When Florida cornerback Ja’Den McBurrows committed to Michigan Friday afternoon, he immediately became the highest ranked defensive player in its 2021 class. That can be a cause for concern, considering he’s a three-star and the No. 580 overall player in the country, according to 247Sports’ composite.
Looking at Michigan’s list of 2021 commits, a stark dichotomy appears. Out of the five four- or five-stars in the class, all of them play on offense. Every defensive commit is ranked as a three-star, lower than the lowest offensive player. What happened to Michigan’s recruiting strategy that led to this difference in talent, and will it continue throughout the cycle?
A couple reasons jump out to explain the first question. The first is the make-up of the coaching staff on either side of the ball. The offense features arguably Michigan’s top four recruiters on staff in Sherrone Moore, Jay Harbaugh, Josh Gattis and Ed Warinner. Warinner has been killing it so far in 2021, as he is responsible for three of the five blue-chip commits, with the potential to bring in three more.
On defense, the staff reflects coordinator Don Brown’s old-school, rugged attitude. New safeties coach Bob Shoop has admitted he didn’t pay much attention to recruiting while he was the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State and has to shake off the rust a bit. Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich has an attitude similar to Bo Schembechler’s back in the ‘70s — he’s offering the players an opportunity, and nothing more. Whatever happens after that is up to the player, along with some good coaching.
Zordich also likes to keep his list of targets relatively short and pursue the guys he likes, which worked for overcoming a silent commitment to USC by Darion Green-Warren last year. But it can also leave Michigan scrambling to add someone late in the cycle, like what happened in 2018 when Houston Griffith and Josh Jobe went elsewhere and Zordich had to circle back on Vincent Gray.
Shaun Nua and Brian Jean-Mary are the fresher faces on defense, but have yet to make the impact fans expected of them. How they close this cycle will say a lot about Michigan’s potential recruiting success in the future.
Both Nua and Jean-Mary have also been victim to a strategy I think Michigan is employing for the 2021 cycle. Soon after three-star linebacker Casey Phinney committed, it was soon reported he is close friends with his high school teammate, high four-star guard Drew Kendall. Phinney has been recruiting Kendall since he gave his pledge.
McBurrows also has a connection to a top Michigan target. His cousin is elite four-star edge prospect Dallas Turner, who transferred with McBurrows from American Heritage to St. Thomas Aquinas. Adding McBurrows will also help with another teammate the staff really likes, four-star linebacker Jaydon Hood.
I believe the Wolverines are using these connections to gain more leverage in Kendall and Turner’s recruitments, similar to how they signed Michael Dwumfour to help with Rashan Gary or Josh Metellus and Devin Gil to pull Devin Bush away from Florida State.
That puts an anchor on the linebacker and defensive line recruiting, but there are still plenty of highly-ranked targets Michigan is in good position with, especially at linebacker. Michigan is in a really good position with four-star Junior Colson, who is deciding next month. It’s turned into a dogfight against Penn State for in-state four-star Jamari Buddin, but the longer it goes the better for Michigan.
While Shoop and Zordich may not care much about stars, the ranking services do seem to agree with their evaluations. Safety Donovan McMillon is now well within four-star territory to 247Sports, and safety Rod Moore was moved one spot away from being a four-star. Cornerback Tyreek Chappell also saw his ranking pulled up to a high three-star. Aside from those diamonds in the rough, they’re also recruiting four-stars Omarion Cooper, Duce Chestnut, Avante Dickerson, and Ishmael Ibraheem heavily.
There is a lot to prove for the defensive staff on the recruiting trail in the next eight months until signing day (if it is still held in December). This could just be a quirk where the lowest-ranked guys all committed first, but if they strike out on their top targets down the line, their operation will have to be reassessed.