ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh has landed plenty of highly rated recruits during his tenure at Michigan, but some of the most important players on the roster were ranked much lower and have proven to be steals.
None of these players were four- or five-star recruits, and only one ranked among the top 500 overall players in his class. In fact, more than half were ranked outside the top 700 recruits, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings.
But all nine have made a significant difference this season, and some will be building blocks for the future.
Recruiting ranking: No. 61 athlete, No. 751 player in 2018 class
Harbaugh wasn’t the only coach who recognized this versatile, under-the-radar talent. Michael Barrett also had major offers from LSU, Michigan State, Nebraska and South Carolina.
Barrett doesn’t see the field on offense or defense, but he’s made two of the biggest plays of the season for the Wolverines.
The most notable came against Army, a game Michigan nearly lost in disastrous fashion. Barrett took a snap on a fake punt and threw a perfect 25-yard pass down the sideline to Daxton Hill.
Michigan went on to score, and eventually won in overtime. Without that play from Barrett, the Wolverines probably would have lost to a bad team at home.
He made another massive special teams play against Maryland, taking a snap on a fake punt and running up the middle for 14 yards and a first down. Michigan went on to score a touchdown and go up 21-0, essentially sealing the game.
Barrett is listed as an outside linebacker, but he played quarterback in high school and was recruited as an athlete. Harbaugh will continue to find creative ways to utilize his unique skill set.
Recruiting ranking: No. 212 wide receiver, No. 1,473 player in 2018 class
The most obvious case of Harbaugh recognizing an unheralded recruit is Ronnie Bell, who was committed to play Missouri Valley Conference basketball before getting a football scholarship from Michigan.
Michigan was the only Division 1 scholarship offer for Bell. He was outside the top 200 receivers in the 2018 class and barely qualified as a three-star player.
But as a true sophomore, Bell is leading the team with 27 catches and 460 receiving yards. He averages 17 yards per catch and has become Shea Patterson’s favorite target on important downs.
Recruiting ranking: No. 63 cornerback, No. 700 player in 2018 class
Michigan landed five players -- not counting Jake Moody -- from the state of Michigan in the 2018 cycle, and Gray was rated far lower than the others.
But the redshirt freshman has been extremely valuable this season, filling in behind Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas as the No. 3 cornerback.
Gray has been a popular target for opposing quarterbacks when he comes on the field because the rest of Michigan’s secondary is rock solid. He’s been mostly up to the task, though, knocking down five passes and making 15 tackles.
For a player ranked No. 700 overall and No. 18 in the state, Gray looks ready to make a long-term impact on the roster.
Recruiting ranking: No. 49 running back, No. 975 player in 2018 class
Harbaugh went into Missouri to land Hassan Haskins in 2018, and his only other Power Five offer came from Purdue.
When Haskins was moved to linebacker as a true freshman, it certainly didn’t look like he would make an early impact at Michigan. He returned to the backfield this off-season because of positional need and began at No. 4 on the depth chart.
Now, he’s sharing starting snaps with Zach Charbonnet.
Haskins has more rushing attempts this season than Christian Turner or Tru Wilson, who were both ahead of him on the depth chart.
While Charbonnet dominates in terms of touchdowns, Haskins has been Michigan’s best running back since becoming a major part of the rotation against Illinois.
In his last four games, Haskins has gained 362 yards on 58 carries. From low three-star recruit to linebacker to No. 4 on the depth chart, Haskins has risen all the way into a major role on the offense. There’s no indication that won’t continue in the coming years.
Recruiting ranking: No. 48 safety, No. 739 player in 2016 class
Michigan’s 2016 recruiting class was so loaded that Josh Metellus was the No. 23 player in the group. He was behind a kicker and three other defensive backs.
But Metellus wasn’t just recruited because he was teammates with Devin Bush. He has become a leader in the Michigan secondary.
This season, Metellus is tied for the team lead with two interceptions and has 47 tackles, three passes defended and a fumble recovery.
Metelluls has 159 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions and 12 passes defended in his Michigan career.
Recruiting ranking: No. 29 weak-side defensive end, No. 486 player in 2017 class
Kwity Paye is the aforementioned player who ranked just inside the top 500 of his class, but he was only a three-star recruit despite being the No. 1 player from Rhode Island.
Paye’s only Division 1 scholarship offers came from Michigan, Boston College, Rutgers, Syracuse and Toledo, according to 247 Sports.
Harbaugh struck gold in this recruiting battle, as Paye is now a starting defensive end with 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 40 total tackles. In the last two seasons, the junior has made 15.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in just 18 games.
Michigan was the only major college program that wanted Paye. Sometime in the next two years, there will be multiple NFL teams hoping to land him.
Jon Runyan Jr.
Recruiting ranking: No. 124 offensive tackles, No. 1,138 player in 2015 class
Not only was Jon Runyan Jr. outside the top 100 offensive tackles in his own recruiting class, he wasn’t considered among the top 1,000 players. But last season he started all 13 games at left tackle for Michigan and earned first-team All Big Ten honor from the coaches and second-team honors from the media.
Runyan missed the first two games of the season but has since reclaimed his spot in Patterson’s blind spot. The offensive line has been much stronger in both run and pass blocking since his return, giving up fewer sacks and rushing for more yards per carry.
Under the tutelage of Ed Warinner, Runyan has turned into a future NFL player.
Recruiting ranking: No. 59 cornerback, No. 595 player in 2019 class
Mike Sainristil’s path to this list is similar to Haskins’ in that he was a three-star with only a handful of major offers who switched positions as a true freshman.
The difference is Sainristil stuck as a wide receiver, and the coaching staff raved about his abilities in the off-season.
Bell’s improvement this season has cut deeply into Sainristil’s playing time, but the true freshman has started to emerge as a solid part of the rotation of late.
He only has four catches for 81 yards this season, but Sainristil made three of those catches, including a touchdown, in the blowout win over Notre Dame.
Sainristil has excellent speed and quickness, so he will become more involved in the offense in the future.
Recruiting ranking: No. 43 weak-side defensive end, No. 707 player in 2016 class
Even though Josh Uche was a three-star recruit ranked outside the top 700 players in his class, it might not be fair to call him “under-the-radar.”
Uche had scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Auburn and others in addition to Michigan. Several elite coaches saw a use for his pass rushing ability in their defensive schemes.
It’s hard to imagine a better situation for Uche than working under Don Brown. He’s already made 7.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss this season, giving him 15.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in his career.