Evaluating Michigan’s best recruiting efforts of the last 20 years; we take a look at how the recruiting rankings match up against the actual development of players. Who were the top rated recruits that panned out from those classes and who were the ones that didn’t? With the advantage of hindsight, we place the top five recruiting efforts in their proper order.
The Stars Who Were: Do we really need to say a lot about Charles Woodson? His name has simply become synonymous with greatness among Michigan fans. Two-time All-American … Heisman Trophy winner … Buckeye killer … he is easily one of the best players Michigan has ever had. A consensus top 50 prospect nationally out of high school, he matched and exceeded every expectation.
People often forget that Tom Brady was actually a highly rated prospect coming out of high school. While the star system didn’t exist at the time, and there were fafewer publications producing rankings, where he was rated was consistent with a modern day solid four-star prospect. After his redshirt year, Michigan signed top 100 prospect Jason Kapsner, however. This was then closely followed by the verbal pledge from local superstar Drew Henson and most fans had already written off Brady before he had a chance to throw a single pass. But at the end of the day, yes, Tom Brady was a highly rated prospect in high school and he certainly lived up to that billing.
The Sleeper Success: New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine has been a remarkably cruel high school to the Wolverines in the recruiting sense over the years. Consistently producing top athletes who always seem very interested in Michigan, only two have ever actually selected Maize and Blue. The first was Leroy Hoard in 1986. In 1995, Michigan was able to grab its second player from the school, not by going after the elite star, but by grabbing a scrawny linebacker named James Hall. He wasn’t rated highly on the national scene, in his home state or even his own school. Some felt he was the third or fourth best prospect out of St. Augustine that year. They were wrong.
Hall went on become a three year starter at Michigan. He was a solid contributor to the 1997 national championship defense, and became the Wolverines’ top pass rusher the following two seasons, finishing his career with 182 tackles, including 26.5 sacks. With a knack for stepping up in big games, some of his best efforts came against SEC foes, controlling the line of scrimmage late in the Citrus Bowl against Arkansas and then again the following year against Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
The other sleeper star of the class would by Rob Renes. A former high school wrestler, he did not get much attention on the recruiting scene, but went on to become a three year force in the middle of the Michigan defensive line. While he did not go on to have near the NFL success that Hall did, a very strong case could be made for Renes as an even stronger contributor in his time in the Maize and Blue. As a senior in 1999, he earned All-American honors for his play.
The Stars Who Weren’t: We certainly would not classify the career of former Cass Tech star running back Clarence Williams as a failure. He was a solid contributor for all four seasons he played. However, he never firmly established himself as a starter and finished his career with just three 100-yard games. Compared to the considerable expectations he carried with him coming in, he did not fulfill the hopes that many had for him.
Biggest Disappointment: Former Orchard Lake St. Mary’s star David Bowens actually did live up to the hype, but it only lasted for two years. After an exceptional start on the field, Bowens saw his career cut short by poor grades in the classroom.
Along with Bowens, another career cut short was that of safety Dayrion Taylor, though for more dignified reasons. We’re still not sure whether to feel disappointed that he never got a chance to live up to the great potential he was showing on the field or just be glad that he is alive and can walk. His hit on Penn State fullback Bob Stevenson ended both players’ careers and remains one of the nastiest we’ve ever seen.
Retrospect Ranking: Taking stock for a moment, the 1995 class immediately puts itself in contention as one of the Wolverines’ top recruiting efforts with just Charles Woodson and Tom Brady. When you toss in the performances of Hall, Renes, Aaron Shea, Tai Streets and Josh Williams, the list becomes even stronger. The list doesn’t even end there with Daydrion Taylor, Chris Ziemann, Steve Frasier, Clarence Williams, Bowens and DiAllo Johnson all adding contributions.
Considering the list of starters and their role in producing a 32-5 record over three seasons, a very strong case can be made for the 1995 group as Michigan’s top recruiting class of the last 20 years.
The Stars Who Were: Widely regarded as one of the top three receivers in the nation and one of the top 25 overall prospects, David Terrell would be considered the greatest success story from the class. While his NFL career was a letdown, his sophomore and junior seasons at Michigan were spectacular. Leaving with a full year of eligibility remaining, he still finished his career with the second most receptions (152) in school history, behind just Anthony Carter.
Both Terrell and Carter would be passed on that list the following year, when a senior Marquise Walker set both the season record with 86 grabs and career record with 176 receptions. While Walker wasn’t quite the athlete that Terrell was, he likewise lived up to his potential as one of the nation’s elite receivers.
Both Victor Hobson and Larry Foote were highly regarded prospects in high school. While they weren’t quite the stars in college that Terrell and Walker were, they were very strong multi-year contributors that earned All-Big Ten recognition.
The Sleeper Success: We’re having a hard time naming one. This is partly due to most of the recruits in the class being highly rated, but also because none of the lower rated players like Joe Denay, Evan Coleman or Deitan Dubuc really stepped up to become major contributors.
The Stars Who Weren’t: A former USA Today All-American, Dave Armstrong was consensus top-100 player out of high school, who had college recruiters drooling over his skills as a defensive end. He only spent two years playing defense before moving to fullback, where he still made only minimal contributions. Electing not to return for a fifth year of eligibility, he finished his career with just one tackle and no offensive statistics.
Completely overshadowed by Justin Fargas, many fans forget that Walter Cross was also a pretty highly rated prospect in his own right. In modern ranking terms, Cross would have been a solid four-star prospect. Not in the top 100, but definitely in the top 300, or 250, or 247 if you prefer. He was well regarded and even showed some promise as a true freshman. Looking back on his career though, his greatest impact was probably the pass he threw for a touchdown against Illinois in 2001. He never became a regular in the backfield.
Biggest Disappointment: We’re not going to classify quarterback Drew Henson as a “bust,” because his talent level certainly matched the hype and high rankings. Had he stayed healthy as a junior, and had he returned for his senior year, he might be looked back on as an all-time great at Michigan. But he didn’t and he’s not. When the 1998 class entered, Henson was the cornerstone recruit that many fans saw leading the Wolverines to multiple national championship runs. To say that he didn’t live up to those expectations would be an understatement. He finished his career with just a 6-2 record as a starter.
Right up there with Henson in the recruiting rankings, Justin Fargas was widely regarded as the best or second best running back prospect in the nation out of high school. He showed good potential as a freshman, but a broken leg knocked him out of commission for a year. When he returned, he was well behind Anthony Thomas on the depth chart and struggled to unseat freshman Chris Perry as well. He requested to move to safety, where he didn’t see much action before ultimately deciding to transfer. He had a couple solid years at Southern Cal, but all Michigan fans were left with was one great performance in the mud at Northwestern and a lot of thoughts about what could have been.
Retrospect Ranking: Based on the recruiting rankings of the time, the 1998 class was the highest rated group of the last 20 years. Terrell, Walker, Fargas and Henson were all the equivalent of modern day five-star prospects, and some publications (having not yet learned from Scott Bentley at Florida State) even had kicker Hayden Epstein rated that highly as well. Armstrong was a clear top-100 prospect, and there were a host of other players that were the equivalent of four-stars, including Hobson, Foote, Cross, Todd Howard, Bennie Joppru, Dan Rumishek and Cato June.
The problems that we have with putting the 1998 group any higher are twofold. First, fans have an easy time overlooking a lack of balance in a class, especially when the offensive line is the area getting the short end of the stick. But the fact is, the Wolverines signed only Joe Denay to play the position in that class, which came back to haunt the Maize and Blue dearly in the 2001 season. Denay never really panned out and with injuries from previous classes to players like Paul Tannous and Todd Mossa, along with the loss of Jason Brooks, Michigan found itself trying to piecemeal together an offensive line out of redshirt freshmen, former defensive tackles and even former linebackers.
Secondly, while there was a solid list of contributors to come from that class, we have a hard time looking past the limited contributions of two of the class’ biggest names in Henson and Fargas. Knowing what we know today, they weren’t five-star contributors to the program. Furthermore, when that class should have been at its peak from 2000-02, Michigan put together just a 27-10 record.
The Stars Who Were: One of the two major five-star upsets of the 2003 recruiting class LaMarr Woodley was one of the last to declare. For a long time he was considered a lean to Michigan State, but after several visits to Ann Arbor, plus the firing of Bobby Williams for the Spartans, Woodley began to consider the Maize and Blue more seriously. With running back teammate Jerome Jackson already pledged to the Wolverines, Woodley announced his plans the day before signing day. Living up to his billing, he went on to start 33 games for Michigan and earned All-American honors in 2006.
While Leon Hall’s recruitment was far less dramatic, his success on the football field was not. One of Brady Hoke’s final recruits as a Michigan assistant, Hall quietly went through the process in the fall and selected the Wolverines without much pageantry in December of his senior year. While there wasn’t much show to his recruitment, his four-star ranking still generated excitement from Michigan faithful. A strong case could be made that Hall actually outperformed his high ranking. Staring 35 games in his career, he was named an All-American in 2006 as well.
The Sleeper Success: We’re not sure where to list former offensive tackle Jake Long. Was he a star that proved to be even better than his ranking or a sleeper that proved to be way, way better than his ranking? Early in the process, Long was actually seen as a sleeper, believe it or not. And not just by the recruiting publications, but by the Michigan coaches as well. The Wolverines passed up offering him in the spring of his junior year, which allowed Purdue and Michigan State to jump strongly into the mix. It was only after the Michigan coaches had seen him at their summer camp that he received the scholarship offer he was looking for. He committed a few weeks later. Long’s rankings rose steadily through his senior year and he jumped into the four-star range after the final evaluations were made a month before signing day. He went on to become one of Michigan’s all-time greats and the first pick of the NFL draft. Not bad for a kid that was once not worthy of a Michigan offer at this time of year.
The 2003 class was pretty star studded from top to bottom, but amazingly there was another good sleeper success story in that group. In fact, Brandent Englemon was the lowest rated prospect in the recruiting class. A commitment to Kentucky through late January, Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann liked Englemon and made a late offer to the young defensive back. He promptly switched to the Wolverines and went on to start 25 games.
The Stars Who Weren’t: Missouri native Will Paul was rated as one of the top jumbo athletes in the nation in 2003 and participated in the Army All-American Bowl. While highly regarded as a tight end, he came to Michigan to play along the defensive line. He gave that a try for two years, but failing to make headway on the depth chart he switched to fullback. The change in position didn’t add much to his playing time, however, and he ultimately decided not to return for his fifth year of eligibility.
Clayton Richard came to Michigan as one of the highest rated members of the recruiting class. The strong armed quarterback had his eyes set on competition with Matt Gutierrez, who signed the year before. At the time, few would have guessed that it would be a true freshman quarterback named Chad Henne in the next class that would beat them both out. Richard ended up leaving Michigan early to pursue a career in Major League Baseball.
Biggest Disappointment: Jeff Zuttah was seen as a steal when Michigan landed his commitment in Dec. 2002. The big offensive lineman had struggled with illness as a senior in high school, so rather than accepting a low level scholarship offer, he returned for a year of prep school at The Hun School in New Jersey. Selecting the Maize and Blue over Notre Dame, Florida State and Penn State, he passed up the opportunity to play in the Army All-American Game so he could instead enroll early at Michigan. The talent was there, but once on campus, it became clear that the sickle cell anemia which prevented him from playing as a senior in high school was too great a threat to his health. The doctors at Michigan would not clear him to play, so he transferred to Stanford. He played in two games for the Cardinal before it was determined that he would have to give up football.
Retrospect Ranking: The only thing that held back the 2003 recruiting class in the rankings was numbers. While an extremely high percentage of the players in the class were rated as four-star prospects, plus Woodley and Prescott Burgess as five star prospects, the class only included 17 members. As one might have predicted from that outcome, the class provided a smaller number of major contributors, but it was a really strong group of players.
The 2003 recruiting class added to Michigan’s excellent 2006 defense with Woodley, Burgess, Hall, Englemon and Shawn Crable. In addition, Long and Adam Kraus were both multi-year starters on the offensive line, and kicker Garrett Rivas was a four-year starter.
The Stars Who Were: 2001 marked the year that Michigan took over the state of Pennsylvania in recruiting, and no theft from the Nittany Lions was greater than Marlin Jackson. The Sharon, Pa. star cornerback selected the Wolverines during the summer of 2000, sending Penn State fans into an insane fury. Jackson was already highly regarded at the time, but saw his rankings rise even further with a strong senior season of play. He ended up rated as a five-star or high four-star prospect depending on the publication. Jackson was one player that lived up to those ratings, starting games in each of his four seasons with the Wolverines. While injuries and a shift to safety led to a disappointing junior year, he had excellent sophomore and senior campaigns.
The first member of the 2001 class, Ernest Shazor actually announced in favor of the Wolverines in January of his junior year – the day after Charles Rogers announced he would sign with Michigan State in 2000. When he signed with the Maize and Blue a year later, Shazor was rated as a consensus five-star prospect. While he never had one full season at that level, the final half of his sophomore year and first two thirds of his junior year were sensational. In fact, he is Michigan’s only All-American safety since Tripp Welborne in 1990.
The Sleeper Success: Many fans scoffed and protested when Michigan offered a little known wide receiver out of Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher named Braylon Edwards. He only got offered because of his father, some said. He’s only the fourth best wide receiver in the state others argued. And still others questioned why the Wolverines would offer this unknown when five-star receiver Reggie Williams was a “lock” to sign with the Maize and Blue.
Despite the early misgivings of fans, Edwards went on to have a spectacular career, breaking both Michigan and Big Ten records. He finished his career as the Wolverines all-time leading receiver with 252 grabs. He also holds the mark for most receiving yards (3,541) and touchdown receptions (39). He is Michigan’s only recipient of the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top wide receiver.
The Stars Who Weren’t: Most had running back David Underwood as a solid to high four-star prospect. Tom Lemming had him the highest, rating the Texas native as a top-10 overall prospect. He didn’t come close to either of those levels of expectation. Instead, Underwood found himself stuck behind the B.J. Askew – Chris Perry battle, which then gave way to just Perry. When the door appeared open for his senior season, a tiny little true freshman named Mike Hart stepped onto the scene and took the job away from him. Underwood finished his career with just 612 total yards.
We’re not sure whether mentioning Massey here is really fair. On the one hand, he was a three year starter for the Wolverines and was a team co-captain as a senior. Defensive tackles don’t generally pile up big statistics, so you could say by most measures he had a pretty successful career. On the other hand, was it a five-star career? Because that’s how highly he was rated coming out of high school by most. Massey had a solid career and we don’t mean to take anything away from that. But he definitely didn’t live up to the lofty ratings he carried during the recruiting process.
Biggest Disappointment: In 2003, Michigan rolled out a linebacker trio of Pierre Woods, Scott McClintock and Lawrence Reid. All members of the 2001 recruiting class, Woods and McClintock were former high four-star prospects, while Reid was considered much more of a sleeper. When they got out there together, they were good. And with each of them carrying two more years of eligibility, fans had high hopes of the Wolverines fielding a dominating group in the future. It didn’t happen. Reid had his career ended by a neck injury. McClintock struggled with back injuries and eventually lost his starting job because of them. And Woods’ saw his career fizzle due to off-field issues.
While the linebacker struggles was a letdown, there was no disappointment worse than the career, or lack thereof, of former Portage Northern star running back Kelly Baraka. He was a consensus top 100 prospect, who bordered on five-star status, depending on which ranking you looked at. The Wolverines turned down a commitment from Ryan Grant just so they could try to pursue Baraka. He eventually made the late choice in favor of the Wolverines over his childhood favorite Notre Dame. Then it all came crashing down. Before even showing up on campus, he got arrested for marijuana possession. Then it happened again. He was suspended for his freshman season, and then ran into grade problems. His career ended without ever having seen the field.
We’ll toss a little mention of Sean Sanderson in here too. He wasn’t highly rated coming out of high school or anything like that. But as a redshirt freshman in 2002, seeing the 290 pound fullback destroy little linebackers gave fans reason to really be excited for his future. He quit the team after that season was over.
Retrospect Ranking: There are certainly some negatives when looking at the 2001 class. Several players that showed early promise just never lived up to their potential. There was also a high level of attrition, with Shazor, Baraka, Reid, Sanderson, Kyle Ealey, Alex Ofili, Joey Sarantos, Dan Simelis and Dave Spytek failing to play out their eligibility.
However, the very early contributions of Edwards, Jackson, Adam Stenavich and the afore mentioned linebacker trio really saved Michigan during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Michigan also received contributions from the class from Massey, Shazor, Matt Lentz, Tim Massaquoi, Markus Curry and Leo Henige. As a group, the class hit its prime a little early, from 2002-04. That span saw Michigan go to two Rose Bowls and finished with a 29-9 record.
The Stars Who Were: The Wolverines’ only five-star prospect in the recruiting class, quarterback Chad Henne immediately lived up to the hype, taking over the starting job as a true freshman from the injured Matt Gutierrez. While it helped to have the nation’s top wide receiver, Henne showed poise and confidence well beyond his years. In fact, he tied the Michigan record for touchdown passes in a season that year. As a four-year starter, he went on to claim virtually every significant Michigan passing record.
Playing opposite Henne in the Army All-American bowl was one of his future favorite targets in wide receiver Adrian Arrington. A solid four-star prospect in high school, Arrington took a little longer to come into his prime, but grabbed 40 receptions as a redshirt sophomore and then 67 receptions the following year. His best game came against Florida in the Capital One Bowl, where he had nine grabs for 153 yards and two touchdowns. That would be his final performance in the Maize and Blue as he declared early for the NFL draft soon after.
Yet another Army All-American in the class, Alan Branch saw limited action as a true freshman before taking charge as an oversized defensive end the following year. Moving back to his more natural position of defensive tackle in 2006, he was an incredibly disruptive force on Michigan’s strong defensive front. Like Arrington, Branch jumped early for the NFL after his breakout season.
The Sleeper Success: While Syracuse, N.Y. native Mike Hart received a warm welcome to the recruiting class from fans of the Maize and Blue who had seen his amazing high school highlights, he was still considered a sleeper in the recruiting class. He had a handful of other strong offers, but was rated as a three-star prospect across the board. Many felt that he was just too small to make an impact at the Big Ten level and that he would need to make a huge adjustment given the weak high school competition that he faced. One analyst even insisted that cornerback would be his best position at the collegiate level.
It didn’t take Hart long to do away with his doubters, rushing for an amazing 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman. While he did battle injuries throughout his time in Ann Arbor, he still claimed the Michigan career rushing record, piling up 5,040 yards on the ground. He is also third all-time in rushing touchdowns, with 41 scores.
The Stars Who Weren’t: When the video of Missouri native Brett Gallimore driving an opposing defender right off the field and into a kicking net hit the rounds, the young offensive lineman became an instant sensation on the recruiting scene. He had high rankings and impressive offers. But his career at Michigan never materialized into anything more than backup duty. He opted not to return for his fifth year of eligibility after the 2007 season.
Washington D.C. native Doug Dutch was highly regarded for his skills as both a wide receiver and defensive back. A former Army-All American Bowl participant, he spent his first three season at receiver before making the shift to cornerback for his final two. He never made a particularly strong contribution at either spot.
Biggest Disappointment: Considered by the Michigan coaching staff to be the top running back prospect in the nation, Alabama native Max Martin came in with high expectations resting on his shoulders. He inherited the No. 23 jersey from departed Doak Walker winner Chris Perry, but spent most of his freshman season on the sidelines watching Mike Hart run wild. When Hart was injured as a sophomore, Martin was granted the chance to step up. After rushing for over 100 yards against Eastern Michigan, hopes were raised that he was going to provide a solid second option. They came crashing back down against Wisconsin, when he fumbled the ball and the lead away in the fourth quarter. He only carried the ball six more times that season, before cutting his career two years short.
Retrospect Ranking: While Hart and Henne headline the group, Michigan also got very strong contributions out of Arrington, Branch, Jamar Adams, Tim Jamison, Will Johnson, Chris Graham, Alex Mitchell, Morgan Trent, Mike Massey and John Thompson.
We feel this group lines up pretty evenly with the 2001 class: A couple of all-time greats, a couple of really good players, a few good dependable players and a handful of solid contributors. In that sense, they are both pretty even. We’ll give the slight edge to the 2001 class, however, because it helped contribute to an extra Rose Bowl, didn’t lose to Appalachian State and wasn’t involved in anything close to a 3-8 season.