In building Michigan, Jim Harbaugh focuses on a recruit’s fit, not his star rating


Ann Arbor, Mich. – There are two things Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh remembers about his search for a new director of strength and conditioning after the 2017 season, and both involve Ben Herbert, the man he eventually hired .

Harbaugh’s earliest memory is the initial phone conversation with Herbert, who spent the previous five seasons at Arkansas. Herbert found him to be “the absolute perfect mix, the perfect fusion of the old-school strength coach and the cutting-edge in every way, the detailed strength coach,” and that was enough to make him job finalist

The second memory relates to the start of Herbert’s in-person interview, at which point he shook Harbaugh’s hand, leaned forward and looked his future boss in the eye, “like he was looking through your whole soul.”

Has Michigan beaten Ohio State?

Has Michigan beaten Ohio State?

Colin Cowherd explains why Michigan is a “tougher program.”

Five years later, Herbert has been pointed to by players and coaches as an integral figure in restoring the Michigan wing to the blue-blood pantheon. It is Herbert, they say, who deserves credit for the physical and mental transformations so many Wolverines have undergone since arriving in Ann Arbor. And it’s Herbert who brewed the program’s wonderful elixir of physical strength and mental fortitude that has catalyzed some members of Harbaugh’s staff to surpass their modest recruiting rankings.

In doing so, the Wolverines have found a way to regain ground in Ohio State’s recruiting machine, where the Buckeyes had seven five-star and 11 four-star prospects among their 22 starters in Saturday’s loss at Ohio Stadium. But the sustainability of a recruiting model that prioritizes culture fit over rankings is unclear, and the next few seasons at Michigan will shed light on the balance of power in college football’s best rivalry. Did Harbaugh’s back-to-back wins over Ohio State uncover a formula for long-term success, or did the Wolverines simply have the ideal collection of players and coaches at exactly the right time?

“We’re looking for guys who really like football, you know, who really want to be good at football,” Harbaugh said in his weekly press conference before the Big Ten title game. “It doesn’t matter what their star rating is, that’s pretty irrelevant to us.”

Seen through the lens of the recruiting rankings, the talent disparity between Michigan and Ohio State has been huge in each of their last two meetings. A year ago, the Wolverines had nine starters combined on offense and defense rated as three-star prospects or below coming out of high school according to the 247Sports Composite. The Buckeyes had just two such players: free safety Bryson Shaw (now at USC) and wide receiver Chris Olave, an eventual first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Ohio State lost anyway, 42-27.

This year, Harbaugh’s team again threw nine players rated three stars or worse on the field as starters, including six on the defensive side of the ball. The Buckeyes had four such players in 2022 — RB Miyan Williams, OT Dawand Jones, S Tanner McCalister, DL Ty Hamilton — and were heavily outplayed for the second year in a row.

Consider the average star ratings of each team’s starters for the last two editions of The Game:

  • Crime of 2022: Michigan 3.73 stars; Ohio State 4.18 stars
  • Defense 2022: Michigan 3.54 stars; Ohio State 4.09 stars
  • Crime of 2021: Michigan 3.45 stars; Ohio State 4.45 stars
  • Defense 2021: Michigan 3.82 stars; Ohio State 4.09 stars

“What’s the same is the heart, the determination, the underdog mentality that we had last year,” Michigan nickelback Mike Sainristil said after Saturday’s win. “Just the Michigan-to-everybody mentality. What’s different is the fact that it’s not the same team as last year. We don’t have the same guys defensively. We have a majority of the same guys offensively, but the identity doesn’t it’s the same as last year.

“We play with a different attitude. Not to take anything away from last year’s team, but right now what we’re doing is we just have the mindset that nothing that comes our way is going to stop us. That it’s what makes us proud. ourselves.”

Does the Big Ten go through Ann Arbor now?

Does the Big Ten go through Ann Arbor now?

RJ Young and guests Mike Weber Jr. and Chris Howard discuss the impact of Michigan’s win on Saturday.

Sainristil, ranked No. 595 in the 2019 recruiting cycle, was among a handful of unheralded prospects who made critical plays for the Wolverines as they pulled away from Ohio State in the second half on Saturday. A former wide receiver, Sainristil poked the ball through tight end Cade Stover’s hands to break up a pass in the end zone that would have cut Michigan’s lead to single digits in the fourth quarter. He finished second on the team with six solo tackles, tying his career high.

There was a clutch 15-yard reception by tight end Luke Schoonmaker on a jump pass from linebacker-turned-running back Kalel Mullings during a drive that ended with a Michigan touchdown. Schoonmaker, who has gained 17 pounds in Herbert’s strength and conditioning program, was ranked No. 796 in the class of 2018. NFL scouts gave him a preliminary third-round grade in the spring.

There was a critical block from center Olu Oluwatimi to fullback Donovan Edwards for a 75-yard score that extended the Wolverines’ lead to 15 in the fourth quarter. Oluwatimi, who transferred to Michigan from Virginia, was a two-star recruit and the No. 3,330 overall prospect when he signed with the Cavaliers in 2017.

There were five tackles and two crucial pass breakups by safety Rod Moore, a former three-star prospect ranked No. 506 in the 2021 recruiting cycle. During training camp, Moore told reporters that his body would hurt his neck down after games because he was only 173 pounds as a freshman. He worked with Herbert to add 12 pounds of muscle before the 2022 season. Now, coaches identify him as the team’s best pure tackle.

“There’s kind of a disrespect that some guys feel (about his ranking),” Harbaugh said when describing Moore’s approach since he arrived in Ann Arbor as a 17-year-old. “And some guys are going to get mad. He doesn’t. He just wants to be as good as he can be at football. He was all over the field this past game.”

Saturday’s win clinched Michigan a spot in the College Football Playoff regardless of what happens in the Big Ten title game against Purdue. And if the Wolverines can cap off their dream season with the school’s first national championship since 1997, when Harbaugh was still playing for the Indianapolis Colts, the roster they’ll have used to get there makes a trend that suggests strong correlations between stars and rankings. and titles.

How Jim Harbaugh Rebuilt Michigan

How Jim Harbaugh Rebuilt Michigan

Joel Klatt reacts to Michigan’s 45-23 win over Ohio State.

Each year, the 247Sports Team Talent Composite ranks college football rosters based on the rating of a program’s players coming out of high school. Since Harbaugh took over at his alma mater in 2015, no school ranked outside the top nine in a given season has won the national championship, and in 2016 Clemson was the only team ranked outside the top six.

This is how the last seven national champions were scored: Georgia 2021 was second; 2020 Alabama was second; LSU 2019 was fifth; In 2018 Clemson was sixth; 2017 Alabama was the first; 2016 Clemson was ninth; 2015 Alabama was the first.

“It’s really more about the right fit,” said Harbaugh, whose 2021 team was ranked 15th and whose current roster is 14th.

Members of the coaching staff have faced questions in recent weeks about Michigan’s slow start to the 2023 recruiting cycle. There are 18 players verbally committed to the Wolverines, but none of them are among the top 100 prospects in national level The program’s incredible on-field success over the past two seasons hasn’t translated to the recruiting trail like most people expected.

But the days since Michigan’s win over Ohio State have produced four verbal commitments from prospects in the next two classes: three-star athlete Breeon Ishmail in 2023; three-star cornerback Cameron Calhoun in 2023; three-star athlete Jason Hewlett in 2023; and four-star offensive tackle Luke Hamilton in 2024.

It’s another crop of unheralded players to develop Harbaugh and Herbert.

“I never had a better hire than Ben Herbert and what he’s meant to this program,” Harbaugh said.

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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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