ANN ARBOR, Mich. - College football recruiting has never been more analyzed, scrutinized and celebrated than it is today. There are several major recruiting sites with class rankings, player ratings and scouting reports for thousands of prospects.
It might seem as if the coverage of high school football players is overblown, but it's never been more important. Recruiting is the lifeblood of every program.
Importance of recruiting
Take a look at the last four national champions: Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and Alabama. Ohio State's recruiting classes from 2011-2014 ranked sixth, fifth, second and third. Alabama's classes from 2011-2017 were No. 1 every single year.
Clemson hasn't been quite as dominant on the recruiting trail, but its classes have all been in the top 20 since 2011. It's no coincidence that Georgia went to the national championship game last season after three straight top-six recruiting classes.
Michigan has typically ranked among the top 10 in the country under Jim Harbaugh, though last season's class fell to No. 22 after the team lost five games. It's important to have four- and five-star players on the roster if Michigan hopes to compete for Big Ten and national championships, but finding diamonds in the rough is also a must.
Take Clemson's Hunter Renfrow, for example. Before catching the national championship-winning touchdown pass with one second left in the 2016 season, Renfrow was a zero-star dual-threat quarterback prospect who walked on at Clemson.
Michigan is trying to become a national championship contender and is currently ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll.
While there are several former blue-chip recruits, such as Shea Patterson, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Devin Bush and Chase Winovich, leading the charge, Harbaugh has also gotten major contributions from some players who were ranked much lower.
Here are 14 three-star players who are playing a major role for Michigan this season.
CB Brandon Watson
Recruiting profile: No. 783 overall, No. 54 CB, No. 20 player from Maryland in 2014 class.
Watson is one of the few players from the 2014 class still on Michigan's roster, along with Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Noah Furbush, Jared Wangler and Winovich.
Only Wangler and Brady Pallante were ranked below Watson in the class, but he's turned into an excellent No. 3 cornerback behind David Long and Lavert Hill.
In eight games, Watson has 24 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions this season. He's broken up four passes.
Watson had perhaps his best game in Michigan's toughest test against Notre Dame, picking off a pass and contributing to a tackle for loss. Depth is a critical element of Don Brown's aggressive defense, so Watson is tremendously valuable.
RB Karan Higdon
Recruiting profile: No. 484 overall, No. 20 RB, No. 66 player from Florida in 2015 class.
Higdon was the first player to formally commit to Harbaugh on National Signing Day in 2015, and he's since become one of Michigan's most valuable players.
After contributing to a running back committee his first two seasons, Higdon fell just short of 1,000 yards as the full-time starter in 2017.
Now, he's well on his way to crushing that total as a senior. Higdon has 831 yards in seven games and has rushed for more than 100 yards in six straight games. He's averaging 5.4 yards per carry with a heavy workload and has found the end zone six times.
It didn't move the needle much when Higdon decommitted from Iowa in October 2014, but it ended up being a huge move for the Wolverines.
WR Grant Perry
Recruiting profile: No. 879 overall, No. 109 WR, No. 12 player from Michigan in 2015 class.
Perry hasn't been as productive as Higdon throughout his career, but for a wide receiver who was ranked outside the top 100 at his position in 2015, he's been a steady contributor.
Perry has only made 16 catches for 119 yards this season, but nine of those catches have gone for first downs, and five of those were third-down conversions.
He quietly had a nice game against Michigan State, catching three passes for 30 yards and breaking up an interception that probably would have led to a go-ahead MSU score deep in Michigan territory.
The senior from Bloomfield Hills has never been one of Michigan's top options, but he's been an important complimentary piece in the offense since he stepped on campus.
OT Jon Runyan Jr.
Recruiting profile: No. 1,138 overall, No. 124 OT, No. 28 player from Philadelphia in 2015 class.
As a player outside the top 1,000 overall and the top 100 at his position, Runyan was lucky to be a three-star recruit coming out of high school. But injuries and holes at the position have thrust the redshirt junior into a full-time starting role at left tackle.
Runyan struggled in the opener against Notre Dame, but since then, he's shown steady improvement and is now one of the main reasons the team is ranked No. 5 in the nation.
Offensive line coach Ed Warinner has turned around a unit that was Michigan's weakness each of the past three seasons, and Runyan is playing the most important position on that line.
It hasn't been a smooth ride for Runyan, but he's turned into a legitimate Big Ten starting tackle.
TE Nick Eubanks
Recruiting profile: No. 344 overall, No. 15 TE, No. 47 player from Florida in 2016 class.
Four-star Devin Asiasi was the prize tight end in Michigan's 2016 recruiting class, but the California native went back home after one season, leaving a pair of three-stars to pick up the slack.
Nick Eubanks hasn't put up huge numbers as a receiver, but he's already got a knack for making big catches downfield in big moments. He made a 48-yard reception in his first college game against Florida before being injured against Purdue and missing the rest of the year.
This season, his five catches have come against Notre Dame, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- the four most important games of the year.
Eubanks was a savior for Michigan at Northwestern, making a 21-yard catch to set up Michigan's first touchdown at the end of the first half and a 24-yard catch to get down to the 12-yard line before a field goal by Quinn Nordin.
Eubanks is a big target for Patterson, and one he's willing to go to when the offense needs a chunk play.
TE Sean McKeon
Recruiting profile: No. 854 overall, No. 45 TE, No. 2 player from Massachusetts in 2016 class.
The other half of the 2016 tight end duo is Sean McKeon, who led the offense in catches and finished third in receiving yards last season.
McKeon is a go-to player on third down for Michigan, and has already moved the chains five times this season. In two years as one of Michigan's most featured tight ends, McKeon has 42 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns.
Harbaugh loves using tight ends in his pro-style offense, and McKeon has fit into that rotation.
VIPER Khaleke Hudson
Recruiting profile: No. 386 overall, No. 20 S, No. 10 player from Pennsylvania in 2016 class.
Hudson was a player who didn't look like a three-star coming out of high school, and that has translated to the college game.
As the VIPER in Brown's defense, Hudson put up ridiculous numbers in 2017: 18.5 tackles for loss, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.
He's missed some time due to a pair of targeting calls this season, but he's still a menace in the middle of Michigan's defense, and his versatility is part of what makes the entire unit click.
Hudson is one of the best athletes on the team, including the former five-stars.
DL Joshua Uche
Recruiting profile: No. 707 overall, No. 43 WDE, No. 98 player from Florida in 2016 class.
Uche was part of a package deal that committed to Michigan on Jan. 24, 2016. He and his friend Elysee Mbem-Bosse joined Michigan, and although Mbem-Bosse is no longer on the team, Uche is proving invaluable as the Wolverines deal with injuries.
Star defensive end Rashan Gary is out with a shoulder injury, and Aubrey Solomon missed several games as well.
Uche got a chance to fill in and is leading the team with five sacks on the season. He got two of those in the rivalry game at Michigan State and two in the comeback against Northwestern.
His sack of Clayton Thorson as the final seconds ticked off the clock clinched the 20-17 victory for Michigan in Evanston.
S Josh Metellus
Recruiting profile: No. 739 overall, No. 48 S, No. 105 player from Florida in 2016 class.
Michigan All-American linebacker Devin Bush was one of the many four-star players in the 2016 class, but two of his Charles W. Flanagan High School teammates are also contributing on defense.
Josh Metellus has done more than contribute the past three seasons, racking up 97 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions at safety.
He's known as a hard hitter, but Metellus leads the team with three picks this season and has also defended six passes.
Brown uses Metellus as a typical run-stopping safety who can make plays behind the line of scrimmage, but his improvement in coverage has made Metellus one of the best safeties in the Big Ten.
LB Devin Gil
Recruiting profile: No. 997 overall, No. 65 S, No. 144 player from Florida in 2016 class.
The third member of the Flanagan trio, Gil didn't earn a major role in the defense until this season.
He's the fourth linebacker behind Bush, Hudson and Josh Ross, but Gil has made 17 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss this season.
The redshirt sophomore began the season starting alongside his high school teammates, but he's still getting significant reps.
If Bush leaves for the NFL this offseason, Gil will be among the group battling to fill those big shoes.
DT Michael Dwumfour
Recruiting profile: No. 947 overall, No. 58 DT, No. 23 player from New Jersey in 2016 class.
Dwumfour wasn't only recruited to Michigan because he's one of Gary's best friends. He has made a name for himself on the inside of the defensive line.
The New Jersey product is third on the team with three sacks and has four tackles for loss. It's his first season getting regular reps along the defensive line, and Dwumfour has been a breakout player.
When Solomon was out, Dwumfour had to be one of Michigan's leaders against the run. Now that Solomon is back, the depth at defensive tackle is allowing Brown even more flexibility.
DL Kwity Paye
Recruiting profile: No. 487 overall, No. 29 WDE, No. 1 player from Rhode Island in 2017 class.
As the No. 1 player from the smallest state in the country, Paye barely cracked the top 500 prospects in the nation.
But Harbaugh found a hidden gem in Paye, who broke into the regular rotation this season and has made two sacks and five tackles for loss.
Brown has been using Paye on the interior and exterior defensive line, a valuable option for a line dealing with injuries. He made two sacks against Northwestern and 1.5 tackles for loss against Michigan State.
Paye is living in opposing backfields, and he's one of the future building blocks for the defensive line.
FB Ben Mason
Recruiting profile: No. 817 overall, No. 32 ILB, No. 8 player from Connecticut in 2017 class.
Harbaugh loves identifying players who could be converted to fullback, and Mason is the latest example.
The former three-star linebacker recruit is a fan favorite for the Wolverines with six rushing touchdowns on 20 carries.
He's the perfect fullback for Harbaugh's system, averaging 2.8 yards per carry in almost exclusively short-yardage situations. When Michigan is facing a third- or fourth-and-short, or a goal line situation, Mason can get the yard even when everyone knows he's getting the ball.
Harbaugh has also used him as a decoy in obvious short-yardage situations to open holes for Higdon.
Mason's background as a linebacker makes him more athletic than the typical fullback, as he showed when he hurdled a Maryland defender during a 15-yard catch and run. Mason looks like Michigan's fullback for the next several years.
WR Ronnie Bell
Recruiting profile: No. 1,476 overall, No. 213 WR, No. 18 player from Missouri in 2018 class.
The only true freshman on this list, Bell wasn't even a one-star prospect when Harbaugh extended a scholarship offer.
Bell was committed to play basketball for Missouri State before Michigan came calling, and now he's seeing playing time for a team ranked No. 5 in the nation.
Bell has only made three catches this season, but two have gone for touchdowns, and he's averaging a team-high 26.7 yards per reception.
Michigan still has plenty of wide receiver options ahead of Bell, especially if Tarik Black returns from injury, but Bell is making an impact as a freshman and justifying Harbaugh's surprise scholarship offer.
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