Maurice Ways: "Michigan wasn’t really on my radar, but now they’re very high on it, and I’m high on theirs." (Bryan Mitchell / Special to Detroit News)
Michigan scored a huge recruiting victory Sunday when it added the No. 26 player in the country — Grand Rapids Christian wide receiver Drake Harris — to its highly-regarded 2014 class. With one commitment the Wolverines landed the No. 1 player in the state, bested bitter rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, and addressed what is arguably their position of greatest need.
Not bad for a day's work, but their job in this state is far from over. Brady Hoke and Co. have long had their sights set on Detroit Loyola defensive lineman Malik McDowell and Southfield defensive end Lawrence Marshall. A prospect that could soon see his name added to that prime targets list is Detroit Country Day wide receiver Maurice Ways.
The 6-4, 190-pound pass-catcher's story bears a striking resemblance to Harris'. Both players considered themselves basketball-first prospects before switching their long-term focus to football after showing difference-making ability on the gridiron. Harris made the jump to varsity as a sophomore and immediately made his presence felt. Ways made the leap last year as a junior and did the very same thing.
"It was a big role for me to step into," Ways told Scout.com. "I was coming in as the No. 1 guy and our coach expressed that in the offseason. I had to mature fast — had to learn the offense fast. The game speed is faster than JV of course, and the physicality is better. It makes me have to think more to try to manipulate the defense in terms of route running."
Ways proved to be a quick study, hauling in 51 receptions for 957 yards and nine touchdowns. His efforts helped propel the Yellow Jackets to the state title game, where they were tripped up by Grand Rapids South Christian. While he did go on to help Country Day claim yet another basketball title last month, his future path as a football player is firmly set.
"I'm just a guy that's a big-time receiver," said Ways, describing his game. "I like making big plays. I make the perfect catch, but I (also) do the little things. I'll make the 10-yard catch and get out of bounds if I need to. And I'm a physical guy. I love blocking for my teammates. I just have fun playing football."
Lately that fun has extended over to the recruiting trail. Over the last few months Ways has quietly become one of the most coveted players in the Great Lakes State, picking up offers from Toledo, Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio and Rutgers. Michigan is among the schools he hopes to add to that ledger, and based on the Wolverines' rapid rise in interest, it might not be long before he does so.
"Michigan wasn't really on my radar, but now they're very high on it, and I'm high on theirs," he said. "Things are heating up a little bit, but I'm just trying to enjoy the whole process and not overthink too much or get antsy or anything. I'm just trying to be a 17-year-old kid and enjoy life right now."
Much of his enjoyment in recent weeks has come courtesy of the Maize and Blue. On three trips to Ann Arbor in as many weeks, Ways has received red-carpet treatment while also taking an in-depth look at the team and program. His latest view occurred during Michigan's spring game last weekend.
"I was very excited to see how the team is going to look this year and just get the whole vibe of Michigan football, the coaches, and players and everything," Ways stated. "It was a really good visit. I'm glad I went. The players were really happy, they were excited to play football, and they got after each other on offense and defense. Michigan is going to be really good this year."
As impressive as the on-field show was, it didn't wind up being the visit's most appealing attribute. For Ways it was the opportunity to further his connection with the Michigan coaching staff that held the greatest value.
"Coach (Fred) Jackson is a great guy," said Ways. "He's a very funny guy and he keeps it real with you. It was fun seeing him outside of football and get to know him as a person, and I'm really happy he's my recruiting coordinator and we're building a relationship.
"Coach Hecklinski is a great guy also. He relates to me outside of football. He's building a relationship with me and is getting close to me and my family. I met his family also. We're just trying to build a relationship and get to know each other better."
Now that college football's evaluation period has begun, coaches can return the visit favor. Members of the Michigan coaching staff are expected to stop by Country Day this week to observe Ways in action. It's possible that a strong showing could lead to a scholarship.
"They said they just want to get to know me better as a player and a person (before offering) and not rush things too much," Ways explained. "They said I'm a really good football player, and my potential is very high, to keep on working, be patient, and just enjoy the whole process."
The message from Michigan State has been virtually identical. They, too, are keeping close watch on the talented youngster and may similarly be on the verge of extending an offer.
"I'm visiting them Saturday for the spring game," Ways reported. "Coach (Terrence) Samuel came in the school the other day. He just wanted to say 'hi' on the first day of the evaluation period. I'm going up there Saturday, looking forward to it. We're staying in touch and seeing what happens."
One of the many factors playing in the Spartans' favor is Ways' relationship with former Country Day standout Bennie Fowler.
"That's my big brother," said Ways. "Me and Bennie talk on a daily basis. That's my guy. He helps me through the entire process. Bennie just told me that when you find that one love and stick to it, you want to get better. That's what happened with him. Basketball was his one love, but football became an outlet for him to go to college. He said when he found that outlet and he knew that was his ticket, he wanted to better every day and perfect his craft. I'm trying to do the same thing. Bennie is a great guy and he is a great receiver also. If I can be half as good as him I'll be alright."
If things go according to Ways' plan, Fowler's Spartans will duke it out with the Wolverines in another classic in-state battle. And he insists that neither will have an early advantage.
"(Growing up) I watched both of them," he said. "I loved watching Michigan State basketball. At the time basketball was their dominant sport, and Michigan football was dominant so I rooted for both for them. I just love Michigan and Michigan State sports."
Ways added: "I'm just trying to enjoy the whole process, take everything in, and weigh all my options. I don't really have a favorite. Everybody's on the same playing field and I'm just trying to give everybody a fair chance."
That open-minded approach has created opportunity for out-of-state suitors make headway. One program that appears uniquely positioned to gain ground Rutgers. The Big Ten member-to-be has already secured a commitment from Ways' high school quarterback, Tyler Wiegers. Now they're angling for the tandem to continue their aerial partnership in the Garden State.
"It's a very intriguing offer," Ways told Scout.com. "You don't see too many wide receiver-quarterback combos playing college football together. I feel like me and Tyler have a connection that's already built on the field playing high school football together. I think we could be good playing college football together.
"I know they run a pro-style offense and they use a lot of big, physical receivers. I would have a chance to start by the time I'm a sophomore. Tyler said he loved the campus. I've just heard little bits but I'm very excited about it. We're talking about being down there together for camp. They want us to spend a couple of days kicking with the coaches."
There will likely be numerous other stops on the visit trail between now and decision time. In the interim, Ways plans to welcome interest from any program in search of a big, athletic wideout.
"It's still really early," said Ways. "I have a whole spring and a whole summer. I'm trying to get better and go to camps, get exposure, get my name out there. Hopefully at the end of the summer I'll have all my offers, (then) I'll talk to my family and make a decision.
"First and foremost (I'll be looking at) academics. There's going to be life after football, so I need something to fall back on. Other than that, (I'll look at) my life on and off the field. I don't want a coach that just cares about me as a football player. I also want him to care about me as a person and a young man. Then I want to win and go bowl games and be one of the best teams in the country. I want a winning program."
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears every Thursday at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.