Michigan football opens the 2020 season Sept. 5 on the road against Washington, and finishes Nov. 28 on the road against Ohio State.
Days before Michigan football landed its first four-star defensive prospect in the 2021 class, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown expressed optimism about the state of recruiting within the program.
“I think we’re right on schedule,” he said late last month.
Back then, only the most die-hard Wolverine loyalists would have agreed with that assessment. After all, the star quality separating the offensive and defensive commitments was surpassed only by the widening gap developing between Michigan and its chief rival, Ohio State.
At the time, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 and the Wolverines No. 10 in 247Sports’ 2021 class index.
Then Junior Colson announced on May 24 his plans to play for Michigan.
The linebacker from Tennessee was the first of three four-star defensive recruits to deliver verbal pledges to the Wolverines in a span of four days, as Florida linebacker Jaydon Hood and Connecticut edge rusher Kechaun Bennett soon followed suit. Down the road, their additions could be meaningful for a defense that recorded only one sack in the past two games against the Buckeyes — a befuddling outcome for a unit that prides itself on aggressiveness.
But in the present, their commitments had a more tangible impact, helping Michigan briefly vault into the top five of the class rankings. As of Wednesday, the Wolverines hold the No. 6 spot — still behind No. 1 Ohio State but closer than they had been.
“Recruits pay attention to that stuff,” said Brian Dohn, a national analyst for 247Sports. “Kids want to know what level you are recruiting on.”
More to the point, they take note of who is going where.
“Peer pressure runs society,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said in a recent interview with the Free Press.
That’s especially true in the virtual age seeded by the coronavirus, where social media has an even greater impact because of its connectivity in a world where there is more physical isolation.
With on-campus visits banned during the pandemic, the nation’s best high school players have been forced to gather information in different ways and recognize the trends unfolding before their eyes.
“These recruits are going through this like everyone else,” said Jay Harbaugh, Michigan’s running backs and special teams coach. “They have had to adapt.”
The Wolverines have responded by changing their approach as well.
To sell the program, Michigan has focused on being interesting, engaging, and most of all, different.
“How are we going to separate ourselves?” Harbaugh said.
The Wolverines have done so by trying to stay relevant and topical. On the same April day the NCAA said it supported a proposal for college athletes to earn money off their name image and likeness, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis sent out a tweet promoting Michigan’s branding power and visibility.
Other staff members also have used social media to advance their message.
After having four of his linemen taken in the NFL draft, position coach Ed Warinner disseminated a graphic on Twitter touting the accomplishment.
How much that resonates with teenagers is uncertain. But what can’t be disputed is the value gained from beating other teams for a hot-shot prospect.
“It’s always good for a program to win a recruiting battle because people pay attention to it,” Dohn said.
That’s what happened with Colson. Michigan fended off the University of Tennessee, the flagship school in the linebacker’s home state, to obtain his commitment.
That proved to be a significant coup for the Wolverines, whose highest-rated defensive commitment had been Illinois safety Rod Moore, the No. 408 prospect in the country.
Days before Colson committed, Brown insisted the Wolverines were in a strong position assembling the 2021 class, perhaps hinting at what was to come.
“We’re talking to the right guys who are the right fits for Michigan,” Brown said. “I feel we’re in tremendous shape.”
The comment, in retrospect, was far closer to the current reality than what existed at the time. But as Brown understood, things can change quickly in the fluid world of recruiting.