Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 18 during the early signing day.
Every year, coaches seek out to bring in the best talent possible to help boost their teams on the field. No coach, even Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, can land everyone they want, so there are going to be strong and weak points in every class.
Michigan’s 2020 class has plenty of positives to get you excited about the future of the program, but also some troubling spots people have focused on after another disappointing finish to the season. This analysis of the recruiting class, which is not finished but is mostly complete, will highlight some of each.
Strength: Speed at the Skill Positions
Since Josh Gattis was hired, “speed in space” has essentially become a cliche. When looking at the 2020 class though, you can see Michigan’s offensive coordinator is recruiting toward that philosophy.
Consider this — the slowest 40-yard dash time of the four running backs or wide receivers in the class is a 4.52, by three-star athlete Eamonn Dennis. The group is led by four-star Roman Wilson, whose blazing 4.37 time was the fastest clocked at any Opening Regional this cycle.
Four-star running back Blake Corum runs a 4.44, which played a big part in his breakout senior season that saw him rise up almost 80 spots in the rankings since August. Right behind him is four-star receiver A.J. Henning, who runs a 4.46.
The group is not only good down the field, but in short bursts as well. Henning and Wilson ran a 4.08 and 4.09 shuttle, respectively, which would be tied for fifth and seventh in the 2019 combine. Corum isn’t too far behind with his 4.22, which would rank just outside the top 25.
Throw in guys already on the roster like Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil and Zach Charbonnet, and this will be an elite collection of talented play-makers on the offensive side of the ball in a couple of years.
Weakness: Lack of Beef in the Interior
After JK Dobbins ripped through Michigan’s defense in the Ohio State game, the fanbase’s new collective obsession is with the size of the defensive tackles on the roster. Unfortunately, the 2020 class doesn’t look to be providing any reinforcements that will help in the near future.
There are four players listed as defensive ends in the class, but only two, four-stars Braiden McGregor and Jaylen Harrell, seem assured to stay outside. The plans for the other half of the group, three-stars Aaron Lewis and Kris Jenkins, are a little more murky.
Both players are definitely still the size of defensive ends. Lewis is listed as 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, while Jenkins is 6-foot-4, 239 pounds. There are reasons to believe that either player could play inside, though.
They both have frames that can pack on pounds, it’s just going to take a couple seasons for them to be ready to stand up to Big Ten offensive linemen. Jenkins has the best chance to do this given his genetics. His father was an absolute unit, tipping the scales at 360 pounds during his All-Pro NFL career. This suggests the younger Jenkins will have the capacity to bulk up in a college strength and conditioning program.
Lewis may not have the NFL pedigree, but he does have more experience playing defensive tackle. He lined up at tackle in a four-point stance about half the time on his senior highlight tape, using his quickness and length to get around opposing guards. On the other hand, Jenkins almost exclusively lined up at defensive end for his high school, often rushing standing up from a two-point stance.
Michigan is not going to need contributions from these guys next season given they return everyone from the line if Carlo Kemp gets his fifth year, but it’s still a good idea to take a bona fide defensive tackle every year. It’s going to be a major point of emphasis for 2021.
Strength: Linebackers of All Sizes
There are a wide range of roles a linebacker can play in Don Brown’s system. They span from the Viper, a lightweight safety/linebacker hybrid that matches up against the tight end, to Josh Uche’s SAM, whose main responsibilities are rushing the passer off the edge.
In the 2020 class, Michigan has loaded up with six players that can cover the entire spectrum. At Viper they have three-star William Mohan, who was basically created in a lab to turn anyone trying to get the edge on him into dust. He just has to learn to stop jumping on people’s shoulders while tackling.
Another guy who I think could play Viper is three-star Nikhai Hill-Green. He plays in the middle for St. Frances Academy while four-star Osman Savage lines up on the outside, but ironically I think their skill sets are better in the opposite role. Hill-Green is more of a quick-twitch athlete who goes recklessly after the ball. He’s a good candidate to split the difference and start out at the WILL. Meanwhile, Savage is more patient with excellent diagnosis skills that would function great as a middle linebacker.
Savage would find competition at the MIKE spot from three-star Cornell Wheeler, who is what you picture when you think of a traditional linebacker. He’s caused some grief to evaluators, who aren’t as impressed with his athleticism, but can’t shake his instincts and production on the field. Wheeler is basically a souped-up Glasgow that will always be in the right place.
The highest-ranked prospect in this collection is four-star Kalel Mullings, who looks bigger than his listed 6-foot-1, 220 pounds when going against his elite private school competition in Massachusetts. Mullings’ senior season tape has the most coverage snaps I’ve ever seen from a high school linebacker. He looks like a good bet to start out at the WILL as well, which is pretty thin following Jordan Anthony’s transfer.
Finally, we have Jaylen Harrell, who is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. Uche carved out his own role at the SAM because of his unique skills rushing the passer, but it looks like Michigan wants to replicate that by bringing Harrell on board. The four-star has played everywhere from middle linebacker to defensive end in high school, but will definitely play more of the latter during his time in college.
Weakness: Lack of Top-End Talent
Another common complaint that surfaced following the Ohio State game was the clear talent gap between the two teams. While Michigan chipped away at the gap last year by finishing ahead of the Buckeyes in the recruiting rankings, Ryan Day has Ohio State rolling again with eight players in the top 100.
Meanwhile, Michigan is sitting with just one player in that elite group, Henning at No. 92. They had a chance to triple that number just last week, but long-time targets Andrew Gentry (No. 60) and Theo Johnson (No. 84) committed to Virginia and Penn State, respectively.
Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of talented prospects in Michigan’s class. McGregor and Corum are sitting just outside of the top 100 at No. 108 and 119. When you’re dealing with rankings that close, the difference in talent is pretty marginal. McGregor in particular looked like he was headed for top 50 status before he was injured and couldn’t provide more film during his senior season.
The blue-chip ratio states a team must have more four- and five-star players on their roster than three- and two-stars in order to win a National Championship. Michigan has hit that mark again for 2020, but having more elite players will give them bigger difference-makers and more immediate contributors to the team. Building that depth and talent base is what it’s going to take to match up with the Ohio States of the world.
Luckily (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), Michigan has surpassed their number of top 100 players for the 2021 class already, with a good chance to add even more.
Strength: Loading Up on the Back End
A year after landing the No. 1 safety in the country and another four-star for good measure, Michigan did not slow down at all at the position. They went out and landed a trio of four-stars, all of which play different roles, similar to their haul at linebacker.
Jordan Morant is the biggest of the bunch at 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds. He’s more of a box safety like Josh Metellus and could bulk up to Viper or even linebacker depending on how he responds to a college strength and conditioning program.
On the other end of the spectrum is in-state four-star Makari Paige. At 6-foot-2.5 and 183 pounds, he’s a rangy center fielder type who’s likely to come down with an interception. Despite his lanky size, he can still come down and lay the wood, though.
In the middle of these two prospects is RJ Moten, who is 6-foot and 200 pounds. Since getting a huge bump into the top 100 from 247Sports back in July, Moten has been steadily rising in the rankings. There’s actually not a lot of defensive tape available on Moten, but his athleticism jumps off the charts. He’s paired a 4.62 40-yard dash with a ridiculous 40.9-inch vertical jump that has helped him become a top baseball prospect as well.
This quintet of four-stars over the last two cycles makes the safety room one of the most talented on the team. If one of these guys proves they can see the field early, it might allow Daxton Hill to slide outside and play cornerback if needed.
Weakness: Glaring Hole at Quarterback
This weakness isn’t really the fault of the coaching staff. After JD Johnson was forced to medically retire late into his senior season, they were looking at a quarterback class where only two four-stars had yet to sign. They did do good work to get one of those four-stars, CJ Stroud, on campus for an official visit early this month, but it was too little too late.
The staff wasn’t putting all their eggs in the Stroud basket, though, and hosted Dan Villari out of Long Island on an official visit the following weekend. They have reportedly offered him a grayshirt deal, where he’ll be a walk-on for his first season and then be on scholarship for his final four years of eligibility.
At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, there are even rumblings Villari could be converted to a tight end down the line, a la Zach Gentry. Regardless, that leaves an important role in Michigan’s roster that needs to be filled. I’m surprised the staff has not pushed harder for guys like Jayden de Laura or Jeff Sims before the early signing period, but clearly they thought they didn’t have a good shot at flipping them.
Now, the staff will either look to evaluate more prospects before February or hit the transfer portal. If they go the transfer route, I wouldn’t count on them going for some of the more flashy names. A former starter at a P5 school is not going to want to jump into a situation where he’ll be in a contentious three-man race for the starting job. Instead, I’d say the staff will look for more of a Chris Chuganov-type player at Ohio State, a career backup looking to play on a bigger stage but is comfortable in his role.
Overall, this class is around, if not slightly below, the level of recruiting we have come accustomed to under Harbaugh. He clearly trusts his staff’s evaluations of players and is adept at prioritizing his guys and landing them early. This has led to a lack of fireworks on signing day in previous years, but looks unlikely to change.