Little did Michigan fans know, January 11th, 2011 would change the landscape of how Michigan football is viewed in the national spotlight. Brady Hoke was announced as the 19th football coach in the program's storied history. In his first season as head coach of the Wolverines, Hoke was faced with a shortened recruiting year and still managed to find a way to be successful with players that weren't exactly fit for the pro-style offense. For a moment, forget the 11-2 season, forget the 40-34 victory against Ohio State and forget the Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. Hoke and his companions have changed the product we see on the field by having a new mindset and by getting the right kids to not only commit to Michigan, but to commit to Hoke's vision.
Before everything started to change, Lloyd Carr was at the helm for the Wolverines. Since 2002 (when recruiting rankings for schools started to be tracked) Carr saw his draft class have a consistent rise. 2002 was, statistically, his worst year of recruiting, being ranked 19th in the nation and only securing one five-star recruit, Gabe Watson. 2005 was considered one of Carr's best years in recruiting. Michigan finished number two in the nation while only securing two five-stars in Kevin Grady and Marques Slocum. Though five-star recruits don't exactly make-or-break a recruiting class, it shows how well a head coach and assistants can secure the top-rated talent in the nation. Leading up to Carr's retirement after the 2007 season, Carr also secured Prescott Burgess, LaMarr Woodley, Chad Henne, Brandon Graham, Stephen Schilling, Ryan Mallett and Donovan Warren. An impressive list of names, most of which are currently on NFL rosters.
Former Wolverine and Cincinnati Bengal Brandon Williams, a product of Coach Carr, spoke very highly of his coach and recruiting tactics. “Usually how recruiting goes, a coach gets an area. So, a coach will search an area for targets. Once the targets have been decided, Coach Carr comes in and he's like the clean-up hitter,” said Williams. “By the time he went to Ohama to recruit me, I will never forget it. Coach Carr would be Nick Saban today, he was that coach that everyone knows. I don't think I realize how much I loved Coach Carr until I got there. He taught things that I teach my son.
“He teaches accountability, be accountable. That is something I carry to this day. I think that is what create thats bond with the team. Coach Carr was a father figure to 100 kids, he kept us as a family. We all have our own dads, but in that city and that state, he was our father figure. That's the one thing about Coach Carr, he loved us, he always did everything for us. But, he knows how to crack the whip.”
After Carr's retirement, not only did Wolverine fans see a coaching change, they also saw a major scheme change on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. With the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, Michigan strayed away from the pro-style offense and 4-3, 3-4 defensive schemes to a new spread offense and 3-3-5 defensive scheme. It is often claimed that one of the major reasons that Rodriguez failed at Michigan, was his inability to recruit the Midwest and the state of Michigan. Most people view the Midwestern states (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania) as a hot bed for pro-style talent. Carr's recruiting classes usually consisted of about 50 percent or greater of commitments from the Midwest, with the best year coming in 2002 with an astounding 81% of commitments from the area. Once Rodriguez took over, those numbers significantly dropped. 2010 was the only year in which about half of the commitments were from the Midwest. Though the idea of Rodriguez “ignoring” the Midwest isn't necessarily true, Rodriguez did seek out players in certain states more than Carr would. The biggest example to support this would be the state of Florida. From 2002-2007 Carr secured a whopping three commitments from the state of Florida, whereas Rodriguez inked 17 commitments from 2008-2011 (with 2011 being a partial recruiting year for Rodriguez).
The two major differences between Carr and Rodriguez's recruiting styles were the types of talent being brought in to the program and the focus of recruiting offense over defense. From day one of Rodriguez's tenure, he preached for smaller and more athletic players to fit his offensive and defensive philosophies. For example, long gone were the days of bruising running backs. The heaviest running back commit Rodriguez secured was Thomas Rawls in 2010, who weighed in at 214 pounds. Contrast that to 2005, when Carr secured two big running backs in Grady and Andre Criswell, weighing in at 230 and 240 pounds respectively.
Williams spoke of Rodriguez's recruiting style and how ignoring the midwest may have been Rodriguez's downfall.
“You could say that Coach Rod ignored the Midwest in a way. Me, Cato (June) and Ron Bellomy talk about this often. I liked Coach Rod, he was a good guy. But, I feel like he was too busy recruiting a scheme. You have to recruit your home state, if you have to land that star, do it in your home state,” said Williams. “Look at what it does, how long has it been since we beat them fools (Michigan State)? Four years? It's gonna end this year, but still. There's something to recruiting the Midwest and recruiting a historical power. Redoing something that's not going to work on the winningest program in history. Something's going right, don't come in and try to reinvent the wheel.”
The recruiting of smaller players provided an immediate disadvantage for Rodriguez and the Wolverines. Traditionally, the B1G is known for larger players on the offensive and defensive side of the ball as most programs run a variation of a pro-style offense and a defense similar to an NFL defense. With that being said, Rodriguez would need his players coming in to be athletically superior to outwork the opposition. With a 3-9 season in 2008, 5-7 in 2009 and a 7-6 record to end his coaching stint with Michigan, it was obvious that the strategy wasn’t working.
Another reason for Rodriguez's recruiting failures was his lack of defensive commitments. Throughout Rodriguez's tenure as coach, the Michigan defense was uncharacteristically porous, and at times, downright terrible. Michigan has always been known for its defensive prowess, and seeing the opposite angered Michigan fans and alums. It can be said that the defense was neglected under Rodriguez. In 2008, offensive players comprised 66 percent of the class. 2009 saw about a 55 percent offense and 45 percent defense comparison between the two. The trend continued on until 2010, when Rodriguez and his staff realized that defensive talent was limited, that the numbers evened out. 2010 saw a higher defensive percentage of committed players when compared to the offense. The defense came in around 52 percent, with the offense coming in at around 48 percent. Rodriguez saw the writing on the wall, but it still didn't save his job. Rodriguez was fired shortly after their lackluster 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
Rich Rodriguez set the tone for the Hoke era; it can only go up from here
With Hoke entering the fold, Michigan saw a return to the old-fashioned style of football fans were used to seeing for many years. With the addition of Greg Mattison as defensive coordinator, the football program meant business. Having been hired late into the recruiting period, Hoke’s staff faced a very small turnaround time in evaluating the previously recruited players, and the new targets that had already been contacted by other schools.
Even though Hoke managed to reel in a impressive class, it received a ranking of 29th in the nation according to Rivals, which has no direct correlation to Hoke and his assistants’ abilities to recruit. Hoke preaches toughness and he looks for high character players that will represent their families, their team and the University of Michigan. He values the idea of the student athlete in that academics are just as, if not more important than football itself.
The past year has also saw a rocky time for Michigan's biggest rival, Ohio State. Last March, a Yahoo story reported that Jim Tressel knew of Buckeye football players receiving free tattoos in exchange for memorabilia. This scandal eventually led to Tressel’s resignation and the suspensions of several of Ohio State’s key players. One of those suspended players, starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a player that Rodriguez missed on, would end up jumping to the NFL Draft. The tumultuous season for the Buckeyes culminated with the snapping of their seven-game winning streak against Michigan with a 40-34 loss against in Ann Arbor, further cementing Hoke's legacy.
During this time of uncertainty, this has had positive effects on the Michigan program. Michigan would secure a commitment from Kyle Kalis, a five-star offensive lineman whom many argued was an Ohio State lock. Though Hoke didn't use the Tressell situation as a bargaining chip, the renewed focus on fixing the defense and other areas of need has fueled the successes that Michigan has seen on the recruiting trail so far. Even though the 2011 class had a low ranking, 14 out of the 19 commitments were from the Midwest (seven from Ohio, six from Michigan and one from Illinois) and it was an even split between offensive and defensive commits with nine apiece.
After the 2011 season, the effects of the Brady Hoke era at Michigan were beginning to be felt. The 2012 recruiting class received national praise and attention and filled many needs for this year’s squad. Michigan’s class finished fourth overall, it's highest ranking since 2005.
Josh Helmholdt, Midwest Recruiting Expert for Rivals.com spoke of the differences between Rodriguez and Hoke, and why Hoke has been so successful on the recruiting trail. “The most easily identifiable difference between the two is the regions they have focused most of their recruiting efforts. Rich Rodriguez had three or more assistant coaches tasked to recruit just the state of Florida. Hoke came in from Day 1 and said his staff would begin their recruiting efforts in-state and in the Midwest, particularly the state of Ohio, That has played out thus far during his tenure,” said Helmholdt. “18 of Michigan's 25 signees in the 2012 class were from Michigan and Ohio, while 13 of their 17 commitments in the 2013 class are from those two states.The other change we have seen since Brady Hoke took over is how early Michigan is identifying, offering and getting kids to commit. They already have 17 commitments in the class of 2013, and had 20 committed by the end of last July in the class of 2012.”
Ohio State, coming off a freshly hired coach in Urban Meyer and a late surge of commitments, finished with a number three ranking. For the first time in what seems like a long time, Michigan and Ohio State are being evenly compared and slowly becoming the juggernauts of the Big Ten once again. Helmholdt explains how Ohio State has rebounded from scandal to normalcy.
“There was a period of about six months where Michigan and other Big Ten programs definitely took advantage of the looming NCAA sanctions and the resignation of Jim Tressel, but Ohio State rebounded almost instantly on the recruiting trail following the hiring of Urban Meyer,” said Helmholdt. “The Buckeyes are now recruiting at the same, if not an even higher, level as they were pre-scandal and are once again a major force on the recruiting trail.”
Fast forward to today, and the 2013 class is arguably one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Brady Hoke and staff has managed to create lasting relationships with the committed players. It also helps to have kids committed that are enthusiastic about the future of the program and the rest of the 2013 class. Shane Morris, a five-star quarterback from Warren, MI, and Rivals’ second-rated quarterback in the class, has served as a great recruiter, filling in where Hoke and the rest of his staff can't under NCAA restrictions. Many of the current commits have credited Morris' persistency and love for the university as major reasons why they have committed.
This recruiting class is turning into a family atmosphere. Using the moniker ‘Team 134’ (they will be the 134th team in Michigan history) it’s obvious that the kids are family, and love being able to call themselves future teammates. That is something many other teams simply do not have. The family atmosphere and Team 134 can be credited to February 18 when Michigan secured a historic six commitments, all four-stars. Kyle Bosch, Wyatt Shallman, David Dawson, Jourdan Lewis, Chris Fox and Taco Charlton all joined the same day, marking the most commits in a single day Michigan has picked up since records started being kept in 2002.
Anytime Brady Hoke and the Wolverines' recruiting habits can be put in the same sentence as recruiting juggernauts such as Texas, Alabama and Florida, Hoke is doing something right. Often times in years past, Michigan's recruiting classes would fill up before the season started. The 2013 class is positively trending in that direction. After the Rodriguez years, anything that can be related to the old days of Michigan football is welcomed by fans and alums alike
In short, Brady Hoke is the perfect man for Michigan just as Michigan is perfect for Hoke. He has the innate ability to make his players commit to him, as well as the program. Hoke proved his worth as an excellent recruiter during his time as an assistant with Michigan. Now, we are seeing much of the same. His ability to hire the right guys for the program, and to take a team of players that went 7-6 the year before to an 11-2 season and a BCS bowl game victory shows the stability and respect he receives from his players. If you do not have plans of hopping on the Brady Hoke bandwagon, do so immediately. If not, prepare to hate Michigan and Brady Hoke for the next decade and beyond.