December 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

Sam Webb

Versatile Saginaw Heritage star Brian Cole Jr. likes Michigan but keeping options open

Brian Cole Jr.: '(I like) Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Indiana, and a couple more schools.' (Photo courtesy of Allen Trieu / Scout.com)

Saginaw Heritage standout Brian Cole Jr. entered the season as the top player in Scout.com’s Michigan prospect rankings for 2015, and it didn’t take long for him to show why. Standing 6-2 and weighing in at 207 pounds, the four-star athlete delivered impressive rushing performances versus some of mid-Michigan’s stoutest teams.

In Week 2 he racked up 152 yards and a touchdown against a Flint Carman Ainsworth team that finished 11-2. In Week 3 he mustered 205 yards and a touchdown versus a Midland team that finished 10-2. Then a few weeks later he eclipsed the century mark versus a Midland Dow team that finished 8-3. The showing versus Dow was one of Cole’s lowest outputs of the season, and yet Scout.com Midwest Regional Manager Allen Trieu still came away extremely impressed.

“Dow made it their mission to contain him and he still gained 111 yards on 20 carries,” explained Trieu. “He did show good feet and elusiveness for a kid of his size. He can make people miss and cut back and change directions like a smaller player. Defensively, where he had 10 tackles, he showed excellent closing speed and a lot of effort in pursuit. That extra gear and acceleration was surprising and impressive.”

Trieu added: “He could play on offense as a wide receiver or even a slot/running back hybrid. On defense, he could be a safety or even an outside linebacker. In our opinion, given his size and skill set, wide receiver or linebacker are where his upside may be greatest.”

Some college coaches believe Cole’s ceiling is actually highest at tailback. One look at the talented youngster’s final statistics and it’s an opinion that’s hard to argue against. Heading into the season finale versus Mt. Pleasant, Cole had amassed 1213 yards (151.6 per game) and 16 touchdowns. He would have added to that tally had he not broken his leg early in the final contest. While mending from that injury he has had time to rethink his once-stated preference for playing defense in college. In the aftermath of all of his success at tailback, the position that will suit him best at the next level is now a mystery even to him.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” said Cole’s father, Brian Sr. “I see Brian as a hybrid. Brian could be a receiver. Brian could be a running back. I think that he can be in the slot and he can run the ball. I don’t think he should just be primarily a running back. I think he needs to be in a system where if he is going to be on the offensive side of the ball, he’ll be able to get into the slot and from time to time catch the ball. (Also) every now and then put him in the backfield.

“On the defensive side of the ball I see him as a safety. I think Brian has the speed, the ability, and intelligence to learn to play on defense. He has just got to decide if he wants to hit people or be hit, I guess. We’re still unsure about that. Some of the schools want him to play offense and some want him to play defense. Of course we’ll have our preference of what we would like, but he’s going to do whatever his coaches ask him to do.”

Needs analysis

So as is the case in high school, where he lines up in college will rest largely upon which side of the ball his team needs him most. Michigan is among the programs that have indicated a need for him on offense.

“They wanted me at receiver at first, but then Coach (Fred) Jackson told me that he likes me at running back,” Cole Jr. said regarding the Wolverines. “The choice is mine pretty much. I just want to be used to the best of my ability, like Jeremy Gallon. I would want to be that person. I like their offense.”

Cole was on hand at the Big House for two of the Gallon’s best performances of the year -- the wideout’s eight-reception, 184-yard, three-touchdown showing versus Notre Dame, and his nine-reception, 175-yard, one-touchdown showing versus Ohio State. While effusive in his praise of both efforts, Cole was particularly taken aback by what he saw from Gallon and Michigan’s team as a whole in last weekend’s narrow loss to the Buckeyes.

“(The win over Notre Dame) was a nice game and the band had a real nice performance,” remembered Cole. “The whole stadium went dark, and it had a nice drum line. They beat Notre Dame. It was a good game to watch. It was fun.”

As for last week’s game, he said: “(It) was really surprising. I thought Ohio State was going to come in there and whomp on them. A rivalry is a rivalry, so it is anybody’s game in a rivalry, no matter what the record is. It was a good experience. It was live -- real live. There was even a little fight. It was real fun to be there.”

Despite that strong view of the Maize and Blue, Cole made it clear that isn’t ready to anoint Michigan his leader. The same is true for the once presumed favorite, Michigan State. The Spartans have definitely commanded his attention with their standout season, but he insists he wasn’t on the verge of committing to the Green and White last summer, as was rumored.

“I like every team right now,” Cole reiterated, “but the Spartans have the No. 1 defense. They get after it and I like Coach (Harlon) Barnett, the DB coach. What I like about Michigan State the most is that if I go there then I would want to play defense for Coach Barnett. That’s it, point blank. They’ve got the No. 1 defense. They’re going to have a good defense for quite a while. If I went to State I would want to play DB.

“(At Michigan) all the coaches treat me like family. When Coach Jackson comes up, he’s always joking, talking about, ‘Man, why didn’t you call me this week?’ (He is) always getting on my head. Coach Jackson is funny. He’s a character. He’s like family already.”

Patience and neutrality

The elder Cole shares his son’s connection with the in-state suitors, but he is doing his best to make sure that the emotion that comes with those bonds doesn’t override the objective analysis necessary to determine how each suitor measures up to son’s criteria.

“We have a good relationship with the coaches at Michigan State and Michigan too,” Cole Sr. stated. “He wasn’t close (to committing to Michigan State). We’re just really trying to distill and find out what the truth is as much as we can. It is something that Coach Dantonio says a lot when we talk to him. We’re just trying to take our time and find out where he really is going to be comfortable at with not only the coaches, but also the kids that you are going to play with. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that. It is going to take a little bit more time for that happen.

“(What if) the kid goes somewhere and plays football and say he gets injured or something like that? He still has to like the people that he is around so that he will stay and continue. He will not transfer, so we’re still trying to develop a relationship with the coaches and some of the players that are there and maybe some of the players that are still coming. Enough time hasn’t passed for that yet.”

In other words, patience and neutrality will continue to be prominent virtues for the foreseeable future.

“(I like) Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Indiana, and a couple more schools,” said Cole Jr. “They’re all even. They’re all about the same. They all treat me nice. I’m not committing anywhere yet.”

“I don’t know when I’m going to narrow it down. I honestly don’t know. That’s in God’s hands. I just have to pray on that.”

And despite the paucity of scholarships in 2015 for Michigan, that uncertain timeframe seems to be a non-issue.

“They really haven’t said anything (about a scholarship crunch),” Cole reported. “They just said, ‘If you want to be a Michigan player, then there’ll be a spot open for you.’”

There’s little doubt that all of the other coaches courting him are saying exactly the same thing.

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 week at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.