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Hoke protects backyard, climbs rankings with 2012 recruiting class

Marissa McClain/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 1, 2012

Brady Hoke and the Michigan football coaching staff eased into their seats in the war room at Schembechler Hall and waited. It was 7 a.m. yesterday — National Signing Day.

Fourteen minutes later, the first Letter of Intent printed out on the fax machine down the hall. It was a sigh of relief for the staff completing its first full recruiting class at Michigan.

By noon, the last of the Wolverines’ 25 incoming freshmen faxed in his paperwork, filling the board. Scout.com tabbed Michigan as the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation.

“I know none of you will ask the question, ‘Is this a good class?’ ” Hoke joked at the National Signing Day press conference. “Because it is. We don’t try to recruit bad classes.

“Hoping to save you some embarrassment.”

Hoke gave a weary grin. It had been an early morning.

The biggest surprise of the day came long before the coaching staff made its way to Schembechler Hall. In the wee hours of the morning, the Wolverines secured a surprise commitment from Dennis Norfleet, a four-star running back from Detroit, to round out the class.

Norfleet’s offer came late, due to a few unused scholarships and a need to fill the void left on the kick-return team when wide receiver Darryl Stonum was dismissed in mid-January.

Just how late did Hoke and Co. turn to the 5-foot-6 Norfleet?

“To be honest with you, it was pretty much yesterday,” Hoke said.

Nonetheless, Norfleet quickly flipped his commitment from Cincinnati to Michigan and fired up the fax machine, joining Ann Arbor Pioneer’s Drake Johnson to form the class’ running back duo.

But the most important area of need addressed by the staff was in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Of the 25 commits, 12 will be on the front lines. Michigan graduated three starting defensive linemen, two starting offensive lineman and a pair of tight ends from Team 132. These freshmen will be expected to fill those voids.

“We’re always going to take guys up front,” Hoke said. “You just think about the pounding of the game of football. Most of it wears at the line of scrimmage, so we’ve always got to be recruiting three, four, five offensive linemen a year. Same thing with defensive linemen.

“So are we replenished? No, but we’re making progress.”

Anchoring the trenches will be a pair of Rivals.com five-star behemoths. Hoke’s staff flipped offensive tackle Kyle Kalis from an Ohio State commitment in July and added defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins — a 6-foot-3, 325-pound specimen — a month later.

Hoke called Kalis “a road-grading guy.” And “Pee Wee” Pipkins?

“Pee Wee, uhh, he’s a big man,” Hoke said.

Fair point. But the big men might not all be off the board.

Four-star offensive lineman Jordan Diamond from Chicago, who will decide his college destination tomorrow, has Michigan among the handful of teams he is considering.

When asked whether the 25 commits completed the recruiting class, Hoke gave a smile.

“We’ll see,” he said.

Geographic proximity is the most distinct feature of this group of recruiting. Eighteen of the incoming freshmen hail from the states of Michigan and Ohio.

“You’ve got to protect the backyard,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

Another crucial factor in the coaches’ recruiting process was securing the majority of the commitments early in the year, before Michigan’s season kicked off in early September. By the opener, 20 of the class’s 25 members had committed to the Wolverines.

According to Hoke, Michigan’s quality of education and standing as the winningest program in college football history led to the early recruiting success, beginning with offensive lineman Ben Braden’s commitment in early March.

“Having those early commitments definitely helped,” Hoke said. “Because you see those guys working and recruiting guys that they want to play with.”

With the 2012 class all but wrapped up, Mattison said the coaching staff would take an hour off and then get right back to work to fill the 2013 recruiting class in a similarly efficient manner.

There’s no rest for the weary, but work on the recruiting trail can make the coaching staff’s job easier down the road.

“The longer you’re engaged (with recruits) and building those relationships and the information and the commitment, it’s like going to the bank,” Hoke said. “You’re putting your money in the bank. You’re making the commitment. It’s no different. When you commit to people and they see that commitment, usually things go pretty well.”