In the pre-COVID-19 pandemic months, Michigan football recruiting was anemic.
The Wolverines’ last commitment to the 2021 class was five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy in May 2019, and by mid-March as spring practice was about to start, they were ranked No. 29 nationally in recruiting rankings by the 247Sports composite and No. 7 in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, arch-rival Ohio State at that point had seven commitments, including three five-star prospects.
Spring practice never had a chance to begin in Ann Arbor as Michigan shut down all on-campus activities just days before because of the pandemic. That also meant an end to on-the-road and in-person recruiting, and that also meant an end to players taking visits. High school players would be flocking to football camps this month, where college coaches can do extensive on-field evaluations, but that’s not happening, either.
What has expanded since the shutdown — the NCAA also recently extended the dead period for all sports through the end of August — is the recruiting how-to manual. Coaches have had to go virtual with video conferencing to woo high school players.
For Michigan, it apparently has worked. The Wolverines have landed 17 of their 19 commitments since the shutdown in mid-March and, as of Monday morning, has zoomed to No. 7 nationally and No. 2 in the Big Ten behind the Buckeyes, according to 247Sports.
“A lot of kids want to make their decision earlier because of the pandemic,” said Allen Trieu, Midwest recruiting director for 247Sports. “The other part of it, schools have had a chance to take advantage of not coaching in the same way. They’re not on the road traveling for recruiting, so that’s allowed them more time to build relationships with kids.
“Michigan has done a really good job of doing that. The best example of that is the most recent two commits, Quintin Somerville and Cristian Dixon; both from out West with very little chance to get on campus. I know Cristian had never been to Michigan. That’s on the strength of relationships saying, ‘You know what? I’m sure I’ll like it when I get there. The facilities and the buildings are going to be fine, but I like these coaches.’”
Somerville, a defensive lineman from Arizona, and Dixon, a receiver from California are both four-star recruits who made recent commitments to the Wolverines. Dixon chose the Wolverines over Cal, LSU, Oregon, USC, and Washington, among others. His commitment came a day after Michigan lost out on Clarkston offensive lineman Garrett Dellinger, who chose LSU.
The Wolverines’ surge in the rankings did not come as a complete surprise to Trieu.
“Ohio State is always going to be the measuring stick, and they’re recruiting at such a level right now, I don’t think it’s fair (to compare),” he said. “The question is, is Michigan doing well for themselves in a bubble, and they are. They’re No. 7 in the country. There was some negativity there early in pandemic because a couple in-state kids went other places. Two went to Penn State, a kid from Country Day (Caleb Tiernan) went to Northwestern, and those were guys Michigan had offered, and at the same time, Michigan took a couple of lesser-known guys from the Northeast.
“People were starting to go, ‘What are they doing?’ At the time, people who follow recruiting and write about recruiting like us were saying, ‘Well, let’s just wait and see how this goes.’ We were saying they need to land a couple of these top guys in order to move this class to where this needs to be, and they’ve done that. Maybe that’s why there was a negative feeling around this class, but now when you look at where they’re at, they’re in great position, and I think they’re in really good position with some of their best targets.”
Among those top targets are two local players, offensive lineman Rocco Spindler from Clarkston and running back Donovan Edwards from West Bloomfield. Spindler is ranked No. 3 in the state and has Michigan and Notre Dame as leading candidates, and Edwards is the No. 2 player in the state and No. 3 nationally at his position.
Spindler and Edwards are ranked Nos. 1 and 3, respectively, the The News' top 50 2021 recruits in Michigan.
“I almost think at this point, with what they’ve got with these 19 commits, if they get Donovan Edwards, then the class is a huge success,” Trieu said. “And that’s not to say the other guys left on the board aren’t important, but if you’ve got this group right now, and you add Donovan Edwards to it, that’s a really good class.”
But how did Michigan build this momentum?
The Wolverines landed commitments from two four-star linebackers on consecutive days, starting with Junior Colson on May 24 and then Jaydon Hood. And then Kechaun Bennett, a four-star defensive lineman committed on May 27. With those three additions, Michigan's made a big move in the rankings.
“It was the first evidence for Michigan of what we had always heard about (new linebackers coach) Brian Jean-Mary as a recruiter,” Trieu said of the Colson and Hood commitments. “You heard all this, and you knew he was going to be good at some point, but just coming in and then a pandemic, who knows? But what he’s done on the trail so far, he’s as good as advertised.”
What will happen this season remains an unknown. Players are being tested for COVID-19 and voluntary workouts have begun, but no decisions have been made about the fall. But recruiting never ends, and it’s quite possible that going forward, plenty of what coaches have learned about “virtual recruiting” during the pandemic may carry on.
Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh, in a Zoom conference with reporters, said coach Jim Harbaugh and recruiting coordinator Matt Dudek had a plan from the start.
“(They) really had an awesome vision for how long this might last, how long it's going to impact recruiting, and how we're going to separate ourselves and be different, do a great job, what's the plan, what's the day-to-day plan,” Harbaugh said. “So it all started with that. They presented an awesome, awesome vision. We all bought into it and really just stuck to it day in and day out.
“All of these coaches, they do such an awesome job connecting with players, with high school coaches, finding ways to keep things interesting. I think as time goes on, some of these players are getting a little bored of being recruited the same way. They can't go on campus, there's certain things that they're just not able to do. So the staffs that have been able to keep things engaging I think are feeling the benefits there.”
Defensive coordinator Don Brown said before recruiting during the pandemic, he wasn’t all that familiar with FaceTime and Zoom and virtual communication. Now, he calls himself an “expert.”
The coaches said that although the visits with players and their families haven’t been in person, they have a better feel for them.
“We are way ahead of last year's pace because I think we have been able to spend more time, in essence, on the recruiting trail via the virtual world," Brown said in an interview with reporters last month. "We certainly know the guys and their families really well. In some respects, you lost the ability to go on campuses across the country and meet coaches and spend time on their campuses and meet their recruits, but in other respects, I think we know the guys a lot better than we knew them in a normal scenario."
Trieu said at the start of the pandemic, coaches were trying to find unique ways to connect with players, but in the end, the recruits simply want to build relationships and they have been able to have a lot of conversations.
He also sees this experience changing recruiting — not an upheaval, but some tweaking. Coaches spend a lot of time on the road away from their families and they’ve found they can recruit virtually, land quality players and still spend time at home.
“I think there’s going to be a blending,” Trieu said. “I think we’re going to move a little bit more to virtual visits. Coaches are still going to get on the road, but now having done this, it’s definitely going to be a piece of recruiting that stays when the pandemic is gone, if it’s ever done.”