There's something cool, calculating, and efficient about James Franklin. He was hired as Vanderbilt's head coach at the age of 38, and the task he was given was not easy: rebuild a team that had gone 2-10 in two straight seasons, in a division where three teams had spent parts of 2010 ranked, and he was supposed to do it with a 2011 recruiting class that, at the time of Franklin's hire, was seven men strong.
For some reason, that job didn't take long. The 2011 recruiting class would triple in the next month and a half, and though it and the rest of Franklin's team was almost devoid of blue-chip talent, he managed to go 6-7 his first year. Not only that, five of those losses were one-possession games. In 2011 SEC, Vandy was already competitive.
The next two years saw Franklin steadily improve both his record and his recruiting. While 90% of that 2011 recruiting class was populated by mid-three-stars or below, by the time 2013 rolled around, 65% of Franklin's recruits were high-three-stars or better. Over the 2012 to 2014 NFL Drafts, Vandy would find seven of its players get drafted: four of them were former three-stars, and the other three were once two-stars. And though the rest of the SEC East continued to improve around that time, Vandy would finish ranked in both 2012 and 2013.
A takeaway from all this, then, is to beware. Just like a wideout who's not checked at the line of scrimmage, you could find yourself getting burned pretty quickly by James Franklin's coaching. Take a look at Penn State's recruiting since he arrived: in 2013, Penn State signed four blue-chip recruits. In 2014, they signed six. In 2015, 11. Now, they are sitting at 10, with several more spots to fill in the 2016 cycle. Franklin has targeted regional talent, especially in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, but also as far as Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois. He is getting comfortable, and the battle for 2016 Detroit cornerback Lavert Hill has a chance at stunting - just a little bit - his progress.
The first time Lavert Hill took an unofficial visit, he made the 45-mile trek from Detroit to Ann Arbor to watch Michigan play. Hoke's Wolverines won that game in a blowout, against the CMU Chippewas, and Hill was there the next weekend to watch Hoke take down Notre Dame. Seemingly, all was well. Lavert was back in Michigan Stadium when Devin Gardner's two-point conversion failed against Ohio State.
It was the summer after that that Hill's recruiting started to heat up, thanks in part to some good camp performances at North Carolina and North Carolina State that helped earn him a Miami offer. In July, Lavert camped in Happy Valley, and Penn State's coaches offered him a scholarship the same day. Michigan offered two days later. Ohio State and Tennessee would follow.
Over the 2014 season, Lavert took some visits to a few more campuses - but almost always to see Michigan play. He was in South Bend for the 31-0 destruction of the Wolverines, and, after taking in an ugly Michigan-Penn State game in Ann Arbor that Michigan won, he traveled to East Lansing to watch Hoke and the Wolverines get destroyed by MSU. Lavert was back in East Lansing a couple weeks later to watch the Spartans take on Ohio State, then he made it down to Columbus to watch Michigan lose for the last time under Hoke - a game his older brother played in. Lavert was there, on the sideline, to watch the last gasp of Brady Hoke's tenure.
After 2014 ended, and after Jim Harbaugh was hired, Lavert committed to James Franklin. Ty Wheatley made a last-second attempt to change his mind, traveling to see him at his home, but it was for naught. All Wheatley had to sell, after all, was more hope. It'll be different next year, seriously. But Lavert had heard that one before, and Penn State's coaches made him feel wanted - and the campus, he said, felt like home. Besides, he didn't know any of the new Michigan coaches.
There's a lot of talent in the 2016 cornerback class. Levonta Taylor is built like a rock, and has great speed to match. Byron Murphy is a physical play-maker with terrific hands. But Lavert Hill stands out because of something else - his abilities to actually be a cornerback.
He's uncanny in being able to hang close to a receiver and crowd the throwing lane even if he's bodied out of position. He has the timing and long arms to reach in and break up passes. His head is always up, pointed in the right direction, processing how the play unfolds. And as soon as the quarterback lets the ball go, Lavert knows what to do. In basketball, he'd be a shutdown defender. In baseball, he'd be the guy who could distinguish the fastball from the curve.
You won't hear many calling Lavert an elite cornerback prospect, but like the quarterback position, corner isn't just about athleticism. It's about what you do with it. And Lavert has an impeccable combination of balance, control, speed, length, and comfort when given the task of keeping the ball out of someone's hands.
In fact, I'm not sure I wouldn't take him over a half-dozen other, more highly ranked corners. They may be faster, but they also spend a lot more time playing off their man and don't have the balance that enables Hill to change direction and accelerate on a dime. Lavert fits what Michigan wants to do. He's aggressive, competitive, and intuitive. He gets the job done.
In fact, his play closely resembles that of former teammate Jourdan Lewis, even down to the 'love' he shows opposing players when the ball is in the air (and that is something Lavert will need to work on). Michigan has so far taken corners with length, but none with Hill's polish and athleticism. He'd be a potential difference-maker right away.
Call them the Big Four: Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State. Together, they have dominated discussion around the Big Ten, even while two powerhouses in the West undergo coaching changes. And they have been sucking up Midwest talent like a vacuum - talent that Alabama and Florida State used to take on a regular basis. Now, almost 70% of the committed blue-chips in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and Indiana are pledged to one of those four. Throw in Maryland's four in-state blue-chippers and that number rises to almost 80%. That's a whole lot of talent going into one division.
A few of these teams have done a better job than others at defending their state, and it's hard to stress how important in-state recruiting could become in such a competitive environment. Penn State, OSU, and Maryland have done a good job, both in this cycle and in past years, of keeping talent within their border. Michigan, though, has been slumping. In a year that their state produced nine blue-chips, Jim Harbaugh has gotten pledges from only two of them.
With Lavert Hill, though, and a possible commitment by Donnie Corley, there's a chance to salvage some of that. Lavert and Donnie took in Jim Harbaugh's August BBQ, and both came away impressed. Donnie has started talking about going to college with Lavert as a teammate, and there are only two schools that both are considering. Michigan State has been pushing hard for both prospects, but they are currently on the outside looking in with Lavert Hill. Michigan, meanwhile, has a lot of factors that make Ann Arbor appealing for Lavert Hill, and Donnie Corley has warmed up to the school quite a bit in the last few months.
"I feel wanted," Lavert said after the barbeque. "They're recruiting me really hard with my brother and stuff like that. ... It's a pretty good school with the academics and football but I'm committed to Penn State right now."
In the end, this is still a race with many laps to go. Over the course of the next five months, Lavert will have a chance to get comfortable with the Michigan coaching staff, and Michigan's coaches will be able to show him how much they want him in Ann Arbor. Nothing is set in stone; both Lavert and Donnie still have to time to decide what exactly they're looking for.
Still, if the biggest factors in this race are family and fit - with Lavert's older brother already donning the Maize and Blue - then you have to like Michigan's chances to keep at least one Detroit kid home.