Michael Zordich, the cornerbacks coach at Michigan, was a blue-chip recruit back in the day. Both Michigan and Penn State wanted him, and back in the '80s, both clubs were in the peak of their heyday - a combined 25 ranked seasons in the thirteen years before Zordich's freshman year. Many other programs wanted him as well, but Zordich made up his mind quickly and shut down his recruitment out of loyalty to Joe Paterno.
Michael Zordich has also been an underdog, a scrapper. When he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the ninth round, he got cut by the team before his rookie year started. Zordich ended up signing with the Jets, where he made it onto the field as a special teams player. That was enough, though, and Zordich kept earning more and more snaps, figuring out how to be successful at that level. When the time did come for him to hang up the cleats, twelve years had gone by. One hundred and eighty-five NFL games had been played, for three different teams.
Teams recruit secondaries in different ways, but they tend to fall in one of those two camps - either glamour, or hustle. Since 2009, Florida State has failed to sign a five-star defensive back only twice. Meanwhile, teams like TCU, Michigan State, Louisville, and Minnesota have built a strong defensive foundation through a winning secondary manned by three-star guys. Both techniques can be successful, if done right.
And Michigan, it seems, is now leaning toward the latter - under Harbaugh's watch, Michigan has gotten six commitments in the defensive backfield, and not one of them is a blue-chip recruit. Waiting for the next five-star DB, like Jabrill Peppers? Well, you might be waiting a while. Might. Then again, there are a couple recruits who could break some of the rules.
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Michael Zordich spent five years in Happy Valley, from 1981-85. His son followed in his footsteps from 2008-12.
But first, what is Michigan looking for, exactly, if recruiting rankings aren't a big concern?
"For us they need great hands, great eyes, [and] great feet," Zordich described to reporters back in March. "[They've] just got to be very disciplined. And you have to have some suddenness, some quickness to you, and you have to have great hips because all those things happen like that, so those are the true attributes that those kind of guys need."
Not all top recruits have that combination of skills, exactly. The 'elite' cornerback prospects are typically ones with blazing speed, fluid athleticism (hips are a big talking point), and good strength. Mike Farrell said as much in his look back at Jourdan Lewis. But whereas a running back might be challenged to use all those traits in the span of a couple seconds, a corner tends to be challenged less in the physical sense while operating in a defensive scheme. Even corners with 4.4-forty speed can get burned if they take the wrong steps or don't anticipate the play properly.
A corner needs to act on smarts and intuition, knowing what the options are at any given second. He needs the necessary speed to keep up with defenders, but only until the pass rush gets home. Often, there is help from other DBs. A cornerback needs a short memory, good timing, and the ability to shadow other athletes without drawing a flag. Like a quarterback, a corner can have something unique to him, some chutzpah or personality. And whatever the situation he might get into, it's all about finding a way to get the job done. This has a tendency to create some great stories along the way.
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Jim Harbaugh checks in on his star cornerback, Jourdan Lewis, in the second quarter against Oregon State.
Every Michigan fan knows about and reveres Charles Woodson, #2. But Michigan's second-most successful cornerback of the recent era is easily Ty Law, who was drafted in 1995 and was the heart of three championship teams with New England. Michigan's #22 finished his NFL career with 53 interceptions (Woodson has 65) and participated in five Pro Bowls.
The first of those three Super Bowls, a game that served as the coming out party for both New England's defense and Tom Brady, was a contest the St. Louis Rams were supposed to win big. But the Pats established a stingy, physical pass defense that ground the Greatest Show on Turf to a halt.
It's easy to forget now that Law's selection, 23rd overall in the 1995 draft, wasn't exactly met with overflowing excitement in New England. There were questions surrounding Law's speed and whether he'd be able to run with some of the top-flight receivers in the NFL.
Law admits he wasn't the fleetest of foot, so he adapted his style of play and later became one of the elite corners in the game. Turns out his game, a physical brand that often punished receivers at the line of scrimmage, stood the test of time.
"I might have played it rough but I didn't cheat and didn't take any shortcuts," Law said, when asked how he'd like to be remembered by New England fans. "I was a player that gave his all, no matter what. I played injured a lot, I didn't make excuses and I played the game the right way."
The Rams dominated the total yardage battle in Super Bowl XXXVI, 427-267, but also committed three uncharacteristic turnovers. "A lot of bookies are probably mad at us right now," Law gloated afterward, "but we don't give a damn ... We're the champs."
Michigan's secondary might have Charles Woodson 2.0, but its identity has a dash of Law's battling-uphill persona. There's a former camp offer, Channing Stribling, a 6'4" under-recruited safety in Jeremy Clark, and a four-star - Jourdan Lewis - whose only other offer, officially, was Toledo. It might be easy to forget now, but all of them have heard some serious doubt in the last couple years that they could compete at an elite level. And yet here they are, #3 in the country.
Next year will bring more of the same. A 2016 commit, Antwaine Richardson, played in front of Michigan's coaches on a torn ACL in order to get the offer to come play in Ann Arbor. Another Jim Harbaugh commit, 2015's Keith Washington, famously challenged the head coach to measure his reported 4.4-speed in the driveway. And Harbaugh loved it. The way to get an invite into Michigan's secondary is clear - be a tough, mean, competitive son of a gun. Elite speed, having the right hips - all of it matters, but the attitude matters most.
Now, this isn't to say that Michigan is only looking for gritty three-star recruits. Harbaugh has been trying to flip Lavert Hill from Penn State for months, David Long is a favorite to land in Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh reached into the Georgia footprint to compete for Mecole Hardman, Jr. And though Michigan's recruitment of Lamar Jackson seems to have cooled off lately, he has also spent time on Michigan's radar. All four of those are blue-chip recruits.
The two prospects that are most likely to wind up at Michigan are Detroit King's Lavert Hill and Loyola, California prospect David Long. Both are great players in their own right - Lavert is more of a pure defender, surviving on his instincts and long arms. David is blessed with a little more speed and all the things a scout would be looking for - hips, strength, reaction time, good hands and body control. Long is ranked a little bit higher, but both are good athletes and great prospects.
Mecole Hardman, though, is the only one who really comes close to mimicking Jabrill Peppers' abilities coming out of high school. He's the quintessential athlete, still raw as a cornerback, but blessed with amazing speed and versatility for any number of positions. He's not quite the athlete Jabrill was - not as big or strong, and maybe a touch slower - but he's about as close as you'll find. Unfortunately, it seems likely that Hardman will wind up playing for Alabama or Georgia, but Jim Harbaugh's pursuit of the five-star Georgia player tells us that he doesn't pigeonhole himself into one type of approach - and that's something to remember going forward. As long as Harbaugh believes a player can get it done - whether they're a two-star or a ten-star - he'll offer them a shot. If the players accept and embrace competition, everything else gets sorted out easily.
Obviously, elite recruits are the first ones fans will look to as breakout talents. Michigan seems likely to add one of those here pretty soon, and you can bet they'll get an extra dose of attention in fall camp of 2016. But while most of Michigan's backfield of the future is of the more humble three-star variety, don't be surprised if one of them winds up as the best player in three or four years. Competitors have a funny way of getting ahead in the long run.
Or, put it another way: try telling Antwaine Richardson, Keith Washington or Sir Patrick Scott that they won't turn out to be elite Michigan players. They'll tell you they will.