ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football landed another top-10 recruiting class during the early signing period last week, but it’s the bottom third of Jim Harbaugh’s most criticized class that has elevated the Wolverines to a playoff appearance.
Elite recruiting under Harbaugh
Since his first full cycle in 2016, Harbaugh has consistently recruited at a high level for Michigan. His 2016 class ranked No. 8 nationally, and the 2017 class was No. 5. Over the past three years, Harbaugh brought in the No. 8 class (and No. 1 in the Big Ten) in 2019, the No. 10 class in 2020 and No. 13 in 2021.
LAST WEEK: Michigan adds 5 new players to top-10 recruiting class on early signing day
That’s five top-10 classes and six top-15 classes in his first seven full cycles. The only outlier was 2018.
The 2018 class
Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class ranked 22nd in the nation with seven four-stars, 12 three-stars and a kicker. It was widely criticized for having more players rated outside the top 700 than inside the top 300 on the 247 Sports Composite rankings.
That doesn’t even take into account that three of the top five players in that group would transfer -- Mustapha Muhammad, Myles Sims and Joe Milton.
All four of the remaining four-stars from that class turned out to be excellent players. Aidan Hutchinson finished second in Heisman Trophy voting this year. Cam McGrone was the team’s best linebacker in 2019 before leaving for the NFL last offseason. Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes were/are starting caliber offensive tackles.
But the difference-maker for the 2018 class is the production Michigan has gotten out of seven players ranked 700th or below:
- Vincent Gray -- No. 700 player, No. 63 cornerback
- Michael Barrett -- No. 751 player, No. 61 athlete
- Luke Schoonmaker -- No. 796 player, No. 39 tight end
- Hassan Haskins -- No. 975 player, No. 49 running back
- German Green -- No. 1,225 player, No. 97 safety
- Ronnie Bell -- No. 1,473 player, No. 212 wide receiver
- Jake Moody -- unranked
What they’ve done
It’s nearly unprecedented to get as much production from the bottom of a recruiting class as Michigan has with this group.
Gray blossomed into one of the team’s top two cornerbacks this season. Starting opposite D.J. Turner, Gray has defended seven passes and made 41 tackles -- 3.5 for loss. He looks like a legitimate NFL prospect.
Barrett has filled a variety of roles for the Wolverines, from starting VIPER under Don Brown in 2020 to working his way back on the field at linebacker in 2021. He’s also been a major weapon for Jay Harbaugh on special teams, whether it’s running the ball on fake punts or throwing a cross-field lateral to set up a kick return touchdown.
Speaking of special teams, Green has been an unsung hero for Michigan on both punt and kick coverage. Caden Kolesar was named Michigan’s special teams player of the year, but Green couldn’t have been far behind.
READ: Loss to Michigan still causing complete meltdown within Ohio State fan base
While his cumulative stats don’t jump off the page, Schoonmaker has been a critical cog in Michigan’s offense this season, not only catching three touchdown passes, but also helping to lead the way blocking for a dominant rushing attack. The impact from Michigan’s tight ends cannot be overstated.
Everybody knows what Haskins has done -- scoring 20 touchdowns and rushing for 1,288 yards on 261 attempts. He was named a third-team All-American. Michigan fans won’t soon forget his five-touchdown performance that snapped the losing streak against Ohio State.
An injury in the opener sidelined Bell for the entirety of this season, but he was the clear-cut No. 1 receiver coming into the year, and will likely assume that role again in 2022. He’s caught 83 passes for 1,380 yards and five touchdowns in his college career.
Michigan wouldn’t be in the playoff without Moody, who made 22 of 24 field goal attempts during the regular season, including a perfect 4-4 in both of the team’s closest games: the win over Nebraska and the loss to Michigan State. He’s also 88-for-88 in his career kicking extra points.
To recap, six of these seven players became starters during their careers, two earned All-American honors and every single one helped lift Michigan to a Big Ten title (with the technical exception of Bell, due to injury).
Developing under-the-radar talent
Recruiting rankings certainly matter, and that’s evidenced by the teams with the top-rated classes dominating the College Football Playoff. But Michigan’s success with under-the-radar prospects gives this staff some major credibility.
In the three years since the 2018 class signed, several other three-star players have excelled at Michigan: Turner, Mike Morris, Mike Sainristil, Nikhai Hill-Green, Kris Jenkins, Andrel Anthony and Rod Moore, to name a few.
Everyone is excited about the likes of Will Johnson, Darrius Clemons, Keon Sabb and the other four-star talents from the 2022 class -- and rightfully so! But the history of Jim Harbaugh’s staff developing underrated players could also foreshadow promising careers for the likes of Amorion Walker, Myles Pollard, Damani Dent, Deuce Spurlock, Connor Jones and others who just joined the Maize and Blue.