Michigan boosts 'speed-in-space' mission with 2020 recruiting class

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s class isn’t all about skill players, but it’s a lot about them, and one very noticeable thing is they’re smaller and quicker.

Clearly, this is no accident.

Heading into Year 2 of coordinator Josh Gattis’ “speed-in-space” offense, Michigan’s early signing period that begins Wednesday features several quick receivers and a smaller running back who will add a completely different look. This class also is defensive-back heavy, particularly at safety.

A.J. Henning

Michigan’s 2020 recruiting class is ranked No. 11 nationally by 247Sports and No. 2 in the Big Ten, behind playoff-bound Ohio State.

“They very specifically targeted certain types of kids,” said Allen Trieu, director of Midwest recruiting for 247Sports. “I’m almost tired of saying speed in space, but they talk about speed in space all the time, so you see the shift from the class of (receivers) Nico (Collins), (Donovan) Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black when they’re all 6-2 to 6-4. You don’t have a receiver over 6-foot in this class. But they all run 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, so you see that.

“They’re getting that type of player Gattis wants, and you saw hints of it with how they used (5-foot-9 freshman) Giles Jackson. They’re bringing in three more of those kind of guys.”

Receiver A.J. Henning is at the top of that list and, in fact, at the top of Michigan’s recruiting pile. He is a four star and the highest-rated recruit in this class. Henning is 5-10, 183 pounds and the top-ranked player in Illinois. Roman Wilson (Hawaii) also is a four-star receiver and is 6-foot, 175 pounds, and Eamonn Dennis out of St. John’s in Massachusetts is 5-10, 173 pounds.

“One of the things that stood out to me about this class, and I do think it's important, is there are some skilled athletes that fit more of the 'speed and space' of what they're trying to be on offense,” ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said on a conference call. “You may say, they have really good receivers on offense, but all their receivers -- Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins -- all those guys are big, physical, 50-50 ball pass catchers.

“They don't have a lot of jitterbug type guys that can take the ball on a 5-yard slant, turn it into an 80-yard touchdown. So, guys like A.J. Henning, guys like R.J. Moten, who could play on either side of the ball, you've got some players. Andre Seldon is projected at corner, but he's vastly undersized. He could be an option at slot. Roman Wilson is a 5-11, 167-pound wideout. They seem to have gone a little smaller in terms of the shift of their offensive personnel to help them be more explosive within the passing game. I think they were trying to implement a scheme where maybe they didn't necessarily have that type of player to maximize what the scheme is capable of being.”

After Michigan lost to Ohio State last month for the eighth-straight time in the rivalry, much was made of the talent gap between the programs. Michigan does not have a five-star recruit in this class, and Trieu doesn’t see the programs drawing closer yet in recruiting.

“To Ohio State? No, that’s the honest answer,” Trieu said when asked if Michigan is closing the recruiting gap. “But the mistake is thinking that you have to recruit like Ohio State in order to beat them. They are on a different level right now when it comes to recruiting. They’re going to the playoff, they’re winning Big Ten titles, they’re putting tons of guys in the pros.

“I think you have to flip the series a little bit on the field in order to do that in recruiting. One comes before the other, and I don’t necessarily think that beating them in recruiting can come first. You have to recruit to at least be in the ballpark, and I think Michigan and Penn State are doing that. You’re at least staying closer to them, but you’re not going to beat them head-to-head on recruits right now.”

Despite not having a five-star commitment, Luginbill pointed out the top talent Michigan recruited, including four-star defensive end Braiden McGregor from Port Huron Northern and running back Blake Corum, among others.

Braiden McGregor

“I think you've got to define ‘elite level,’” Luginbill said. “To me Braiden McGregor, A.J. Henning, Blake Corum, (cornerback) Andre Seldon, (defensive end) Jaylen Harrell -- those guys are in the upper tier. They're in the top-10 or top-five players, in some instances top 15 at their respective positions nationally.

“I think the caliber of player that Michigan brought into this class is more than sufficient and strong enough to compete against their competitors.”

With Ohio State in mind, perhaps, Michigan went after some speedy defensive backs. Five-star Daxton Hill, who briefly decommitted from UM and committed to Alabama before arriving in Ann Arbor for last season, is that type of speedster. Michigan is adding four-star safeties Jordan Morant, R.J. Moten, Makari Paige and Seldon.

“The secondary class is good, which I think is important because Ohio State is bringing in four, top-100 receivers,” Trieu said. “So if you want to talk about being able to compete with those guys, I think it starts with being able to match up with them and the weapons they put out there on offense.

Andre Seldon

“You’ve got a guy in Andre Seldon (Belleville) in this class who’s not your typical Michigan corner. He’s only about 5-8, 5-9, but he’s really, really fast, and you need that in order to run with some of those speedy guys Ohio State puts out there.”

The Wolverines have four offensive linemen in the class, including four stars Zak Zinter and Jeffrey Persi, and Trieu said they have the luxury of time to develop them.

“I actually think that’s a good thing,” Trieu said. “I think that tells you they feel good about where they are with that position. They feel good about last year’s class and they can take a couple guys that may need a year or two. That’s been the formula at places like Iowa and Wisconsin -- we can’t be successful if we’re playing true freshmen offensive linemen, so let’s take guys we can develop. I think Michigan’s done that.”

Trieu said he would have chosen tight end Matthew Hibner as his surprise recruit. Hibner was discovered by Michigan safeties coach Chris Partridge out of Lake Braddock in Virginia and continued to improve last season to the point he was rated four stars, and that pretty much removed the "surprise" factor. Trieu gave Partridge high marks for the early evaluation after calling the school “on a whim” and finding out about Hibner.

Instead, Trieu said to keep an eye on linebacker Cornell Wheeler, a three star out of West Bloomfield, who he said often was overshadowed on his own team.

“You’ve got Donovan Edwards, who’s a top-100 player in the next class; Makari (Paige) is on his team; he had Lance Dixon (Penn State) right next to him last year, so he doesn’t always get the attention he deserves,” Trieu said. “But if you go to their football games, he’s the one making all the tackles. 

“He’s a hard hitter. He’s gotten better in some of the measurable areas, too. When he first started getting recruited that was the thing — he’s not real big, he’s not going to run a great 40, he may not do well in shorts and T-shirts. I think he took some of that feedback to heart because he’s gotten better at that stuff and still continued to be a really good football player. He plays really hard, he comes from a good program and he’s going to know the defense because they run Michigan’s defense. Those things give me confidence he might be able to outplay some guys that maybe would be prettier belles at the ball.”

Corum is another player Trieu believes can get some playing time in the fall. St. Frances in Baltimore played a tough schedule, so Corum has dealt with that challenge of top-notch opponents. And Trieu likes where he fits in a group of Michigan running backs that will include Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins and the return of Chris Evans from a year-long suspension.

“It seemed like he always produced,” Trieu said of Corum’s ability against that schedule. “He’s a little bit of a different style back (for Michigan). Not quite as big, a little more speed, so he brings something to the table that those guys don’t have. I definitely think he will get some carries. He’s going to be ready to go based on the teams they played this year."


Twitter: @chengelis