NCF Nation: Michigan Wolverines

Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
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ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.

2. Michigan
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.

3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.

4. Nebraska
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.

5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?

6. Wisconsin
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.

7. Maryland
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.

8. Iowa
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.

9. Minnesota
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.

10. Illinois
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.

11. Rutgers
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.

12. Northwestern
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.

13. Indiana
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.

B1G roundtable: Biggest surprise on the coaching job list?

February, 25, 2015
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What's the best coaching job in the country? ESPN.com has been ranking all the Power 5 coaching seats all this week.

Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.

Wednesday's roundtable topic: What's the biggest surprise among the Big Ten coaching job rankings?

Dan Murphy: Wisconsin at No. 24

The Badgers checked in at No. 24, which seems a little bit high given the recent turnover rate in Madison. In the past three years, Wisconsin has lost head coaches to Arkansas (No. 21) and Oregon State (No. 50). At least part of the reason for that attrition has been tougher recruiting requirements than most places and a smaller budget to go find players. The program has had plenty of recent success because of stability that goes beyond the head coach, but there are uphill battles to be fought when it comes to attracting talent to a Northern school with fewer resources than its competitors. If we're going to get nit-picky, I would drop the Badgers just a few spots.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State at No. 20

I don't disagree with this ranking, but it's still a bit jarring to see the Spartans as a top-20 job, one spot ahead of a traditional power like Nebraska and three spots ahead of Miami. I don't think there's any way we would have considered Michigan State one of the 20 best jobs even 10 years ago, so this speaks volumes about the job Mark Dantonio has done. His program has been rolling along, finishing in the top 5 of the final wire-service rankings in each of the past two years while winning a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl and piling up at least 11 victories in four of the past five years. Facility upgrades have helped as well. Lots of people like to forecast a future drop-off for the Spartans, but Dantonio has built this into a program with staying power.

Mitch Sherman: Michigan at No. 14

Recent performance, of course, belies the notion that Michigan is a top-10 job, but history confirms it. Even after two straight losing Big Ten seasons -- the Wolverines have finished under .500 in league play, amazingly, five times in the past seven years -- this remains an elite job. Yes, it's his alma mater, but Jim Harbaugh wouldn't pass on the NFL for the 14th-best college opportunity. Really, there are six jobs in the SEC better than Michigan, the winningest program in college football history? No. With the right coach, it doesn't matter to Michigan that so much of the prep talent has migrated to the South. The Wolverines can recruit anywhere. Their brand is iconic, on par with Ohio State (No. 4 on this list). The Buckeyes deserve a higher spot than Michigan because of the current state of both programs, but U-M belongs in the top 10.

B1G roundtable: Coaching job with most upside?

February, 24, 2015
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What's the best coaching job in the country? Stay with ESPN.com this week for an answer as the full list of Power 5 coaching seats is unveiled.

Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.

Tuesday's roundtable topic: What Big Ten coaching job has the most upside?

Brian Bennett: Maryland

You can look at this question a number of ways. I chose to view it as a program that's not currently viewed in any way, shape or form as one of the nation's top jobs, yet has the potential for serious growth. That's why I picked the Terrapins. Granted, to do so means to ignore much of history, as Maryland's past couple of decades contain a lot of mediocrity (or worse). Ardent fan support isn't really there, either; this is anecdotal, but here at the Big Ten blog, we almost never hear a peep from Terps fans (and the ACC folks will tell you the same was true in their neighborhood).

Even still, this job has a lot of things going for it. The school is located in a fertile, if highly competitive, location for recruits. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank could be Maryland's version of Phil Knight, pouring money into the program and upping the "coolness" factor. Ralph Friedgen showed from 2001 to 2003 -- when the Terrapins went 31-8 and finished first or second in the ACC each season -- that very good things are possible in College Park under the right circumstances. It will be an uphill climb in the East Division, but the upside certainly exists.

Mitch Sherman: Penn State

The Nittany Lions haven’t gone more than five straight years without a 10-win season since the early 1960s -- a streak in jeopardy in 2015 after a tumultuous stretch in the wake of tragedy, scandal and two coaching changes. Are there 10 wins on Penn State's schedule in 2015? If coach James Franklin can fix the offense during the offseason, maybe. Regardless, Penn State is a 10-win program -- and it can reach greater heights in special seasons, which remain within reach amid the rigorous East Division. Its combination of fan support, resources, natural recruiting ground and history match that of the best programs in the Big Ten.

Three years ago, Penn State wasn’t a top-five coaching job in the league. The work of Franklin, predecessor Bill O’Brien and the school administration has repositioned the Nittany Lions to emerge from this dark period and make strides as significant as any Big Ten team during the next two to three years.

Dan Murphy: Michigan

Michigan's program isn't in the top tier of the Big Ten right now, but it offers the biggest reward for the coach who can boost this team up a level. Much like at Penn State, all of the resources (financial and human) that come with a winning tradition are in place in Ann Arbor. It only takes a little bit of momentum for those advantages to start working in Michigan's favor. If and when they do, the infrastructure is in place for the Wolverines to eventually compete for conference titles and playoff spots. The Michigan coach has opportunities to take incremental steps forward (a bowl game one season, a win over a hated rival the next, etc.) to keep that momentum rolling in the right direction. Jim Harbaugh is already considered one of the top coaches in the game, but a speedy turnaround at Michigan would launch him to exalted status in the Mitten State.

Michigan spring preview

February, 24, 2015
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Spring and its usual wingman, hope, have arrived at Michigan. The Wolverines hold their first official practice under the direction of Jim Harbaugh Tuesday afternoon.

There are more than enough projects and plans to keep Harbaugh busy in his first month of practices at his alma mater. Michigan, coming off a 5-7 season, must replace its starting quarterback, leading tackler and biggest threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Stadium
AP Photo/Tony DingShane Morris is the only quarterback on the Michigan roster with game experience.
 The first order of business for the new staff will be establishing the attitude and culture that helped its head coach lead successful turnarounds at each of his previous stops. That work began in January with winter conditioning, but will likely continue to be a large focus during the month of March. Harbaugh’s track record leaves plenty of room for optimism among Michigan fans despite all of the uncertainty at the start of a new year.

Schedule: The team met Monday and camp will officially open Tuesday, making Michigan the first group in the Big Ten to get started. The Wolverines plan to take a week off during spring break next month and wrap up with the spring game on April 4.

What’s new: If you’re just tuning in for the first time in the past couple months, you may want to sit down. Nine of Michigan’s 10 coaches are new (former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the lone holdover). Jim Hackett, the athletic director who took over in November, is also still getting comfortable in his new role. The change in leadership has altered the attitude around campus, which was needed if the program is eventually going to pull itself out of its nearly decade-long funk.

On the field, Michigan has to replace its starting middle linebacker and a pair of effective pass rushers on a defense that served as the team’s bright spot last fall. Young and talented players have a chance to emerge this spring on the defensive line and in the secondary.

The offense struggled in 2014 (115th nationally in total yardage), but at least won’t have to go through a major personnel overhaul to fit the style of offense Harbaugh and his staff have used in the past. An experienced offensive line is new for Michigan. All five starters from a slowly improving group return this spring, which should provide a bit of stability amid wide-open battles for reps at almost every skill position.

Biggest question: Will a starting quarterback emerge from the pack?

Michigan’s top three options heading into Tuesday’s practice are junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone. Morris is the only signal-caller on the roster with game experience. Harbaugh promised the competition would be a “meritocracy” with everyone starting on an equal plane. Spring won’t likely end with a starter in place. The pecking order, though, should be more clear by the beginning of April. Any one of that trio can do himself (and Michigan’s entire offense) a big favor by separating from the others in the coming few weeks.

Three things we want to see:

1. How will the secondary shake out? More than 80 percent of Michigan’s defensive backfield was listed as a “DB” on the team’s spring roster rather than given a more specific role at cornerback or safety. That list includes redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was expected to be an instant impact player before injuries ended his debut season in September. Peppers intimated he would be moving to safety, and more experiments with position shifting may occur this spring while the staff attempts to put together what could become a very athletic secondary.

2. Progress in the running game. Stanford’s turnaround under Harbaugh was in large part thanks to an offense that closely resembled a battering ram. Michigan has the potential to take strides in that direction this season with big backs like Derrick Green (234 pounds) and Ty Isaac (240 pounds) leading the way. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno played a big role in upgrading the Cardinal’s offensive line. The speed with which he can push Michigan’s line in the right direction will be a deciding factor in the outlook for the Wolverines’ final record in 2015.

3. The Durkin/Mattison collaboration. Mattison remains on staff but hands the keys to his defense to 35-year-old D.J. Durkin, who most recently served as interim head coach at Florida. Durkin is a rising star in the coaching profession and is known for his aggressive mentality in play-calling. The potentially awkward situation of a former and current coordinator working together isn’t expected to be a big issue. Mattison was the consummate team player under Brady Hoke, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be under Harbaugh. It will be more interesting to see how the veteran and well-respected defensive mind meshes with the up-and-coming Durkin and what results they produce together on the field.
The Ultimate ESPN 300 list is loaded with intriguing stories. From unheralded players rising to the top to players not yet reaching their potential, the list has everything. To outline a few of those intriguing players, here is a look at the top five within the Big Ten:

video
Quarterback Kyler Murray grabbed all of the headlines at Allen (Texas) High School over the past few seasons, but it’s actually junior offensive tackle Greg Little who is a higher-ranked prospect.


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The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.

Teams trending up post-signing day 

February, 9, 2015
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Who needs the NFL, Los Angeles? With the way USC and UCLA are going, the city is just fine when it comes to football.

The Trojans and Bruins lead our look at programs trending up following the end of the season, the coaching carousel and signing day.


1. USC
The Trojans just signed their first full recruiting class since 2011, when they were hit by NCAA penalties. Finishing behind only Alabama and Florida State in ESPN RecruitingNation's rankings, it wasn’t just a matter of quantity for USC. Among the 16 ESPN 300 prospects signed, it added the country’s No. 1 cornerback, running back and inside linebacker. The Trojans are stockpiling at this point.

Beyond recruiting, quarterback Cody Kessler -- the country’s most underrated passer -- is back. So are sophomore stars-in-the-making cornerback Adoree' Jackson and wide receiver JuJu Smith.

Pac-12 coaches always believed the Trojans had as much talent as anyone in the country, not just the league. With the numbers bouncing back, now they have the depth to counter any rash of injuries.

Given all that, and the Holiday Bowl win against Nebraska, this is why a number of people -- myself, included -- see USC as a playoff-type team in 2015. The talent is there. Can Steve Sarkisian coach the Trojans to that level?


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Michigan’s late start on the recruiting trail left the Wolverines in more down-to-the-wire recruiting battles than any team in the Big Ten this February.

Five of the 14 prospects in the class waited until this week to announce that they would be headed to Ann Arbor. Nine players who made their announcements Wednesday had Michigan among their final choices. Four of them selected the Wolverines, four went another direction and Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith remains undecided after initially declaring he would play for UCLA. Here’s a breakdown of where Harbaugh & Co. hit or missed during a drama-filled signing day.

Hits

Keith Washington, DB -- Prattville High School, Alabama

Washington played quarterback at Prattville, but is expected to play cornerback (where he has some high school experience) when he arrives at Michigan. The 6-foot-1, 161-pound athlete committed to Cal in late January but changed his mind Wednesday. He won Harbaugh’s affection when he offered to prove his 4.3-second 40-yard dash time in the parking lot after the coach questioned its legitimacy on a recent recruiting visit.

“And he was serious, dead serious,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “I liked him even more, and I knew he'd go out; I knew he was a competitor.”

Karan Higdon, RB -- Riverview High School, Florida

Higdon flew relatively under the radar as a potential Michigan prospect until he flipped from Iowa to the Wolverines Wednesday morning. Billed as a tough inside runner, Higdon gives Michigan its only running back in a class that was heavy on the offensive side of the ball. His late change of heart may have cost the Wolverines a chance to land the top player in their home state. More on that later.

Shelton Johnson, DE -- Atlantic Community High School, Florida

[+] EnlargeT.J. Wheatley
Erik McKinney/ESPNMichigan legacy Ty Wheatley Jr. could play defensive end or tight end, but will likely start on offense.
One of the last players to make his decision public Wednesday, Johnson was expected to land at Florida State. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound pass-rusher has some filling out to do, but has the potential to grow into a physical and fast edge player in D.J. Durkin's defense. He’s also one of three Florida natives that give Harbaugh’s staff a strong start in the Sunshine State. With Durkin’s ties there from his time with the Gators there is a good chance that success will continue in the future.

Ty Wheatley Jr., TE -- Canisius High School, New York

When Ty Wheatley Sr., the former Big Ten rushing champion, returned to his alma mater in early January as an assistant coach it seemed inevitable that his son would eventually follow. The younger Wheatley waited until Wednesday to follow in dad’s footsteps. Before his Michigan connection grew stronger, the top player in New York was strongly considering heading to the West Coast or to Alabama for college. He has the potential to play defensive end or tight end at Michigan, but will likely start on offense.

Misses

Mike Weber, RB -- Cass Tech High School, Michigan

The first head-to-head battle between Harbaugh and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer goes to Meyer, although he had a healthy head start in recruiting Weber that made it less than a fair fight. Ranked by ESPN as the top player in Michigan, Weber was originally committed to come to Ann Arbor, but flipped to Ohio State when Brady Hoke was fired in December.

Weber remained torn between the two rivals until Wednesday morning. He told reporters at his announcement that Higdon’s decision to choose the Wolverines made his choice to stay with the Buckeyes much easier. Had Weber stayed home, Michigan would have finished with three of the top four high school seniors in the state, according to ESPN’s rankings.

Chris Clark, TE -- Avon Old Farms, Connecticut

Like Weber, Clark committed to Michigan this summer but backed away when the 2014 season spiraled out of control. He visited Michigan and UCLA on back-to-back days last month and ultimately decided to join the Bruins, who signed several highly touted prospects Wednesday. Harbaugh’s track record of making tight ends a centerpiece of his offense at Stanford was appealing to Clark, but not enough to sway him away from Los Angeles.

Iman Marshall, CB -- Long Beach Poly High School, California

The country’s top cornerback was a prime example of the power many believe Harbaugh’s brand can wield for Michigan on the recruiting trail. Marshall’s interest in coming to Ann Arbor piqued when Harbaugh arrived. Any school other than USC (where Marshall eventually signed) was considered a long shot to land him, but his initial interest should leave Michigan optimistic that Harbaugh’s reputation will allow the Wolverines to get a foot in the door with high-profile recruits who might not have otherwise considered them.

Van Jefferson, WR -- Ravenwood High School, Tennessee

Jefferson pushed back his decision multiple times Wednesday while trying to pick between Ole Miss, Michigan and Georgia. The four-star wideout would have been the fifth ESPN 300 recruit to select Michigan if he flipped. The Wolverines added receiver Grant Perry, a high school teammate of early enrollee quarterback Alex Malzone, earlier this week. Athlete Brian Cole, another early enrollee, will also start his college career at wide receiver. Jefferson would have rounded out a strong receiver class, but opted to stick to his commitment at Ole Miss.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The competition was fierce, went down to the wire and ultimately kept Ohio State coaches up for most of Tuesday night.

The Buckeyes also know their work might only be beginning with a new regime at Michigan, and it’s exactly what they’d expect from the most intense rivalry in college football.

The battles between certainly never lacked for intensity under the previous Wolverines coaching staff, though it’s pretty clear who has had the upper hand since Urban Meyer arrived and took his program in a much different direction than Brady Hoke did his before he was fired. Ohio State was able to maintain its edge in the first true head-to-head battle with Jim Harbaugh leading up to national signing day, but if the tug of war over running back Mike Weber is any indication, The Game is about to return to being a 12-month war.

[+] EnlargeMike Weber
Tom Hauck for Student SportsGetting running back Mike Weber's signature was the first major recruiting battle between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. Ohio State was able to sign the top player in Michigan on Wednesday, but not without some anxious moments.
“No doubt,” Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “I mean, Harbaugh’s presence was felt up north, no doubt about it. He went in there guns a-blazing trying to get the best player in his state, which he should.”

This time the recruiting barrage from Harbaugh and his staff came up short, but not without making the Buckeyes sweat it out into the late-night hours leading up to Weber’s decision Wednesday.

A former Michigan commitment, the ESPN 300 prospect from Detroit's Cass Technical High School had some doubts creep into his mind late in the process for a variety of reasons, keeping Meyer and Drayton busy on the phone with Weber to help fight off the pressure that had been building on the other side of the border to keep him at home, where he would have provided a significant boost to Harbaugh’s first class.

It wasn’t the only time the Buckeyes had been forced to deal with Michigan’s new presence on the recruiting trail, with Meyer also pointing to quarterback Joe Burrow and defensive tackle Joshua Alabi -- Weber's high school teammate -- as other Ohio State commitments whom the Wolverines made a push to flip during the last month. And it definitely won’t be the last time these storied programs tangle off the field in the coming years.

“We felt it,” Meyer said. “They contacted all of our players ... but you expect that. I remember when I first got here, people were saying things [about not recruiting committed players.] That’s their job. If they don’t, are you kidding me? Kids in their home state? I expect that.

“I think the previous coach was a heck of a recruiter and they’re always going to have great recruiters there. But we’re well aware of everything they’re doing.”

Like anything else that can be boiled down to a winner and loser in the rivalry, Meyer also didn’t mind making people aware that “absolutely you keep score” on those recruiting victories over the Wolverines. But he also didn’t hide from the fact that Harbaugh certainly made it a challenge coming down the stretch.

For his part, Harbaugh wasn’t pressed about recruiting against his once and future rival, and he didn’t feel any need to address the Buckeyes on his own. Perhaps the nature of some of the individual battles will change moving forward, with Michigan potentially not needing to chase committed prospects as aggressively as it did with such a short window following the coaching transition.

But Harbaugh is officially back in the game now, and with a full recruiting cycle to work with, the two coaching staffs figure to see each other much more often than just on the opposite sideline at the end of November.

“You make a call and ask someone if they are interested in talking about Michigan,” Harbaugh said. “Certainly if someone says no, it is no. But if someone says yes, then I want to show them Michigan.

“We were trying to build a recruiting base and that is kind of the way the pickle squirted this year.”

Don’t mistake that for an apology from Harbaugh, and Meyer made it clear it wasn’t necessary anyway for a coach just doing his job.

Both guys understand the business and The Game, and one key recruitment already indicates the stakes are only going to get higher.

Schools that need a stellar recruiting class in 2016 

February, 5, 2015
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Now that the 2015 class is in the books, it's time to take a look at which teams need to make a big recruiting splash for the 2016 class. Here are five schools that have to recruit well to move forward and reestablish their programs among the elite:

Michigan: Coach Jim Harbaugh is not going to be judged upon his 2015 class, but the blueprint he lays out going forward -- especially in his first full calendar year -- will be crucial to revamping the Wolverines' roster. Because he was hired after the San Francisco 49ers' season ended, Harbaugh got a late start with Michigan, and his staff had only nine commits heading into February. The focus for 2016 will be on toughness, even if it means taking a kid who, athletically, isn't ideal, especially along the offensive line and at tight end and fullback. It is going to be a pretty strong year in the 2016 class in the Midwest, which is good timing for the Wolverines.

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videoThe national signing day ceremonies have concluded, the ink has dried and the fax machines have been turned off. The Class of 2015 is mostly in the books. As is the case annually, there were a number of winners -- and a couple of losers -- on national signing day. Here is a look at the schools that excelled and the schools that had a rough day.

SCHOOLS THAT FARED WELL

UCLA: The Bruins began the day at No. 17 in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings, but they quickly moved up to No. 11 with a run of ESPN 300 commitments. No. 111 prospect Chris Clark, a tight end, got the day started and was followed by RB Soso Jamabo (No. 28), OG Joshua Wariboko (No. 105) and OLB Roquan Smith (No. 29). The day got even better in the early afternoon when No. 130 recruit Cordell Broadus, a wide receiver, picked the Bruins over Arizona State. All five of the recruits who committed to UCLA on Wednesday are from different states.

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Signing day is still a day away, but Michigan’s most important recruiting pickup of the week already is on the ground in Ann Arbor. He’s 34 years old and exhausted his NCAA eligibility more than a decade ago.

Chris Partridge, most recently the head coach of an east coast high school powerhouse, will be orchestrating the Wolverines’ recruiting operations moving forward under coach Jim Harbaugh. The university has yet to formally announce Partridge’s new role and declined to comment on the new addition. Nonetheless, Partridge has been working with the Michigan staff for at least a week to polish its 2015 class and, more importantly, set up future years of recruiting.

Michigan will likely finish this week with the smallest incoming batch of prospects among Power 5 schools. Nine high school seniors are currently committed to play for Harbaugh, with a few more potential additions coming in the next 24 hours. The low numbers are an expected drawback from the program’s long wait to land its five-star coach in late December.

“I didn’t expect Jim Harbaugh to come right in and light the world on fire,” Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director, said on a conference call earlier this week. “He’ll do the best he can and get it solidified so that this coming Thursday, he and his staff can lay down the blueprint of what’s going to be Michigan’s future – three, four, five, seven years down the line.”

Partridge, who coached current Michigan players Jabrill Peppers and Juwann Bushell-Beatty at Paramus Catholic in New Jersey, figures to play a large role in organizing that future. His job is an increasingly popular position on college football staffs. Among their many other duties, similar folks at other schools develop camps, recruiting events and high school relationships to help their coaches identify and connect with future prospects. Partridge’s unique background leaves him better prepared than most to jump in and get started.

A former linebacker and captain at Lafayette in the Patriot League, Partridge walked away from the college coaching profession in 2007. He was at that time an assistant and a promising recruiter at The Citadel feeling the financial pinch of being a young coach. He also wanted to return home to be closer to his mother, Bonnie O’Brien, who was struggling to battle several illnesses.

O’Brien runs a recruiting firm that places IT professionals in new jobs. Partridge figured recruiting is recruiting whether its football or the technology industry, and he would be a good fit to take over the family business. The only problem is his mother wouldn’t give him a job.

“He was young and he didn’t have the experience I wanted. So he got a job somewhere else,” O’Brien said. “He surprised the hell out of me with how well he did as a recruiter. He proved his worth.”

Partridge worked with another firm for a year before O'Brien invited him into the family company. He handled the firm’s most specialized IT job openings while honing the skills he started to develop as a college coach.

“His people skills and his listening skills, I think he came with all of those. He listens to someone and really hears what he has to say. He can relate to a 5-year-old as well as he relates to a 15--old or a 55-year-old,” said O’Brien, sounding more like a former employer than a doting mother.

Football called again four years later and Partridge returned to the sideline as the head coach at Paramus Catholic, his alma mater. He won two state championships and churned out FBS prospects like Peppers, Michigan’s top recruit from the 2014 class.

A former teammate at Lafayette and longtime roommate Blake Costanzo helped connect Partridge and Harbaugh. Costanzo met several of Michigan's new coaches while playing special teams for the Harbaugh and the 49ers in 2011 and again in 2014.

“I knew that if they had a chance to sit down and talk, I knew [Harbaugh] wouldn’t let Chris walk out the door,” Costanzo said. “They’re both very similar people. They’re very passionate, very detail-oriented multi-taskers. Especially their coaching passion, they’re both out there working with their guys in the grind.”

Costanzo will take over Partridge’s old post at Paramus Catholic. He said Partridge’s connections in the state should help him drum up interest in Michigan among high school recruits. New Jersey is home to two of the top 10 players in ESPN Junior 300, including defensive tackle Rashan Gary, who played for Partridge at Paramus. Those connections could give him and Michigan a jump-start on the 2016 class that most expect will be more indicative of Michigan’s recruiting future.
Signing day is less than 48 hours away. While you breathlessly await your team's official unveiling of its class and chew your fingernails over late decisions, a great debate continues over whether recruiting rankings really tell us anything.

For a little more enlightenment, we decided to look at this year's first-team All-Big Ten honorees to see where each player ranked as a prospect. Any player on offense or defense who made either the coaches' first team or was a first-team pick by the media was categorized through their ESPN Recruiting rankings (we'll save kicker prospect rankings for another conversation).

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

Four-star recruits (7)
Three-star recruits (14)
Two-star recruits (2)
Not ranked (3)

* -- junior college recruits

Three-star recruits typically don't generate a lot of hype on signing day, but that's where the bulk of the Big Ten's top performers checked in out of high school. That includes 2014 Big Ten offensive player of the year and Doak Walker Award winner Gordon; Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and Outland Trophy winner Scherff; Coleman, who also rushed for 2,000 yards; Big Ten receiver of the year Lippett; Big Ten linebacker of the year Hull; Big Ten defensive back of the year Drummond; a possible first-round pick in Waynes; 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Calhoun.

Seven four-star prospects more than lived up to their rankings, especially Barrett, Bosa and Zettel in the 2014 season. But there were almost as many two-star and not-ranked prospects as there were four-star recruits on the All-Big Ten first team. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin and Minnesota were able to unearth those diamonds in the rough.

The All-Big Ten second teams are another eclectic mix. They include four-star prospects who fulfilled their promise such as Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett, Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs and Wisconsin center Dan Voltz. There are also a whole bunch of three-star guys who more than reached their potential, like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, Minnesota running back David Cobb, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Then there are the true overachievers, with two-star prospects like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose, and guys who were almost completely overlooked in Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin and Minnesota defensive back Eric Murray.

The lesson here? Nothing is really guaranteed in recruiting rankings. While you may be focusing on the four- and five-star guys on Wednesday with good reason, sometimes the two- and three-star prospects become the ones you really have to watch on Saturdays.

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