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Webb: Harbaugh’s holistic view resonates with commits from Georgia

Sam Webb
Special to The Detroit News
Aubrey Solomon, left, and Otis Reese flash the Block M on their visit to Ann Arbor last weekend.

Ann Arbor – This is what they were afraid of.

Two weeks after Michigan’s satellite camp stop at Lee County High in Leesburg, Georgia, the Wolverines received verbal commitments from the school’s two blue-chip prospects.  During their visit to Ann Arbor Saturday, Aubrey Solomon, a 6-4, 300-pound senior defensive tackle, and Otis Reese, a 6-3, 200-pound safety/linebacker announced their plans to leave the familiar confines of SEC country and head instead to the Big Ten.

The question many are now asking is: Did the satellite camp play a role in their decisions? The answer is yes, but not in the way many suspect.

Reese’s decision to pledge to Michigan was actually one of the more expected developments of the recruiting year thus far.  Michigan led for the Peach State standout for months, well before Scout.com rated him a four-star prospect and Jim Harbaugh’s satellite camp train pulled into Leesburg.  His affinity for the Maize and Blue began with growing in earnest early in the spring, when Michigan’s first-year linebackers coach and Scout.com’s reigning national recruiter of the year, Chris Partridge, started recruiting him.

“I liked the way (Partridge) talked about the position – me playing linebacker/safety,” said Reese.  “I liked the way he said I was going to make plays and (how) he showed me the defense (and) what I'm going to be doing. It was just wonderful (hearing him) telling me how many plays I could make playing that position. I just fell in love with it."

The personal connection the two had was strengthened when Partridge stepped forth with an offer at a time when Troy, Central Michigan and Louisville were the only other schools that had.  LSU and UCLA stepped to the plate in subsequent weeks, but by that point the Wolverines had made their mark.

"Michigan was one of the first big schools to actually come at me, and they kept their promise (to offer)," Reese said. “That was real big. It was a blessing to even get looked at by Michigan, and I'm just trying to take my talent there."

Georgia to Michigan

However, before committing to do that, he wanted to actually see the campus. To make that possible, Lee Country assistant Kevin Pych decided to drive the talented youngster the 14 hours and nearly 900 miles from Leesburg to Ann Arbor. It was apparent in Reese’s excitement on the way up that a pledge was likely.

“One reason was because his brother (Da’Quaun Jamison) is playing at Central Michigan and he loves the tradition that Michigan has,” Pych said. “He wasn't officially offered at Georgia yet and Michigan was the first one looking at him.  He really liked that."

Class of 2017 commit Aubrey Solomon poses for a photo with 2016 recruit Rashan Gary at Michigan Stadium.

Reese wasn’t very far into the visit before he realized he had seen all he needed to see.

“When I stepped on campus and when I saw how big it was and how good the people were, it was just wonderful,” Reese said. “They were treating me like I was already (committed) there.  They were just family.

"Everything surprised me.  I didn't know it was that big. There (are) great people at Michigan.  They want you to succeed and they want you to build a good personal life after football because it's bigger than football. It's just great. Wonderful. I love everything about it."

That Reese had that type of reaction surprised no one.  That Solomon reacted similarly surprised everyone.

Prior to visiting Michigan, no one with any insight into big lineman’s recruitment believed the Wolverines had much of a shot. That even goes for the young man himself. A four-star prospect, according to Scout.com, Solomon is rated the No. 9 defensive tackle in the country and is ranked No. 127 overall. He’d amassed 30 offers, but didn’t know if he was among Michigan’s major targets.  That explains why Ann Arbor wasn’t even considered for a spot on a tentative official visit slate that was to consist of stops at Georgia, Clemson, Alabama, USC and Oregon.  It also explains why the Wolverines didn’t crack his top 10 and he’d initially planned to be at Alabama last Saturday.  It is against that backdrop that he made the shocking decision to commit to Michigan just moments after Reese did.

“I came into Michigan not knowing that I had an offer,” Solomon said. “Once I found that out it really changed everything.  Then seeing what they could do for me in the future, like 10-20 years after football, I just fell in love with it. It wasn't just football, it was, ‘What would I do for the rest of my life after football?’"

The shock in the room was palpable.

"I never had a feeling (a commitment was coming),” admitted Pych.  “I got the feeling he really liked it when he talked to Coach Harbaugh. Coach Harbaugh talked about Aubrey being a nurse.  Aubrey wants to be a nurse after football is over. Coach Harbaugh talked about even if you played 15 years in the league, the Michigan family is just a tight-knit community (that can help you). The charisma Coach Harbaugh had is what sold Aubrey. (Saturday) Aubrey was supposed to be at Alabama. He was supposed to be down at Alabama and he chose to come see (Michigan). He just loved the community of it, the family atmosphere."

Connecting with Gary

It was indeed the people that made the place for Solomon. His instant connection with would-be linemate Rashan Gary was another appealing attribute.

“I actually got his number down and I’m going to keep in contact with him, most definitely,” Solomon said.  “He can show me some stuff and tell me what to do. I'm going to look up to him."

Trieu: Michigan gathers steam on mighty ’17 OL group

The same can definitely be said of his view of Harbaugh. His interaction with the Wolverines’ head coach illuminated just how little effort had been made by his other suitors to discuss his plans outside of football.

“I know there was a D-line coach (from another school that talked about it), but coach Harbaugh was the one who emphasized it the most," said Solomon.

“Most definitely it was him. Really he was just talking about life after football: ‘Some people aren't blessed enough to make it to the league, and if they do they don’t last long. So what is your backup plan? What are you going to do after football?’ Really, it just stuck with me.  It just clicked.  What will I do after football?"

That message resonated so much that the commitment wheels began turning in Solomon’s head. Then while the celebration over Reese’s announcement was still going on, he stepped away to collect his thoughts and seek council from the person he trusts the most.

"I was just thinking, ‘They want what's best for me, so let me call my mom.’ I'm a big momma's boy (so) I called her and talked to her about it. She was like, 'Is this really what you want to do?' and I told her, ‘Yeah, I can see myself playing here.’ Then she was like, 'Well, do what you've got do, baby. I love you,' and I said, 'I love you,' and went in there and said, 'I will commit here.'"

“The room erupted. Two southwest Georgia boys on the same day? That doesn't happen."

Some believe it wouldn’t have happened this time were it not for the additional contact with prospects that satellite camps allow.  Of course, that theory disregards all of the other factors that were just detailed.  It also disregards the fact that UCLA, Georgia and a number of other schools were also at Lee County.  To be clear, there is a definite benefit to the brand exposure and increased familiarity that come with these camps, but Michigan landing Solomon and Reese had more to do with those kids’ belief that the Wolverines’ presence at the camp wasn’t solely about them.

“(The camp) kind of brought light to Lee County,” said Reese. “It brought fans and light to the community. We're trying to take it to another level.  It was just great. Coach Harbaugh coming down there and getting pictures with people from Lee County.  It was just great for the community."

Added Solomon, "(The camp) definitely affected how I looked at them. (Initially) I was listening to the SEC and all that talk about how Michigan is just doing this for publicity and stuff. Then I noticed, they're really doing this for the players. People who don't really get scouted that much – they're doing it for them. I really admire (Michigan) for that."

That falls right in line with Harbaugh’s frequently espoused motives. He has talked about “spreading the gospel of football” and defending the sport against “unfair attacks” at almost every stop.  The number of coaches and fans that believe in the sincerity of those remarks probably shrinks precipitously as one goes further south, but coaches and fans aren’t the intended targets. The players are. By railing against the camps and casting Harbaugh as their primary defender, those taking that tact have made him the champion of the kids that get overlooked.  They’ve made him the coach that’s in it for the love of the game. That means a lot at a place like Lee County, where according to Pych, “Football is everything.”

It certainly meant a lot to Solomon and Reese.

SCOUTING NOTES

Scout.com South Regional Manager Chad Simmons:

On Aubrey Solomon: “Solomon can be a disruptive defensive lineman and he is athletic enough to move around.  He can line up over the center, play shade, or even out to a five-technique at end if needed. He has a very good first step and his quickness and lateral movement are strong points. He still can play high and he needs to be more consistent in terms of making plays.  He has the ability to stand up to big offensive linemen, hold his ground, and make a play against the run.  He is not just a plugger by any means, either.  Solomon can get up the field and into the backfield.  He has the ability to be a very successful college defensive lineman.  Once he refines his technique and becomes more consistent in his play on the field, watch out.”

On Otis Reese: “Reese is a versatile football player.  You will see him in coverage one play, then he is lined up in the box chasing a running back down backside.  On the next play he is blitzing the quarterback.  He has a great frame and he is still growing, so projecting where he ends up playing at Michigan could go back and forth between safety and linebacker.  He has a nose for the football.  He is exceptional in blitz packages and he loves to come downhill and play physical.  He looks most natural when moving north-south and when playing inside the box.  In coverage he is solid, but that is an area he can improve on.  Reese can improve his feet, hips and reaction to receivers when asked to cover.  He has a great body, great frame, and the best football is ahead of him.  He loves to compete, he loves to learn, and he is going to play hard on the field.”

Leesburg (Ga.) Lee County assistant Kevin Pych:

On Aubrey Solomon: "Aubrey is a just a man-child. People triple-team him, double-team him. Aubrey's best friend is anyone who plays the MIKE linebacker because there's going to be an open gap. Literally teams triple-team Aubrey. He is so explosive off the ball. His rips are just physical.  He's violent with his hands. He reminds me a lot of Ndamukong Suh where from whistle-to-whistle he's just a freak.  He's hard to contain. Then off the field he's just a great human being."

On Otis Reese: "He’s a great kid, like one of the coaches on the field. He watches film more than anybody on our team.  He's a playmaker. He makes plays in the open field. He's 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, fast and agile.  He plays the SPUR for us and is probably going to be a SAM at Michigan. He fits well into Michigan's defense.”

On the leadership ability of both: “The culture of Lee County is football. Football is everything in south Georgia. Our town is shut down on Friday nights for football. They're not OK with just getting signed by Michigan, they want to win a state championship in Georgia and keep getting better. They run the locker room. If the head coach Dean Fabrizio is talking, Aubrey says, 'Hey, coach is talking, listen up.’ Everybody listens. (Otis) is the same way.  They bring a positive culture in the way they grind. They're the first ones on the field and the last ones off the field. They're game-changers."

Detroit News contributor Sam Webb is managing editor of TheMichiganInsider.com and co-host of “The Michigan Insider” show on WTKA 1050 AM in Ann Arbor.