The 2016 recruiting cycle isn't exactly winding down yet, but fans will soon be paying a lot more attention to the results on the field than the recruits on the sideline. For elite prospects, though, this is the main season. Official visits, on-field results, and game-time atmospheres will go a long way in determining who they want to play for. And teams that have already sown up the majority of their commitments (like Michigan, with 22) will be hoping to add a few more pieces for the perfect little bow on top.
Very few teams are lucky enough to be in the running for an elite tight end, but Michigan has honed in on two so far: Florida's Isaac Nauta, and Pennsylvania's Nasier Upshur. Both are phenomenal prospects that Michigan fans have heard about numerous times, so we figured it was time to take a closer look and see exactly what is at stake with Michigan's tight end recruiting. Here's the lowdown on both high school seniors.
When Naseir Upshur was at a football camp last summer run by Rivals, he drew the attention of a name Michigan fans will know. Four-star defensive end Ron Johnson, who would commit to Michigan about a year later, looked him up on Instagram and started talking to him. Soon, they were friends, talking about schools and even going on visits together. Both were on hand to watch Penn State beat Rutgers this past year in Piscataway, then Upshur was back a week later to watch Rutgers beat Michigan. "It's a nice place," he said after.
Naseir has made plenty of friends along the way - Johnson, Jaelen Strong at Arizona State, Ahmir Mitchell, who's trying to decide between Michigan and Ohio State, Isaac Nauta, Jim Harbaugh, and many others. The recruiting process has given him a chance to see a college game in person for the first time, and interact with a massive network of players and coaches. As much as anything else, he's seemed pretty focused on taking it all in one step at a time.
His leaders, right now, are Michigan and Florida State. But that may be changing. After FSU lost its commitment from Isaac Nauta, they started looking at Naseir a little harder, and Naseir ultimately cancelled a visit to Michigan for a multi-day visit to Tallahassee with his family. Michigan may have been recruiting him the hardest before (including a now-infamous card from Jay), but there's one thing in particular that they, and any other suitor, will have to prove.
"Location doesn't matter," he said in an interview to Mike Farrell. "It's all about getting me to the next level."
What Jim Harbaugh's offense is able to prove from September to December, then, will go a long way in swaying the Pennsylvania native. If Jake Butt and the other tight ends play well, and the team wins some games, Michigan's staff will be able to point to their track record - both in the NFL and at Michigan - as evidence that Upshur will reach his dreams.
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Isaac Nauta's dream school growing up was Florida State. He's lived in Michigan, Georgia, and Florida, but more than anything else he always wanted to play for the Seminoles. Initially, he also wanted some distance from his parents' home in Georgia, but transferring to IMG Academy in Florida for his senior year of high school may have put a few things in perspective there.
"I'm not huge on going away from home," he said this past month. "I'd definitely love for my parents to be there. I know, selfishly, my parents want to be at my games this year. That's one things about Georgia that's so convenient is that it's right down the road. I've lived in Michigan, Florida and Georgia, and Georgia has definitely been my favorite place to live. I like the state in general. Being away from it you kind of miss it."
So, while he says he still has "a ton of love" for Florida State, Nauta's opened up his recruiting and is looking hard at UGA, Michigan, Southern Cal, and TCU. If he falls in love with a particular school, a certain quarterback, and the right coaching staff, then he might be ready to commit to any of them.
But there's a reason why Georgia's the front-runner. His rapport with quarterback Jacob Eason, his appreciation for the offensive coordinator's NFL experience, and his comfort with the head coach are all things Michigan could, potentially, compete in. But home is where the heart is, and Nauta seems enamored, right now, with playing close to home.
First, how big would a commitment be from either of these guys?
Very big. Michigan clearly wants an elite tight end prospect, and they missed on Chris Clark in the last cycle. They've gotten creative with moving guys around to take care of 2015, but this is the first full class under Jim Harbaugh and it sets the table for the rest of the decade. There's already one prospect in the fold, composite three-star Sean McKeon, but Harbaugh will want to finish with a pair.
How do these guys compare to each other? How do they play?
To cut to the chase, Nauta is a slightly better prospect, and he's also a more traditional tight end. Upshur, at a shade under 6'3", is a little bit more of an H-back. Michigan's coaches have reportedly promised to play Upshur everywhere, both on the line and in the slot, and between Naseir's physicality and Harbaugh's willingness to use smaller tight ends (Vernon Davis, anyone?), I believe him. But Naseir is simply not as tall or blessed with the same catching radius as most other prospects, and he's also not as strong as Isaac.
What Upshur does bring is a little more explosiveness, and that's where he could potentially be more dangerous. In fact, Vernon Davis is a great comparison as an undersized but athletic NFL tight end. (And, honestly, Upshur and Harbaugh would be a great match for each other.) Both of these guys will be asked to gain some weight once they get to college, so I don't think either one will be a freshman contributor. And both will probably end up being great players.
Who else is waiting in the wings?
If Michigan fails at landing a commitment from either Upshur or Nauta, Harbaugh will definitely be looking around for another option. Jamal Pettigrew, an LSU commit out of Louisiana, just got offered two months ago by the Wolverines, and he offers more height (6'6", 235) and some really exciting quickness for the position. Also, four-star Jacob Mathis is being courted by Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford, Florida and Miami. He is a 6'5", 227-pound player out of Florida with some amazing pass-catching abilities.