February 3, 2011 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Brady Hoke's first recruiting class looks like unqualified success

While fans griped U-M's recruiting class would be ruined because Brady Hoke wasn’t hired until Jan. 11, it appears to be the third-best group in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State and Nebraska, and as high as No. 21 in the country. (Mark Bialek/Special to The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- Brady Hoke described one big recruit as a "refrigerator with legs and arms." He called another a "road grader." He talked about the size of shoulders and butts, because that's where the power is generated, and that's what this is all about.

It's about power, no buts. Can Michigan reclaim it, in stature and in style? The first semi-tangible returns on Hoke came Wednesday, and they were mostly impressive. Michigan is trying to get large again, which doesn't guarantee it'll be in charge again, but it's a great place to start.

Hoke's first recruiting class gathered momentum and finished well, according to those paid more than me to assess it. While fans griped the class would be ruined because Hoke wasn't hired until Jan. 11, it appears to be the third-best group in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State and Nebraska, and as high as No. 21 in the country.

Eventually, Michigan should be expected to do even better. For now, this was replenishment for the famished, as Hoke and his staff went to old familiar places in a mad saving scramble. They went for much-needed defense (12 of the 20 recruits) and tromped decently through local territory, where the Wolverines used to get their best players.

Bit by bit, Hoke is turning the story line back to traditional Michigan, before it spent three years under Rich Rodriguez proving a reinvention wouldn't work. This is a rebooting, and before the Wolverines can even think about competing again with Ohio State, they need to compete again with Michigan State.

Hoke's emphasis was clear and repeatedly stated. Thirteen of his 20 recruits are from Michigan and Ohio, although before your legs get wobbly with emotional nostalgia, know this: Fifteen of Rodriguez's 27 recruits last year were from Michigan and Ohio.

That reflected a necessary — and belated — adjustment by Rodriguez. Speed still matters and Denard Robinson still matters (a lot), and no, Michigan can't go all the way back to what it was under Bo Schembechler.

But by signing five defensive backs, three defensive linemen and four linebackers, Hoke showed he recognizes the main problem (not that it was hard to recognize). He got a linebacker, Frank Clark, out of a Buckeye stronghold in Cleveland. He got a defensive end out of Columbus named Chris Rock, no joke.

"We're gonna be in the state of Michigan first, work our tails off to compete for all those guys that fit the mold of a Michigan player, and then we're gonna branch out from there," Hoke said. "Ohio is an important part of it, and Illinois, Indiana and western Pennsylvania. There isn't any doubt that's where we're gonna recruit."

Hoke goes physical

Michigan still must recruit nationally, and still does. Although this class was split between original Rodriguez commitments and Hoke commitments, there's touted Maryland cornerback Blake Countess, Texas tight end Chris Barnett and Chicago offensive lineman Chris Bryant.

Bryant, by the way, is the 330-pound "refrigerator with legs and arms," not to be confused with 330-pound offensive tackle Tony Posada, the "road grader." Hyperbole is mandatory on signing day, and Hoke's hunger for physical players was evident. Number of receivers signed: 0.

For Michigan to make the blessed transition to a 4-3 defense, it will need more defensive tackles. But for all the doomsday predictions, the Wolverines recovered just fine. I never had a problem with athletic director Dave Brandon's timetable, firing Rodriguez after the bowl game. If he'd made the move for Hoke in early December, cripes, just imagine the divisive clamor from those who wanted Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles.

Hoke came in behind and did an excellent job catching up. Oh, the Wolverines lost some key guys, and in future seasons, they or the Spartans need to land home-state stars such as Traverse City's Jake Fisher, who signed with Oregon, or West Branch's Anthony Zettel, who picked Penn State.

Mark Dantonio got his share of in-state prizes, including top-rated Detroit linebacker Lawrence Thomas. So did Hoke, led by Grand Blanc running back Justice Hayes and Plymouth defensive end Brennen Beyer. This battle is just beginning, and at least now the Wolverines are stalking the same ground again.

"I hadn't recruited Ohio in a while, and it was unbelievable how receptive they were," said Fred Jackson, in his 20th season as a Michigan assistant. "You can go all over the country looking for players, but if you have a guy in your own backyard who grew up breathing Michigan football, there's something to that."

There's some heft to this class, and some early heft to Hoke. The other day, Rodriguez said he wished he could've finished the job here, and wished everyone had pulled in the same direction. He has a point, but he just couldn't fix the fissures.

Finally, the damage is under control and the repair is under way. Hoke won't fix everything with one recruiting class, but he certainly showed he understands the battle.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Raymon Taylor of Highland Park was not signed to catch passes but to break ... (Ricardo Thomas/The Detroit News)
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