Jabrill Peppers not changing his mind was the highlight of Michigan's recruiting class. Scout.com ranked the class fourth in the Big Ten. (Frank Conlon / Newark Star-Ledger)
Ann Arbor — No surprises, no changes, no major drama. For Michigan these days, that’s a good thing.
The unofficial end of the season’s competitive battles couldn’t come quickly enough for Brady Hoke and the Wolverines. After a 7-6 record, a coaching staff firing and an off-field controversy, this was as low-key as a signing day can be. It’s probably what the Wolverines needed, as they try to regroup and retrench.
That’s why their biggest victory Wednesday wasn’t necessarily who they landed, but who didn’t get away — top cornerback Jabrill Peppers. It’s a commentary on perception shifts when Mark Dantonio understandably lauds Michigan State’s recruiting class, while Michigan downplays a comparably ranked group. The Wolverines are accustomed to winning the winter battles with ease, but nothing comes easily now.
The best thing about Michigan’s class — besides Peppers, Grand Rapids receiver Drake Harris and six other four-star recruits — is that it stayed intact amid the noise. The 16 who signed are the same ones who committed early last fall, and their letters of intent were all sent by 11 a.m., leading to an unusually quiet day. Michigan’s rocky season did affect some potential stars, such as top defensive linemen Da’Shawn Hand and Malik McDowell, and that stirred the angst.
Everything starts with on-field production, of course, but Michigan has to do a better job in several areas. For instance, the case of former kicker Brendan Gibbons, who was expelled four years after an alleged sexual assault, is troubling but difficult to decipher. Gibbons was never charged with a crime and the university said it levied the punishment independent of the athletic department.
The problem is, there isn’t much transparency, which spawns media and fan speculation, some of it reckless. Hoke again declined to answer questions on the topic, referencing an earlier statement about student privacy issues. He may simply be following orders and legal paths, and there might not even be anything more to divulge. Like most people, I question the timing, but I don’t see some grand conspiracy. I do see another brick in a wall that wouldn’t exist if Hoke wasn’t 15-11 the past two seasons.
The challenge grows, and at least on this day, the Wolverines handled it. Despite all the turbulence, they pieced together — and kept together — a fairly impressive class. Peppers, the New Jersey all-purpose star who’s the highest-rated recruit ever for Michigan, was the one who could alter the weary narrative, and the Wolverines had to fight to keep him.
“Did he waver some?” Hoke said, repeating the question. “Ah, I don’t know if it was waver as much as he just had to step away from it, to be honest with you. Seven and six is not good enough here, we know that. We’ve got to become better. But if you look at the class, they’ve stayed together the whole time.”
Every coach likes every class and there’s plenty to like in this one, even if it’s Hoke’s lowest-ranked group. U-M is in the Big Ten’s second tier with Michigan State and Penn State, well behind Ohio State. That’s not great but it’s acceptable, considering U-M took one of the nation’s smallest classes after losing a small senior group.
The Wolverines won’t get a real chance to quell the criticism until September, but they’re past the point of resting on any laurels. Their laurels are currently in storage, possibly next to the Little Brown Jug and other artifacts. Hoke and his staff have to get better at team-building and talent development, and track records suggest they can.
Hoke rightly and roundly blamed himself and his staff for Michigan’s dive from a 5-0 start to a 2-6 finish. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges and replaced him with Alabama’s Doug Nussmeier, an enlightened move. Of course, this happened while Michigan State was capping a 13-1 season with a Rose Bowl victory.
Rivals always push rivals, and Michigan State and Ohio State are formidable pushers now. Can Hoke and Michigan push back? Certainly. That’s why recruits such as Peppers and Harris were so important, to keep a good class intact.
Hoke’s fourth season should tell us plenty about the development of previously touted recruits, and whether recent struggles are fixable. I think they are, but first the Wolverines need to stop breaking things. Negativity can hamper recruiting, although it didn’t cost Michigan any decommits from this 2014 class. If it bothered Hoke, he wasn’t saying.
“I don’t really listen to outside people,” he said. “I think the guys who are in Schembechler Hall, the players, those are the ones you listen to. Everybody’s got an opinion.”
And no one’s shy about expressing it. Hoke doesn’t seem embattled, more like entrenched. He’s in a fight for a lot of things — victories, recruits, perceptions. Michigan didn’t necessarily win anything here, but it didn’t lose anything either, and that’s a start.