes tend to matter less to recruits than people think—but there'd be some explaining to do if the game is as lopsided as it was last year.

As for part two, I think this has more of an effect on out-of-state prospects, who are obviously less inclined to commit to Michigan because of loyalty, personal connection to the program, and the like. For out-of-state prospects, Michigan has to prove they're a better option than the who's-who of power programs also pursuing the Baron Brownings and Isaiah Wilsons out there. Meanwhile, Michigan has already convinced several of the top-level in-state recruits that they're the program of choice locally—they're the current favorite to sweep the top five:

If the result of the Michigan-MSU game was paramount to these guys, I think we'd see a little more green on that board.

There's maybe been a slight uptick, though Hoke was no slouch in this department. Hoke only closed on two five-stars (Jabrill Peppers and Derrick Green), however, while Harbaugh has already landed the top overall prospect in his first full class and has Michigan as the favorite to land Donovan Peoples-Jones this year. Michigan also has realistic shots at Browning and Wilson, Nico Collins is a five-star to Rivals, and Dylan McCaffrey is still within striking distance of a fifth star after his recent drop.

With ample supporting evidence, Harbaugh can sell five-stars on his ability to turn them into future stars in a way Hoke couldn't, and his team's success should enable him to turn more of those visits into commitments.

Maybe this isn’t a realistic question at this point but what the heck;

What do you think a realistic ceiling is for this class for the Wolverines?

As always, thanks for considering the q and for the great work, love the coverage.


If the team is a playoff contender, I could see this ending up as a top-three class, though it'll be tough to catch Ohio State and Alabama. They'll have the volume—it's not hard to project this class up to around 30(!) commits with normal attrition. They're the favorites to pick up Peoples-Jones, Ambry Thomas, and Jaylen Kelly-Powell, and they're running at or near the top for the likes of Collins, Wilson, Drew Singleton, Cesar Ruiz, TJ Slaton, and so on. Plus, as we saw last year with Devin Asiasi, this coaching staff can pull high-level prospects seemingly out of the blue; you never know who's going to emerge late in the cycle.



July 22nd, 2016 at 4:27 PM ^

In terms of recruiting is evaluating talent.  Seemed as though Hoke was just star gazing like a casual fan of recruiting and Harbaugh grabs 3 star prospects that tend to make us think how the kid isn't ranked higher.  I think a majority of Harbaugh's 3 star players look better on film than Hoke's 4 and 5 star players.  I remember how it was with Hoke whenever we got a commit.  I'd watch the players tape and be unimpressed and end thinking, well he's only in high school he'll develop and get better.  We all know Hoke couldn't develop players and Harbs is doing his best with what Hoke left him.  Which was players that peaked in high school and fits the billing of a 90's player and not a modern day athlete.  Different athletes, different approach and obviously better coaching.  Do you think Hoke wakes up in the morning and wonders what the hell is wrong with him?


July 24th, 2016 at 4:59 PM ^

He started every game for the Bucs in 2014 and played a bunch for the Bears last year.  Fitz was on the active roster for the Ravens and Steelers, and contributed for Pittsburgh in the playoffs last year.  Kovacs has played for Miami, though I don't think ever started.  Cam Gordon has a Super Bowl ring.  So that's another four off the top of my head. 

Rodriguez had two full recruiting classes at Michigan.  One was really good (record setting QB, 1,000 yard RB, record setting WR, 2X B1G lineman of the year and another NFL OL, Campbell, Roh, Gordon, Gordon, Kovacs, etc., all guys who played a big role in helping Hoke win the Sugar Bowl in his first year).  By the time the second one was ready to sign much of the fanbase wanted RR fired and it was clear he had zero support from the new athletic director. 



July 23rd, 2016 at 12:39 PM ^

For those who are still bitching about Rich Rod's recruiting: the facts, documented by John U Bacon, indicate that LC and "his guys" were sabotaging RR's recruiting, going so far as to tell instate and regional coaches not to send their kids to Michigan.

Luckily, for those who haven't noticed, yet, there is some great news.  Other than making Sparty more arrogant and providing momemtum that helped them build and maintain their program at a higher level than usual, the RR era has nothing to do with this era.  It's 2016; there's nobody left from 2010. 

Maybe instead of snark and whining about RR, which is always going to make people like me remind eveyone of LC's role, it would be more fun and more "Michigan" to enjoy what Harbaugh is doing now.  There is plenty to discuss that is actually affecting the team now, like Harbaugh continuing to develop the solid base of personnel that Hoke left and Harbaugh beating dirty programs out of elite players in his first and second full recruiting cycles.

The eight years of self-destruction, counting 2007 as the first of those years, sucked, but they are in the rearview mirror.  Michigan is finally "Michigan" again.  Whining about a coach who now has absolutely effect on the current team or its more like something I would expect to see from Sparty trolls than from Michigan fans.  

We're better than that.  At least I thought we were...


July 23rd, 2016 at 3:22 PM ^

wasn't whining..was defending hokes recruiting by comparing it to RR.. other than that, what you said is true... though I didn't read bacons book..if this is totally true about LC, then he is lucky to not have been ostracized, probably protected by those who know it would subvert the program further.


July 24th, 2016 at 12:19 AM ^

...should be in the rearview mirror.

While I don't know about LC's "guys," whomever they may be, LC did not undermine RR's recruiting. LC was not involved with RR's recruits and to the (very limited) extent he may have been, he did not discourage attendance at UM. Nor did LC encourage any player to transfer; nor did he sign any transfer papers. To the contrary, one (significant) LC recruit wanted to transfer but LC took pains to keep him in the program. He stayed. I have reason to believe a former LC assistant was positive about a (very major) kid going to UM, when his recruiting of the kid was going nowhere. 

Lloyd is, and has always been, a loyal UM guy.

As an aside, I talked to RR several times---he once complimented me at a presser--and I liked him. I really liked two of his assistants (Rod Smith and Calvin McGee (sp?) who I had some opportunity to interact with. I argued that RR's contract should be honored by Brandon, even at the end, in public, to the (perhaps reasonable) derision of many.

RR didn't work out, alas, but that's about it.


July 25th, 2016 at 10:07 AM ^

I own both of Bacon's books about the era and have no idea where you got the story that Lloyd was on the phone to coaches telling them to send their players elsewhere.

After your first paragraph, your thoughts are right on the money.  You didn't need to drop the rumor bomb to make those points.  Lloyd's a Hall of Fame coach who gave us a lot of great years in a painfully clean program.  Let's respect that and enjoy the present.


July 23rd, 2016 at 9:19 PM ^

The problem with Hoke wasn't recruiting (in general terms). Hokes bigger issue was player development. The 2016 team that most of us think should make a run at the playoffs is mainly comprised of Hoke recruits.

Painter Smurf

July 24th, 2016 at 9:50 AM ^

That is because RR could not compete in recruiting battles with the big boys. He pulled out some diamonds, but you have no chance at UM if you can only rarely contest the likes of OSU or ND on the recruiting trail.

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Mr Miggle

July 22nd, 2016 at 7:22 PM ^

Hoke left Harbaugh with the personnel for a top ranked defense. A lot of them weren't highly ranked either. Others do a lot more talent identificaton and evaluation than the head coach. Hoke and Mattison did well with defensive players, but his staff lacked that level of expertise for the other side of the ball. I'd blame Hoke for that. The first thing Harbaugh asked for was the budget for a much bigger support staff. It's already paying dividends along with the overall quality of the assistants.

I dumped the Dope

July 24th, 2016 at 11:22 AM ^

that removing the former Marketing, ah, uh, I mean, former Athletic Director was the biggest part of gaining in footballl support staff.  There was an ever-advancing personnel staff related to marketing activites that gained us zero on the football field.

As I recall it was Nussmeier who had worked at Bama who showed up and said, Dudes, an elite program has 2x the number of helpers as you do!

And thankfully that door is now opened.  Marketing Doggs have gone Hunting at the Loch or wherever they are employed now.


July 22nd, 2016 at 3:55 PM ^

I love me some OL, but I still don't understand the need for taking up to 7 players.  Not living up to the billing, attrition possible positions changes, sure I get it, but still 7 seems like overkill.

To be clear..I'll take 7 monsters up front so we can bulldoze OSU until they quit playing football, but I'm just saying.

Blue Sharpie

July 22nd, 2016 at 5:39 PM ^

OL scholarship numbers last 4 years from 24/7
Ohio State:
2013 2
2014 6
2015 5
2016 5
2013 6 (only Kugler and Dawson remain)
2014 2
2015 3. (Ulizio and Runyan not blue chippers, low 3 star)
2016 3. (Spanellis low 3 star)

For 2017, if we take 7 OL and OSU takes 3, that adds up to 19 OL for OSU and 15 OL for Michigan taken for four consecutive classes 2014 to 2017. We may still be behind the 8 ball taking 7 OL. If there is any more attrition or injuries from 14, 15, and 16 classes, we may not have 5 very good lineman to start in 2017. So people that argue taking 7 would lead to roster imbalance must admit that Ohio State's roster is way out of balance which is tantamount to saying that Urban Meyer is dumb.


July 23rd, 2016 at 3:27 PM ^

hokes hit rate at OL was low I think... Lots of washouts, due to injury in Fox, personal in Bosch, criminal in LTT. then u had Samuelson,....then bushel-beatty, Bars, etc.... only Cole, Mags, Braden, and maybe Kalis, panned out. kugler and dawson still on fence.

Painter Smurf

July 24th, 2016 at 9:36 AM ^

Not really true. Kugler and Dawson will not do much under Drevno because they are just not that talented. Kali's' problems are due to his lack of agility and reflexes. Even under Drevno, he still is a matador. Drevno is prioritizing mean OL, and a lot of Hokes guys like Bosch did not have that. There is a reason that Cole and Glasgow were the only Hoke guys who really shined out of the gate... because they were the only truly good ones. From what I saw in the spring game, Runyan and Ulizio already look more promising than most of Hokes recruits ever did.

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The Man Down T…

July 22nd, 2016 at 3:29 PM ^

"Hoke seemed to fear that his quarterbacks would leave if they felt they weren't preordained as The Guy. Harbaugh has no such fear; he recruits with future attrition in mind"


Harbaugh doesn't let a potiential player dictate the team's direction in recruiting.  Don't want to come here and fight for your spot?  See ya!  Next man up!


July 22nd, 2016 at 6:47 PM ^

I think that everything Hoke did big picture wise was an attempt to emulate how Lloyd did things. That was basically how Michigan recruited under Carr. One Blue chip every 2-3 years, and a filler career backup in between. This is going back a ways, but without looking it up I think Clayton Richard/Matt Gutierrez were the only back to back Blue chip recruits he signed. I'm sure Wolverine Historian or someone will call me out but you get the idea.


July 22nd, 2016 at 9:30 PM ^

No matter how great a prospect a QB is, they should never dictate recruiting at the position (same might have been true with Morris). 

That's the great thing about having a QB guru as HC, the recruits aren't in a position to make these kinds of demands with him.  He will find hotshot prospect that are willing to make the leap and compete for some great coaching and a chance at success.


July 23rd, 2016 at 1:24 PM ^

Well we ended up with 3+ years of Navarre because Lloyd did the same with Drew Henson.

In fact, legend has it that it felt so preordained that Henson would walk in and start that Tom Brady nearly transferred out. His father wouldn't let him, so Thank You Mr. Brady!

And never again recruit around a HS player's wishes - unless they're named Jabrill or Rashan!!!!!


July 24th, 2016 at 6:37 AM ^

Navarre was all over the top of the record book by the time he left. Would everyone just stop with the John Navarre nagatives. There was far far too much of that his first year The only nagative about  John Navarre was he was a statue when he dropped back to pass. If you gave him his 3 1/2 seconds he had another completed first down. He was a statue alright but if you didn't wrap him up low it was like trying to tackle a statue.


July 22nd, 2016 at 3:38 PM ^

The depth this year is fantastic, but I think the "winner" of the state will be whoever can grab one or both of the Top 2 of DPJ and AT.

I think it's safe to say DPJ will be a national battle all the way to signing day, so it's not safe to assume he'll stay in state.

AT I think is more likely to go to either Michigan or MSU. 

Whoever comes out on top with AT will be the recruiting winner. DPJ will be a national recruiting victory. 


July 22nd, 2016 at 3:48 PM ^

If (*if*) that was the case, it's a terrible precedent for a coach to set, both for the present (you're bringing in a player who thinks he's entitled to a starting spot) and for the future (if that doesn't work out, you have no Plan B).

Harbaugh would balk at that demand in an instant, and he'd be right for doing so, even with a high-level in-state prospect.