Da'Shawn Hand will announce his college choice on his birthday, Nov. 14. (Fox Sports Next)
With roughly five months to go until National Signing Day, Michigan is well on its way to inking another heralded recruiting class. While Brady Hoke and his staff deserve most of the credit for the ongoing success, praise is also due many members of the class itself.
Over the years Michigan has had the great fortune of seeing many of its verbal commitments become some of its most valuable recruiting tools. Fifteen years ago the first member of the Wolverines’ 1998 class, All-American quarterback Drew Henson, played a vital role in helping secure the No. 1 class in the country. He was instrumental in helping lure the nation’s top two receivers (David Terrell and Marquise Walker), the top tailback (Justin Fargas), and host of other blue-chippers. More recently the first commitment in Michigan’s 2013 class, All-American quarterback Shane Morris, proved to be a central figure in helping the Maize and Blue lock down the country’s second-best class.
The catalyst for 2014 effort was again the first commit in the class, St. Clairsville (Ohio) standout Michael Ferns. The four-star linebacker’s “Project 135” campaign set out to strengthen the bonds between commitments by mailing every new addition a T-shirt that reads, “Building a Class One Member at a Time.” As is often the case, that type of passion motivated others to exhibit their own. One of the more notable examples of that is Richmond (Va.) Collegiate quarterback Wilton Speight.
Much like Henson and Morris, Speight has seemingly made recruiting other class members his mission. The future Michigan signal caller played a pivotal role in the courtship of four-star commitments Mason Cole (Tarpon Springs, Fla., East Lake), Chase Winovich (Clairton, Pa., Thomas Jefferson) and Drake Harris (Grand Rapids Christian). He has been so effective at connecting with prospective Wolverines that Brady Hoke and Company made sure he tried his hand at doing so with one of their top remaining targets during the Notre Dame game a few weeks back.
“The coaches put me next to Da’Shawn Hand and they kind of just said go to work,” Speight said, referring to the nation’s top defensive end. “But he and I really didn’t talk about recruiting that much. We never really talked about if he was going to come or not. We just kind of talked about everyday life -- simple things like that, and kind of got a lot closer than we were before. We all could tell that we made progress because (the uncommitted recruits) were able to witness the camaraderie and the tight bond that the whole class as of now already has. I think that was probably the biggest part.”
The kinship between Speight and Harris was especially evident. The future roommates bonded greatly over the past six months, thanks in large part to their participation the quarterback retreat put on by renowned quarterback coach Steve Clarkson in San Diego last May. While sitting under the lights in Ann Arbor three Saturdays ago, Speight saw an opportunity to paint for Hand a picture of the future.
“I looked at Da’Shawn because he and I were sitting next to each other and Drake was on my right. I think the first pass that Gardner threw to Gallon where he broke like four tackles and ran for a touchdown -- we kind of looked at each other and gave each other a fist pound and kind of understood that that could be us out there,” he said. “Just to be able to say that and realize that come January we’re going to be wearing that helmet next year and years to come -- we’re going to be the ones making those plays. It’s a pretty special feeling. Just to talk about it gives you the chills. It was surreal and having all of the fans chanting your name and making everyone feel at home. It was a pretty incredible day and weekend.”
According to Speight, experiences like that don’t just entice uncommitted targets to join the fold, they also strengthen the desire of those already committed to stay in it. Relationships within a given class are among the most effective weapons against the dreaded decommitment. They’re why Speight believes all of the fan angst over BCS powers continuing to recruit 2015 Michigan wide receiver commit George Campbell (Tarpon Springs, Fla., East Lake) is much ado about nothing.
“Obviously, George Campbell is a freak,” said Speight of the five-star prospect. “Schools are going to keep recruiting him. Everyone knows that. He has got a unique set of abilities. I think first off the relationship he has with the (Mason Cole’s family) is a big factor. Just seeing the way that family interacts with George -- he is honestly just part of the family. He is just another brother. And the relationship that George and I have developed along with the rest of the class -- we all love George. I’m not saying I’m closer with George than I am anyone else, but everything that kid says in just hilarious to me. He is the nicest person to my little brothers. He always includes them. I just think with the bond that we’ve developed, no matter how hard he gets recruited by other coaches it won’t trump what he has here at Michigan. I don’t think there is going to be a threat. I don’t think we’re going to lose him one bit.”
The bigger question in Speight’s mind is whether the Wolverines will add Hand. While he doesn’t yet know the answer, he is feels fairly optimistic.
“I think this is kind of a situation similar to George Campbell,” Speight stated. “(Hand) kind of went a little bit into what jersey number he could wear and stuff like that. I think when you start dipping that much into the whole situation and start to go into detail like that -- certainly he told me some things and we talked late (that) night about some very positive things in my future and in his. So I think I got a lot of very positive vibes, but at the same time I want to keep (the specifics of) what we talked about between us.”
Hand will announce his decision at Woodbridge (Va.) High on his birthday, Nov. 14.
Time will tell whether Speight’s optimism is well-placed. Hand left Ann Arbor extremely impressed with his “Under the Lights” experience, but he still has visits to Alabama and Florida set to take place in the coming weeks.
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 weekly at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.