Recruiting is one of the foundational pillars of college football. When Nick Saban was hired at Alabama in 2007, he inherited a program that only had three winning seasons since 2000. Under Saban, the Crimson Tide have never had a losing season and have more national championships (six) than seasons with fewer than 12 wins (five).
How did Saban build a winner so quickly? How has he sustained this level of success during the most talent-rich era of college football despite a high rate of assistant coach turnover? Several reasons can be pointed out, but it all starts with recruiting.
Former Alabama (and Michigan) assistant Jim McElwain said this about Alabama’s approach back in 2015:
“Recruiting with coach Saban never stops...because it’s the lifeblood of the program.”
Michigan’s recruiting success has experienced ups and downs as head coach Jim Harbaugh ironed out his recruiting philosophy. Harbaugh wants guys that fit the Michigan culture but also understands he cannot build a powerhouse with just lower-rated, high-character players.
It has taken longer than expected, but the program finally reflects that philosophy like a mirror. This season, Michigan is finally looking to cash in on its recruiting successes.
All-Pro Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Lane Johnson gave a great quote last week at the OL Masterminds Summit: “Two or more people actively engaged in the pursuit of a definite purpose with a positive mental attitude, constitute an unbeatable force.”
That is what Michigan is hoping to accomplish in 2023. Entering a season with pinnacle expectations felt like the perfect time to revisit some of the recruits that helped Michigan return to prominence. It wasn’t just five-star talent or walk-on development, it was a combination of both and everything in between.
Here are the three best two-, three-, four- and five-star recruits in the Harbaugh era who helped make this possible.
All recruiting data was taken from the 247Sports composite and only features players recruited by Harbaugh (2015-Present).
Two-Stars or less
1. Kicker Jake Moody (2018-22)
“Money” Moody is one of the greatest Wolverines of all time. Moody leaves Michigan holding several program records including career points (355), single-season points (147) and the longest-made field goal (59 yards).
In 2021, “Jake the Make” became the first Wolverine to ever win the Lou Groza Award and was named a consensus All-American. Without Moody the last two seasons, 25 wins are impossible.
2. Center Andrew Vastardis (2016-21)
A two-time team captain, Vastardis helped oversee Michigan’s return to glory during his six years in Ann Arbor. Vastardis saw it all during his Michigan tenure and helped usher in a new era of dominance in the trenches by anchoring the 2021 Joe Moore Award offensive line.
Now he has his sights set on something bigger than football, as he is on his way to becoming Dr. Vastardis.
Incoming @UMichMedScience student @AndrewV68 nailing his first academic surgery presentation on behalf of @CAHarrisMD RE the evaluation of the @CulturalCompli1 curriculum. So proud of the team! @jdimick1 pic.twitter.com/5T3HwSxzFE— Lesly A Dossett MD MPH (@leslydossett) February 8, 2023
3. Punter Brad Robbins (2017-22)
Aside from having an elite mustache, Robbins finished his Michigan career with the No. 2 career punting average (42.0 yards per attempt), No. 2 single season average (46.33) and fifth in total punt yards (7,698).
Robbins became a field-flipping weapon as Michigan’s fourth-down quarterback.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Glasgow, Tru Wilson
1. Running Back Hassan Haskins (2018-21)
Haskins’ 20-touchdown season set a Michigan program record in 2021, and his five-touchdown performance in the 42-27 win over Ohio State tied Ron Johnson’s program record. Haskins only trails Tim Biakabutka in terms of iconic Michigan-Ohio State running back performances.
2. Wide Receiver Ronnie Bell (2018-22)
The two-time team captain leaves Michigan as ninth all-time in career receptions (145) and seventh in career receiving yards (2,269). Bell was the heart and soul of the Wolverines the last two seasons and wouldn’t even let a devastating knee injury dictate his legacy.
3. Safety Rod Moore (2021-Present)
GASP! I know Moore feels like a stretch at the moment, but hear me out. Moore is the best pure safety I have seen at Michigan since Ernest Shazor. Earlier this year, I covered how rare of a player he was despite only being a 19-year-old sophomore.
“Moore’s sophomore season saw him start 13 games and finish third on the team in tackles (71) and first in interceptions (4). In doing so, Moore became only the second Wolverine since 2000 to reach 70 tackles and four interceptions in a single season. Furthermore, against Purdue in the Big Ten Championship, he recorded 14 total tackles, which is the second-most by a Harbaugh-era player in a single game.”
Moore has already been great, and the best is still yet to come.
Honorable Mention: DJ Turner, Khaleke Hudson, Mikey Sainristil, Kris Jenkins, Kwity Paye, Jon Runyan Jr., Josh Uche, Luke Schoonmaker, Mike Morris
1. Edge Aidan Hutchinson (2018-21)
The most important player to any Michigan team since Charles Woodson in 1997. Hutchinson finished 2021 as the Heisman runner-up, the single season Michigan sack record holder (14) and the embodiment of the football program and culture. There will never be another Hutch.
2. Running Back Blake Corum (2020-Present)
Corum is on the precipice of greatness. Last season, Corum was a unanimous All-American and 1.5 games away from a Heisman.
If he simply hits his average rushing total (1,208 yards) and rushing touchdown total (14) from the last two years, Corum will finish No. 7 in career rushing yards and No. 3 in career rushing touchdowns at Michigan.
If he hits those numbers and helps bring a national championship to Ann Arbor, he could go down as the greatest running back in Michigan history.
3. Linebacker Devin Bush (2016-18)
A two-time All-American, team captain and the 2018 AP Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Bush was a game-wrecker at Michigan.
The best Michigan linebacker of the Harbaugh era will always be remembered for the 2018 Michigan State game, and not just because of what happened in warm-ups. Led by Bush, the Michigan defense smothered the Spartans only allowing 94 total yards in a 21-7 victory.
Honorable Mention: Ben Bredeson, Donovan Edwards, Zak Zinter, Cesar Ruiz, Karan Higdon, David Long, Ambry Thomas, Nico Collins, Josh Ross, Mazi Smith, David Ojabo, Junior Colson, Colston Loveland, Chase Winovich
1. Safety/Nickel Dax Hill (2019-21)
The Swiss Army Knife, Hill did a little bit of everything during his time in Ann Arbor. His career began as a safety, but in Mike Macdonald’s 4-2-5 scheme in 2021, Hill flourished as a nickel corner.
Despite playing a more niche position, Hill was afforded the freedom to roam and helped cover up a lot of warts in the secondary. No statistics can accurately quantify how important Hill was to the 2021 defense and season.
2. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy (2021-Present)
As a first-year starter, McCarthy led the team to a 12-1 record while completing 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,719 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions. McCarthy also added more than 300 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
This ranking may feel slightly premature, but similar to Moore, the best is yet to come for McCarthy.
3. Edge Rashan Gary (2016-18)
Gary was a polarizing player at Michigan. His production never quite matched the hype, but upon closer examination, his impact was always felt across the entire defensive line.
The gravity and attention Gary commanded allowed players such as Mo Hurst, Chase Winovich and Josh Uche to destroy players during one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities. As a run defender, Gary would absorb space and eliminate gaps with his size and physicality.
Gary remains one of the ultimate test cases of why you cannot just read a box score to understand who impacted the game.
Honorable Mention: Will Johnson, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Christopher Hinton