That went fast, didn’t it? It feels like just yesterday I was happy-mad about the all-maize jerseys (which I have come to adore) and Michigan kicked off 2017 against Florida in Jerryworld.
What a thirteen weeks it was. From that sound defeat of Florida to another heartbreaker against Ohio State, this football season was a test of character for Michigan. It felt like, at times, the team never really found its footing. A season highlighted by what felt like a never-ending train of injuries that took with it Tarik Black and Wilton Speight for the duration and other role players like Ty Isaac for a few stops here and there. Even though the team strung a few wins together, they were followed by ugly and frustrating losses that ultimately ended an average season, and about right on par for what you could expect for a team that needed a season to not necessarily reload but grow into its potential.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard “just wait ‘til next year” within this context, I wouldn’t have to be writing this because I’d be in a hot air balloon drinking champagne somewhere high above you. But here I am. Bill Connelly, SB Nation’s College Football guru who supplies some of the best advanced analytics you can find (and for free), said himself in his season preview that Michigan was “probably a year away from ignition”, so he can pony up and add a dollar to my hot air balloon fund because it clearly isn’t just us fans with winged tin foil hats in Ann Arbor that are convinced that it’s 2018 or bust.
With the regular season behind us and the chaos of recruiting buckling in, I wanted to offer you a State of the Program of sorts. The NCAA is also now in full contact period, so if you wanted to offer a nice spin of not being in the conference title game, at least the staff can get a head start on recruiting (that doesn’t make me feel any better, I’m going to go cry into my popcorn).
How We Got Here
Last season we said goodbye to three All-Americans and some program legends only to be gifted the #5 ranked recruiting class nationally. It was wildly emotional; specifically a tear-ridden Jabrill Peppers unable to play in his final appearance at Michigan knowing he’d be a first-round pick, and Jake Butt deciding to play in his bowl game only to see him tear his ACL when multiple others sat their bowl game out to avoid this exact disaster. Not 6 weeks later, Michigan was hosting its second Signing of the Stars, greeting to campus the newest edition of Michigan athletes, many of whom carried the pressure and weight of returning the program to national glory.
This season is much more even keel (I mean, it should be. I feel like some Michigan fans are only comfortable when they can say the sky is falling). Quantitatively, the team does not lose much and also won’t receive as much come Signing Day. One could also argue the same for the qualitative measures, but that is a separate conversation.
Entering the 2017 season, a lot of the potential success rode on the unknown. The brand new starting receivers. The brand new starting secondary and specifically how to replace Jabrill Peppers. The offensive line. And three weeks into the season, the quarterback. The team learned a lot about themselves and improved immensely down the stretch, beating lesser opponents to a pulp and ultimately, in true Michigan fashion, underperforming in big, winnable games as underdogs.
This season, we can use that knowledge and apply it to the returning talent to (hopefully) be one of the best teams in the country. The 2018 recruiting class isn’t as flashy as last year’s, it isn’t brimming with 5-star talent and a lot of the prospects are projects that will take some time to develop. That time to develop will be under returning starters as redshirts on the scout team, learning from the leaders and best (see what I did there?).
A Vast Glimpse to Next Year
It may feel like Michigan is hemorrhaging experienced players right and left. In the past week, Wilton Speight, Alex Malzone, Drake Harris, and Moe Ways have all announced their intention to transfer after they graduate. All have a remaining year of eligibility remaining and can play immediately wherever they land just like Shane Morris did for CMU this season. Regardless of the narrative that some outlets may be pushing…
— Freep Sports (@freepsports) November 29, 2017
…this is common for programs that recently took in back-to-back Top 10 recruiting classes with nearly 60 total players. Here’s how the attrition for this year is shaping up:
- Maurice Hurst
- John O’Korn
- Ty Isaac
- Khalid Hill
- Henry Poggi
- Mason Cole
- Mike McCray
- Patrick Kugler
- Quantitatively, Michigan lost more than this just on defense alone last season. Qualitatively, they lost three All-Americans (Lewis, Butt, Peppers) and multiple All-Conference award winners. Outside of Hurst and maybe Mason Cole, Michigan isn’t losing anywhere close to that level of production.
- Wilton Speight
- Alex Malzone
- Drake Harris
- Moe Ways
- Maybe JaRaymond Hall?
- Except for Hall, everyone on this list was a Hoke recruit that saw the writing on the wall about their future playing time. Also except Hall, everyone on this list will have the chance to enroll elsewhere and play in 2018.
- Decision Time
- Chase Winovich
- Bryan Mone
- Juwann Bushell-Beatty
- Lawrence Marshall
- Ian Bunting
- Noah Furbush
- Brandon Watson
- These are the redshirt juniors who have a fifth-year of eligibility remaining. As it stands, Winovich is the only legit NFL prospect, and all except for Marshall and Bunting are expected to see significant playing time next season. It’s entirely up to the staff to make the decision to offer them a fifth-year or wish them well with their diploma. Time will tell.
Returning on-field production is in excellent shape, hence the excitement and optimism for the program in 2018 and beyond. The incoming class won’t be as heavily responsible for immediate production as the 2017 recruiting class; there are a few that could contribute immediately but most will percolate in the weight room and film room to emerge as starters in a few years. It’s a little bit of everything.
The 2018 Class in the Context of Previous Classes
Recruiting under Harbaugh has been a trip, and I don’t just mean the antics. He’s brought in some incredible classes through 2.5 cycles and has made some of his players shine. Rashan Gary has lived up to his potential as the unanimous top recruit from 2016, earning First Team All Conference honors by the coaches. Devin Bush started every game at linebacker and was all over the field and simply a joy to watch. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black had flashes of brilliance, Aubrey Solomon looks to be the heir apparent to Maurice Hurst, and Cesar Ruiz seems to have found a comfortable starting spot on the offensive line.
The 8th-ranked class nationally brought you Rashan Gary, Khaleke Hudson, and Devin Bush. 12 players from this class were the de facto starters at their position this season. Harbaugh’s first full cycle drops jaws and brings in stars. Let’s pour one out for Devin Asiasi.
The 5th-ranked class nationally and the class that was so logical it made me throw my abicus the ground and applaud. It plugged every hole and satisfied every need and did it with style, signing the #1 wide receiver in the country, the #1 center, and the #1 punter. The top player from six different states and the whole country of Canada. An absolutely giant class of 30 scholarship players that will take up over a third of the scholarship roster. My cup overfloweth with talent.
2018 will be a smaller class, roughly 20 players. A few of the transferring seniors will open up new scholarship availability, but do not expect anything like 2017 in terms of quantity. There simply isn’t room. That in itself will penalize Michigan in the rankings, so don’t expect a Top 5 class again unless Harbaugh pulls a 2017 Stanford (out of their 14 players, 3 were 5-star and 8 were in the top 200 players in the country). Here is how the class stands as of this writing, per 247Sports:
Both because of the roster limit and the returning levels production, it isn’t as high of a priority to be chasing 5-stars across the country, though it would be nice. The last two giant classes of Harbaugh’s have left the 2018 team in good shape. Expectations will be high, and rightfully so, but outside of Mustapha Muhammad, almost no one will see the field as a freshman. Reese, Sims, and McGrone might see some mop-up time or special teams action but the 2016 and 2017 classes supplied the team with so much depth that I’m expecting to see lots of redshirts.
At the time of this writing, the class is divided evenly between offense and defense and addresses the biggest needs of the program with two offensive tackle commits and four defensive back commits. It is a geographically diverse class, drawing from Texas, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, and Michigan.
The group is headlined by TE Mustapha Muhammad, CB Myles “Spider” Sims, and LB Cam McGrone. Though they are all supremely talented, only Muhammad will compete to play immediately. Sims joins a deep stable of talented corners (Lavert Hill and David Long were both All Conference) and McGrone will complement the exciting talents of Devin Bush, Josh Ross, Drew Singleton, and Jordan Anthony as speedy sideline to sideline linebackers.
The class currently stands with 16 commits, and is ranked 3rd in the conference behind Ohio State and Penn State and 12th nationally according to the 247 Composite. In the coming weeks, as coaches can contact players with almost no limitations and players can utilize the new early signing period, the class will start to take a more definite shape. The class could see as many as 6 more commits in the future, and for a very detailed prediction of how the class will end, read the boss’s newest Best Guess Recruiting Class here.
I’m pretty happy with the class as it stands, but as always, there is an opportunity to make it even better: here are a few recruits in this cycle whom I have labeled “can’t miss”:
- OT Nicholas Petit-Frere. Recruiting Petit-Frere out of deep Florida territory may seem difficult, but he visited for the Ohio State game (click here for a full list of the massive visit day and if you’re a visual learner, click here) and reportedly had a great time. O-Line recruiting under Harbaugh has been underwhelming so far; not so much with the recruits that sign with Michigan but the ones that got away. Since the 2016 Erik Swenson debacle: Devery Hamilton flipped to Stanford, Jean Delance chose Texas (and flipped to Florida), Kai-Leon Herbert flipped to Miami, Isaiah Wilson chose Georgia, and Emil Ekiyor flipped to Alabama. Given the depth at tackle on the current roster, NPF is a must-have in Ann Arbor. As 247’s #1 ranked offensive tackle and an Under Armour All-American, he will be fielding calls from every program in the country; in fact, Coach Drevno visited him earlier this week and Alabama did the same. He literally blocks people like Michael Oher did in The Blindside
- DT Tyler Friday. Friday also visited for The Game and even though he didn’t see a winning outcome, he was quoted saying “I felt like I was home.” With Maurice Hurst graduating, his position on the defensive line is the biggest hole to fill. Aubrey Solomon and Bryan Mone (given Mone stays for his fifth-year) will likely start on the interior with Michael Dwumfour and Donovan Jeter rotating in, but after that the depth is worrisome. Most of the recruiting in past classes has been edge rushers (Rashan Gary, Carlo Kemp, Luiji Vilain, Kwity Paye, Ron Johnson, etc) and there isn’t a three-tech type defensive tackle in this class yet.
- WR JaMarr Chase. The wide receiver position is in a unique spot in the context of the program. The 2018 class does not have a wide receiver yet, and even though four elites committed in 2017, the rest of the receiving corps (Perry, McDoom, Crawford) aren’t game-changers. Talented, useful, and viable options but not game-changers. JaMarr Chase is a game-changer. He is as talented catching the deep ball as he is making defenders miss in the screen game. He is a Swiss Army knife wide receiver and would be an extremely valuable complement to the receivers currently on the roster. His crystal ball is set to TCU currently, and he officially visits the Horned Frogs on December 15, three weeks after his official to Ann Arbor. In a way it feels like Chase or bust; Dillon Spalding recently committed to West Virginia and there aren’t a whole lot of other irons in the fire for wide receivers in this deep 2018 class.
Hoping for the Best:
- DE Eyabi Anoma. One of the top defensive ends in the country. He attended The Game for his official to Michigan but all signs are pointing to Bama (which apparently just in absolute shambles after losing to Auburn).
- DE Jayson Oweh. According to Steve Wiltfong, the staff is confident in their chances with Oweh, who visited for The Game (just about everyone did). He visits Notre Dame the weekend of the 9th and Penn State has already visited him at school. It feels that this will come down to PSU and OSU.
- DT Rick Sandidge. Over the summer and the camp circuit, it felt like Sandidge was a lock. Since the season has worn on, however, he has unofficially visited South Carolina three times, and there are 22 crystal ball predictions in for the Gamecocks currently. It’s highly unlikely but Sandidge is just a massive human that would only make Michigan’s defense that much more impenetrable.
Summing up the last 2300+ words into just a few: the football program is in good shape. Returning stars and depth, the incoming class will be largely seen and not heard in 2018, with a few exceptions. It can blossom into another Top 10 class with the right additions and every player in the class will make the team better. We all know recruiting is weird. I can waste my breath telling you which players Michigan can’t miss and which ones I’d love to have, but at the end of the day, I can’t really predict what an 18-year old is thinking. Let’s just enjoy the ride, and love this class for what it is and not necessarily what you may want it to be.
Thanks for reading.
Header photo: Isaiah Hole, 247Sports