Niyo: Michigan finishes strong in recruiting but bigger battles remain

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

If the old saying is true — that it’s not how you start, but how you finish — then Wednesday’s kickoff for college football’s early-signing period was another reminder of where things stand.

Michigan’s still rising under Jim Harbaugh, no matter what his critics suggest. This latest recruiting haul — a consensus top-10 class that ranks as the Big Ten’s best thus far — only confirms that.

But Ohio State remains the team to beat, particularly on its home turf. That point was driven home again just after noon, when five-star defensive end Zach Harrison stepped to the microphone at Olentangy Orange High School — only 15 miles from the Ohio State campus — and announced his commitment to the Buckeyes.

For a time this fall, Michigan was viewed as the favorite to land Harrison, a 6-foot-5, 245-pounder who rates as a top-10 recruit overall in the 2019 class. He visited Ann Arbor in October and also listed Penn State among his three finalists.

But then came the 62-39 blitzkrieg at the Horseshoe, and the well-timed retirement of Urban Meyer as Ohio State’s head coach following another Big Ten title. And on Wednesday, there was his successor, Ryan Day, at the podium talking about hanging another "L" on the Wolverines in Columbus.

Michigan managed to sign six players from the state of Ohio on Wednesday, and that's no accident after Harbaugh revamped his coaching staff last winter. But the Buckeyes still kept five of the top 10 in-state recruits at home, including the most important one — the one who'd been wavering right in their backyard.

“Huge,” said Day, who gave most of the credit for landing Harrison to Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson. “It’s huge, like anytime you’re competing. You’re competing for recruits. You’re competing on the field. And this is one of those ones that we had to win. He’s down the street, and so that was a big ‘get’ for us.”

Still, you get what you can take when it comes to recruiting at this level. And Harbaugh and his staff showed Wednesday they’re not ready to take a back seat to anyone as the accelerated recruiting calendar again produced a fair amount of drama a week before Christmas.  

Daxton Hill

There were fireworks, as promised. And coaches doing backflips while top recruits tossed and turned, same as it ever was.

But while the final tally will have to wait until February, there was some much-needed reaffirmation Wednesday in Ann Arbor, where Michigan’s front-loaded class got a late boost from a familiar name — five-star safety Daxton Hill from Tulsa — to fortify a group that ESPN ranks as the nation’s fourth-best to date.

There’s the star running back Michigan coveted in Zach Charbonnet, two of the nation’s top players at a position of need — defensive tackle — in Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith (East Kentwood) and a group of six offensive linemen headlined by another Ohio recruit in Nolan Rumler. There’s also some intriguing playmakers at the receiver position — Cornelius Johnson from Greenwich, Conn., was an important late addition  — and 16 four- and five-star recruits in all, per 247Sports’ rankings.  

But perhaps none mattered more than Hill, the anchor who could’ve capsized this class for Harbaugh and his staff, at least in how it’s perceived outside of Schembechler Hall. Instead, Hill's back where he started, a prime example of the patience and persistence that’s required to recruit at this level, particularly in today’s social-media world.

Hill was a vital early commitment back in September, announcing his intentions a couple weeks after Michigan’s deflating season-opening loss at Notre Dame. Then came his shocking decommitment — and a corresponding flip to Alabama — a couple weeks after the Wolverines’ season-defining loss at Ohio State, opening a Twitter trap door that left fans fumbling in the dark, searching for someone to blame.

At that point, Harbaugh, already annoyed by media coverage in the wake of that rivalry loss in Columbus, felt compelled to publicly dispel the baseless and “choreographed” rumors about him leaving Michigan. He put out a statement through ESPN’s Adam Schefter the following morning, that read, in part, “I'm on record right here, right now: I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying at Michigan. We have big plans here, and there's a lot we want to accomplish." 

And within a matter of days, they apparently had accomplished a great deal, pulling Hill back into the fold — assistant coach Sherrone Moore, a Wichita native who played at Oklahoma, was the lead recruiter — and then securing his commitment with a signed letter of intent early Wednesday morning.

Less than 48 hours earlier, Harbaugh taped his weekly podcast and talked confidently about the class coming together.

"Wednesday's going to be good," he said. "We're going to have some fireworks on signing day — it's going to be great." 

Hill’s an explosive addition, no doubt. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder is arguably the nation’s fastest player in the 2019 class — he ran a laser-timed 4.30 40-yard dash and posted a 43½-inch vertical in April — and he’s the consensus No. 1-rated safety according to recruiting services.

"But he’s a low-key guy," Harbaugh said on his "Inside Michigan Football" radio show Wednesday night. "He doesn’t want a ton of attention. You love his humility that way. But he’s got the ability to be one of the best safeties Michigan’s ever had."

With senior co-captain Tyree Kinnel graduating at that position, Hill figures to contribute right away — and possibly start — as a freshman. But beyond that, it’s another benchmark for Harbaugh, winning a head-to-head battle with Nick Saban for a top recruit.

And as finishing touches go, that’s a pretty good start.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo