How Michigan built its 2021 recruiting class amid the pandemic

Thursday, June 11, 2020 - 7:12pm

Josh Gattis is stretching the limits of recruiting in the age of COVID-19.

Josh Gattis is stretching the limits of recruiting in the age of COVID-19. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

On March 13, when the NCAA announced a freeze on recruiting visits amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan held just two commitments for its 2021 class. By contrast, Ohio State — holders of the year’s top-ranked class — already held nine, including a trio of five stars.

And stripped of the ability to host recruits for their Spring Game or travel for in-home visits, the Wolverines’ late start to 2021 proceedings had suddenly turned from intriguing to dire.

Three months later, Michigan’s situation is vastly different. Buoyed by 15 commitments since late March, its 2021 class now ranks sixth in the nation — a mark, should it hold, that would be the second best of the Harbaugh era.

To get there, the Wolverines needed to adapt their recruiting tenets of honesty and persistence to a fully-digitized world. In the absence of in-person recruiting, schools around the country have upped their creativity, giving recruits a virtual look at life on campus. Notably, Michigan State created a series of online visits dubbed The Festival.

But while other schools have revolutionized their recruiting process, Michigan has stuck to the basics. According to recruits, players can see the campus on a YouTube video that the program sends out, while academic advisors are available to video chat. If players want, they’re linked up with assistant coaches to show them around the team’s facilities.

“You’re finding all creative ways (to recruit),” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said in a teleconference on May 14. “Whether it’s virtual visits, whether it’s virtual meetings, FaceTimes, you’ve got to be as creative as possible to be able to showcase your university and program in these times when they currently can’t come visit.”

None of that, though, is why Michigan’s class turned from barren to loaded in the span of three socially-distanced months.

“(The virtual visits) all accomplished the same thing,” three-star offensive lineman Tristan Bounds told The Daily this week. “I think Michigan just has so much to show and it’s so impressive, that’s what separates it. It isn’t like they did something different really per se, it’s just like it’s Michigan. So that’s what’s different.”

But to showcase that, Michigan had to take advantage of the benefits offered by the pandemic. In place of spring practices and recruiting visits, the Wolverines’ coaching staff was left with one critical benefit over a typical spring: time.

On the recruiting trail, that meant the ability to talk to recruits everyday, something they wouldn’t have been able to do without the pandemic.

“They were constantly talking to me, constantly showing me things they had, the benefits of going there,” four-star linebacker Jaydon Hood told The Daily. “Just the things they had, the tangibles they had to get me to the next level and that could make me a better football player, man, academic student, everything.”

In the end, that level of communication — along with everything else Michigan provides — is what allowed the Wolverines to build their 2021 class.

For Bounds, that ‘everything else’ meant seeing four Michigan offensive lineman drafted last month. For Hood, it meant the coaching staff’s ability to mold him after Devin Bush and Cam McGrone. “Those are two players I watch and try to mimic my game off anyways,” Hood said. “So just compared to them speaks of how highly they think of me and the level of play that I want to play and what they see me playing.”

Three months ago, neither player was close to committing to the Wolverines. Both planned to use the spring to see all their top schools. A commitment without a visit would have been unthinkable.

Instead, that’s the reality for the vast majority of Michigan’s 2021 class.

But it’s a reality that was only made possible by the commitment that the Wolverines were able to show their top targets during the recruiting dead period.

Without that?

“My decision would’ve been different,” Hood said. “It definitely would’ve been.”