From left, recruits Jalen Bates, Austin Mack, Marcus Lewis, Michigan coach Brady Hoke, Garrett Taylor, and Mike Weber pose for a photo at the Barbecue at the Big House on Sunday in Ann Arbor. (Garrett Taylor via Twitter)
In recent years Michigan football’s Barbecue at the Big House has become one of the most prominent weapons in its recruiting arsenal, but last Sunday’s edition may prove to be its most effective yet.
The positive momentum for this year’s event actually began building well before meat started hitting the grill. Last Friday, coach Brady Hoke and his staff welcomed Saginaw Heritage standout Brian Cole Jr. to campus for his first overnight stay in Ann Arbor. By the time Cole left the following day the Wolverines had earned the four-star wideout’s commitment.
"First off, I loved every school that offered me a scholarship," Cole said after picking Michigan over Ohio State, Michigan State, Tennessee, and a host of others. "All the coaches and staffs and supporters that treated me like family, (I have) nothing against any of them. But the thing about Michigan was I wanted to stay closer to home. It felt like home and felt like the place I need to be."
Michigan’s plan to play the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder in the slot to maximize his playmaking ability was extremely enticing, but that was only part of the appeal.
"Michigan is a great academic institution," his father Brian Cole Sr. told Scout.com "All the opportunities he will have, the support, the M-PACT (Michigan Professional and Career Transition) program — it's all built for success and that was one of the reasons why he chose Michigan. It was Brian's decision, and of course, it was 150 percent supported by his parents."
It was also supported by Michigan quarterback commitment Alex Malzone. The Brother Rice star made his way to campus to assist in luring Cole into the Maize & Blue fold.
"(Hanging out with Malzone) was good,” Cole Jr. said. “I like Alex a lot. He's a leader, and I can tell he will be a great quarterback. I had a really good time (in Ann Arbor) with those guys and getting to know them."
Letting the fun loose
With the state’s top prospect officially added to the 2015 commitment list, the Wolverines’ attention turned to the barbecue. While the cuisine is always one of the event’s best attributes, it is far from the most important. That distinction goes to the informal tone set for the day — one free of the time constraints coaches are bound by on game-day weekends.
The barbecue affords attendees the opportunity to forge deeper connections with the coaches, their families, and prospective teammates in a relaxed, unregimented environment. It is a model that definitely wasn’t broken, but in the increasingly competitive world of recruiting, resting on one’s laurels is a recipe for falling behind. That explains why the Wolverines tweaked things by adding an “Amazing Race”-style scavenger hunt to the day’s agenda.
The visitors were broken up into teams and sent across campus on a fact-finding journey that taught them about many of the notable landmarks, buildings and traditions. Along the way the competition played out on social media with the prospects tweeting messages and photos using the hashtag #bbqmaizerace. The result was an experience that has received rave reviews and improved Michigan’s standing with many of its top targets.
The list of 2015 attendees was headlined by longtime targets Darian Roseboro, a four-star defensive end from Lincolnton, N.C., and Mike Weber, a four-star running back from Detroit Cass Tech.
Roseboro’s visit was noteworthy because of Michigan’s already strong standing on his list and because it was his last scheduled stop before his Aug. 29 announcement. Weber’s presence was fairly significant also, but his was because it demonstrated an obvious determination to be on hand. The Technician star took a redeye back from his USC visit earlier that morning so he could make his way to Ann Arbor.
Lewis back in play
As important as both of those developments were, neither represented the huge surge in favor that the presence of Washington D.C. Gonzaga cornerback Marcus Lewis did.
Ranked a four-star prospect and the No. 25 cornerback in the 2015 class by Scout.com, the 6-2, 190-pounder had been committed to Florida since April. A few months later he opened himself up to taking other visits, but Michigan fell just short of his list of favorites. All the while he maintained a soft pledge to the Gators. That changed, though, in the immediate aftermath of his barbecue attendance.
"I am officially announcing my decommitment from the University of Florida,” Lewis tweeted Monday. “I am grateful for the opportunity the university granted me."
Lewis’ experience in Ann Arbor clearly had a profound effect. He fortified his bonds with the coaches, gained a much better appreciation for Michigan’s academics and got to know a number of the future Wolverines. One class member he forged a particularly strong connection with was Richmond (Va.) St. Cristopher’s cornerback Garrett Taylor.
“By far I definitely connected with him the most,” said Lewis. “We spent a lot of time together. (We) just did different things and talked about different stuff. He is a good kid. We didn’t always talk about football. We talked about school — just different types of things. You could tell he is a really good kid, so we’re definitely going to get along.”
That last statement may not have been a slip of the tongue. While Lewis hasn’t yet made a final decision on which school he’ll ultimately attend, he has made a decision about where Michigan now stands in his recruitment.
“They’re definitely high,” Lewis said of the Wolverines. “They’re at the top. They’re right at the top.”
That sudden change has caused him to rethink his official visit schedule as well.
“Right now it’s just Michigan and Oregon and Miami, and that will probably be it,” he said.
Bates adds UM to top five
The Wolverines have seen their stock improve almost as much with Kaplan (La.) outside linebacker/tight end Jalen Bates on the heels of his time in Ann Arbor. The buzz on 6-5, 235-pounder has gotten louder in recent weeks thanks to a Texas A&M offer and an exemplary camp performance at LSU. Despite that rise in profile, Bates has remained more enamored with schools that offered him earlier in the process. Michigan has long been among that group, but as was the case with Lewis, the Maize & Blue were sitting outside his top five. Since the barbecue, that is no longer the case.
“(Michigan is in) the top five right now for sure,“ said Bates. “(The barbecue) was fun. It was one of the (most fun) times I’ve had. They treated me like family. All the coaches, they all treated me like they have been recruiting all their life. They all kind of flocked to me and they treated me like I was a celebrity. I liked the way they treated my family — all the coaches’ wives and their kids.”
“(Michigan assistant Fred Jackson) was like one of my uncles. It was like he missed me. We hung out almost the whole time. It was like I was out here visiting family, and I haven’t even met some of these people. It was cool.”
Bates found himself just as awestruck by the school itself.
“It was cool,” he said. “I liked the facilities and the stadium. The biggest part was everything was original and historic, and that was the best point for me. Overall, it was one of my best experiences ever. It was almost like going to a historical place. You can’t beat that.”
Michigan is joined atop Bates’ list by Arizona State, Mississippi State, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Lafayette. With a Sept. 19 decision date already set, there is a good chance he won’t be able to officially visit all of those schools before his announcement. Whether he does or not, expect a return trip to Michigan to be on the docket. The Wolverines’ ace in the hole could be the support of Bates’ cousin, former Michigan linebacker standout Jonas Mouton.
The Wolverines may need a similar familial assist with another barbecue attendee, Detroit King linebacker Tyriq Thompson. The son of former Michigan safety Clarence Thompson brought his family with him in Ann Arbor for a visit that took on added importance when he announced earlier this month his plan to commit to a school in the very near future. Up to that point many pundits surmised he was leaning to Michigan State.
The Spartans gained major traction in the 6-1, 210-pounder’s recruitment when they extended him a scholarship last October. Michigan’s small 2015 class size led to its more deliberate approach to offering juniors last fall. Once the new year hit and the 2014 class had taken more definitive shape, class size and needs in 2015 became clearer. A flurry of offers from the Wolverines ensued, Thompson’s being among them in January. However, by that point it was clear that Michigan was playing catchup.
“Actually, when it first started I did think Michigan State was out front,” King assistant Terel Patrick said recently. “But I can say the last couple of times that he has been up in Ann Arbor, those visits were great because they are a lot more personable.
“He got a chance to really communicate with the staff, really see the difference in the defense to more of a four-man front now, which gives the linebackers a little bit more room to roam around and make plays instead of playing in a front with three down linemen and having to battle those big, 320-pound guards in the Big Ten. So I think that makes a difference.
“But right now, as far as the Michigan and Michigan State comparison, it is all about relationships with a kid like Tyriq. I think that is what the difference was initially, that those relationships with the State coaches were already cemented and he is still in the building process as far as relationships with the Michigan coaches.”
Since then the Wolverine brass has made even more progress in that regard, but with the barbecue now behind them the question is have they made enough?
“It went well,” said Thompson of his time in Ann Arbor. “Me and my family had a good time. The race was fun.”
“(Michigan is in the) same position as before I guess.”
Whether that position is enviable or not remains to be seen.
There were a number of major targets from the 2016 class on hand as well. Many of them also reported being impacted by the experience. Below are a few of the most notable reflections:
Ben Bredeson, OG, Hartland (Wis.) Arrowhead, 4 stars: The Wolverines had been gaining ground in the race for Scout’s No. 1 offensive guard, but they have gained even more in the last few days — and not just because of the barbecue.
"The day was good for me, but the highlight was my brother achieving his dream and committing to Michigan," Bredeson said.
Jack Bredeson, a 6-6, 235-pound pitcher, added his name to the Michigan baseball program’s 2015 pledge list Sunday. Time will tell how much impact that has on Ben, who also holds offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and numerous others.
Cameron Chambers, WR, Sicklerville (N.J.) Timber Creek, 4 stars: Michigan cracked this Garden State standout’s top five after a memorable barbecue experience. Joining the Wolverines on Chambers’ leaderboard are Alabama, Ohio State and Wisconsin. It appears Michigan may wind up battling one of its in-state rival for his services.
"I really don't know what he wants to do," Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson told Scout.com. "I think he had a good time at Michigan, and had a great time at Michigan State (which he visited beforehand). He was at Michigan for two days, and he said Michigan State was awesome. He said the same thing about Michigan.
Chambers will announce his decision Friday.
Elijah Holyfield, RB, College Park (Ga.), 3 stars: The son of boxing legend Evander Holyfield camped at Michigan in June and promptly earned a scholarship offer after an impressive performance. The 5-11, 190-pounder returned to Ann Arbor for the barbecue with a goal of getting a better feel for the coaching staff.
“I came up with my mom and stepdad, and I had a really good time,” Holyfield said. “We all had good talks with the coaches, and all had a good time.”
“I talked to Coach Hoke for a long time and stuff, so it was really cool. The race was really cool also and getting a chance to talk to some of the recruits, that was fun, too.
“Michigan, whenever I do come out with a top list, they’ll definitely be in there somewhere. I’m very interested.”
Wisconsin, Tennessee, Ohio State, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State are other prominent offers on Holyfield’s scholarship ledger.
Mike Onwenu, OL/DL, Detroit Cass Tech, 4 stars: Onwenu made no secret of his hope Michigan would join arch-rival Ohio State on his offer list. Sunday the Wolverines finally did.
“Coach Hoke personally told me I have a scholarship to Michigan,” said Onwenu, 6-2 and 285 pounds. “I was ecstatic to finally get the Michigan offer. Michigan is now in my top five. I don’t have a list, but they are (definitely up there).”
Auston Robertson, DE, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wayne, 4 stars: Michigan added its name to the 6-6, 235-pounder’s offer sheet Sunday, joining Notre Dame and a host of MAC schools.
“It made my day,” Robertson said. “As soon as we walked through the door and Coach Hoke greeted me and stuff and was like, ‘You know you’ve got an offer here, right?’ I was just like, ‘Oh really?’ and thank you and all that stuff.”
“I’m comfortable with Michigan,” Robertson said. “I like them a lot.”
Clark Yarbrough, OT, Woodberry Forest (Va.), 4 stars: Yarbrough is one of the hottest line prospects in the East, already holding offers from Michigan, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma and a number of others. The Wolverines joined the club when he visited Ann Arbor for the first time back June. When he returned for the barbecue the strong positive impression made on him by his would-be position coach was reinforced.
“I really like Coach (Darrell) Funk,” said Yarbrough. “He is an easy guy to talk to, and he is very honest. I really appreciate that in a coach, being straightforward with me from Day 1. I like him a lot.”
“I do not have an official list yet. I have a few schools that I’m interested in, but Michigan is definitely up there for me.”
List of confirmed barbecue attendees
Class of 2015
|Jalen Bates||OLB/TE||Kaplan La.||Michigan offer|
|Jack Dunaway||DE||Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice|
|Tyree Kinnel||S||Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne||Michigan commitment|
|Darrin Kirkland Jr.||LB||Indianapolis (Ind.) Lawrence Central||Michigan commitment|
|Marcus Lewis||CB||Washington (D.C.) Gonzaga||Michigan offer|
|Alex Malzone||QB||Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice||Michigan commitment|
|Grant Perry||WR||Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice|
|Darian Roseboro||DE||Lincolnton (N.C.)||Michigan offer|
|Garrett Taylor||CB||Richmond (Va.) St. Christopher’s||Michigan commitment|
|Tyriq Thompson||LB||Detroit King||Michigan offer|
|Mike Weber||RB||Detroit Cass Tech||Michigan offer|
Class of 2016
|Tuf Borland||LB||Bolingbrook (Ill.)|
|Ben Bredeson||OG||Hartland (Wis.) Arrowhead||Michigan offer|
|Cameron Chambers||WR||Sicklerville (N.J.) Timber Creek||Michigan offer|
|Messiah DeWeaver||QB||Trotwood (Ohio) Madison||Michigan commitment|
|Luke Farrell||TE||Perry (Ohio)||Michigan offer|
|Lavert Hill||CB||Detroit Cass Tech||Michigan offer|
|Elijah Holyfield||RB||College Park (Ga.) Woodward Academy||Michigan offer|
|Michael Jordan||OT||Canton Plymouth||Michigan offer|
|Khalid Kareem||DE||Farmington Hills Harrison|
|Josh King||DE||Darien (Ill.) Hinsdale South||Michigan offer|
|Thiyo Lukusa||OT||Traverse City West||Michigan offer|
|Austin Mack||WR||Ft. Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers||Michigan offer|
|Michael Onwenu||OG/DT||Detroit Cass Tech||Michigan offer|
|Auston Robertson||DE||Ft. Wayne (Ind.) Wayne Detroit Cass Tech||Michigan offer|
|Clark Yarbrough||OT||Woodberry Forest (Va.)||Michigan offer|
|Abdullah Yaseen||CB||Oak Park|
Class of 2017
|Corey Malone-Hatcher||DE||St. Joseph|
|Donovan Peoples-Jones||WR||Detroit Cass Tech|
|Josh Ross||LB||Orchard Lake St. Mary’s||Michigan offer|
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.