NOTE: This column first appeared in The Oakland Press' print edition on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010.
ANN ARBOR — However you want to look at it, the 2010 recruiting class for Michigan could go down as either the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.
Amidst all the happiness of signing an enormous class of 27 players — one that coach Rich Rodriguez called the biggest he’d ever had — there was as much a note of caution coming out of Wednesday’s National Signing Day news conference.
Yes, the Wolverines’ haul earned them another consensus top 20 class nationally.
Yes, this group of athletic speedsters more fits the style that the Rodriguez’s Wolverines want to play on offense and NEED to play on defense.
Yes, the fact that nearly two-thirds of those recruits are on defense, allowing the U-M staff to replenish a badly-depleted corps that had allowed the second-most points in school history last year — then lost its two best players.
Yes, the early enrollment of seven of the players — including the nation’s best all-purpose quarterback in Inkster’s Devin Gardner — will give U-M another jump-start on building depth across the board before spring practice is even over.
And, yes, Rodriguez — whose voice was hoarse from weeks of non-stop phone calls — lived up to his reputation as a closer by keeping one key recruit who was wavering right up until Wednesday morning, then trumping that by adding a much-sought-after safety prospect shortly thereafter.
But no, not everything is hunky-dory ... not yet.
Coming off the worst two consecutive seasons since the 1960s — 3-9 and 5-7 — the Wolverines needed a strong recruiting effort, but it wasn’t easy, considering the lack of success they’ve had so far under Rodriguez. It’s been a rougher start than most people expected.
“It’s tougher than if you won a national championship, no question. I’ve been on both ends. If you’re on this end, you know, we’ve gotten a little bit better, so you can see progress, but I think you can also sell opportunity,” the embattled head coach admitted. “As I tell coaches, you’re not really selling. Sometimes it looks like salesmanship. I heard one time, you’re not really selling anything, you’re just giving people what they want. Maybe I sound like a salesman, to tell you that.”
What people want — at least people not named Bill Martin (the outgoing AD) and Mary Sue Coleman (U-M’s president) — is wins. If Rodriguez can use this recruiting class — truly just his second full class of his own — to get things righted on the field, there may be a chance that he outlives lame-duck status when incoming AD David Brandon takes over in the fall.
If not, Brandon likely won’t hesitate to change the recipe, like he did when he was still the CEO of Domino’s Pizza.
You’d think that a coach dangling in the wind as much as Rodriguez is wouldn’t take chances on kids with red-flag character issues, especially since he’s still got a pending NCAA investigation — you remember the whole practice fiasco from late last summer — hanging over his head. Nothing is an easier excuse to fire an underperforming coach than off-the-field issues.
Yet, here was Rodriguez on Wednesday, getting red in the face defending that late addition to his recruiting class, four-star Lauderdale Lakes (Fla.) safety Demar Dorsey, who had reported run-ins with the law as a prep star. And it’s not the first time Rodriguez has taken a leap of faith on a kid with a checkered past — either here or at West Virginia, where he had a penchant for recruiting kids like the much-vilified Pat Lazear and eventual NFL miscreant Pacman Jones.
“All I want to say is that, every guy we sign, we do our research on, as well. I think sometimes people are too quick to judge something they read on the Internet, and I think that’s dangerous to do that. I don’t think it’s fair to the young man and his family to pass judgment before you know the whole story,” Rodriguez said.
“I get a little upset when people have labeled ... ‘Aw, coach, you’ll bring this guy or that guy in.’ ... Unfortunately, you’ll have guys that disappoint you, make a mistake. We’ve had a couple that have come and make a mistake. God forbid they make a mistake, but unfortunately they did, and you have to have discipline, you have to enforce it. ... I think generally, for the most part, our guys have behaved pretty well. ...
“There’s nobody on this football team that we would sign that has a felony conviction, or there’s nobody on this football team that we would sign that has a misdemeanor conviction. So you have to look at the whole story, before you pass judgment. That’s all I’m asking you to do.”
The whole story isn’t written yet on Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan. He’ll have the fall to prove — once and for all — that his system will work, if equipped with the right parts.
And members of this recruiting class will have to be a big part of that. Of the five defensive backs, it’s likely that at least two will have to start. The new defensive linemen will have to try to collectively fill the huge shoes of the graduated Brandon Graham, a likely first-round pick in April’s NFL draft.
Is this class good enough to do that?
Even Rodriguez was hesitant to say that.
“I’m a little a little bit reluctant, like most coaches are — everybody wants to rank a recruiting class, or put a stigma or something on guys coming in. Really — and this sounds like coachspeak — you really need to wait a couple years and then determine how good the class is,” he said. “I’ve had recruiting classes before that weren’t ranked anywhere in the top 25 or 30, and they end up leading the team to a top-five ranking in the country, and winning a BCS bowl, so I think you have to be careful about all that.”
Problem is, Rich, you may not HAVE a couple of years.
Labels: Bill Martin, Brandon Graham, David Brandon, Demar Dorsey, Devin Gardner, Mary Sue Coleman, Pat Lazear, Rich Rodriguez, U-M Wolverines