SportsMonday Column: Michigan’s road to this point started in 2017

Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 5:34pm

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Miles Macklin/Daily

Talk to people from Jim Harbaugh’s first Michigan team, and you’ll hear stories about a man that no longer seems to exist.

There’s the four-hour practices and the submarine. There’s that time he got stopped at the door of the Mormon Tabernacle Church in Utah for wearing cleats, and that time he gave a speech from Shakespeare before the Ohio State game. You’ll hear how he got so involved in drills that he pulled a hamstring at practice, and staffers who followed him from Stanford will tell you about how he ran them off the racquetball court.

It’s a picture of intensity, focus and competitiveness — and a man who enjoys it all. It’s also a picture that could sell to recruits.

Because back then, back when everyone assumed hype would crystallize into reality, Jim Harbaugh recruited like he was running a program that could compete with the Ohio States of the world. His 2016 class featured the No. 1 player in the country, Rashan Gary, a current NFL star in Devin Bush Jr., and contributors up and down the board. 

Ben Bredeson became a captain. Mike Onwenu, Khaleke Hudson, Sean McKeon and Josh Metellus were multi-year starters. Lavert Hill and David Long were stalwart corners. Carlo Kemp, Chris Evans and Nick Eubanks are three of the team’s best players now.

On signing day, Harbaugh held an event at Hill Auditorium that featured Derek Jeter, Tom Brady, Ric Flair, Todd McShay, Lou Holtz, Mike Shanahan and a veritable stable of other celebrities. Then a year later, he signed a class that ranked even higher, according to 247Sports.

Never has that felt further away than Saturday night, when Harbaugh got to his Zoom press conference after a blowout 49-11 loss to Wisconsin and was out of positive things to say about his team.

“We were thoroughly beaten in every phase,” Harbaugh said. “Didn’t really do anything well. And did not play good, did not coach good. 

“Not in a good place with the execution, not in a good place adjusting and what we were doing schematically. So not a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me.”

The bricks on Michigan’s road to a 1-3 record — to a perpetual bottom that keeps falling out — were laid in that 2017 recruiting class. The stars from that group, for the most part, are either gone, or have failed to live up to their potential, or both. And, after a disappointing 8-5 2017 season, the hype that fueled Harbaugh’s recruiting fizzled out. 

Michigan went from fifth to 22nd in the recruiting rankings, per 247Sports’ composite score. The Wolverines didn’t take a defensive tackle in 2018 and took just three defensive ends. Lo and behold, on Saturday, with both their starting ends out with injury, Wisconsin made a living off running jet sweeps and end-arounds.

“We didn’t set an edge all night in that,” Harbaugh said. “And as I said, there’s things that we weren’t containing.”

That cornerback group that struggled in perpetuity against Michigan State and Indiana? The highest-rated recruit Harbaugh managed to get at the position in 2018 was Myles Sims. He plays for Georgia Tech now. The two four-stars Harbaugh got in 2017 — Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St-Juste — aren’t with the program anymore.

As much as the misery of Michigan football in 2020 comes down to failures in coaching, execution and togetherness right now, this wasn’t especially hard to see coming. If you don’t recruit at a high level — and if you don’t recruit depth — you’re going to struggle. Simple as that.

And if the high-level talent you do recruit either leaves or fails to pan out (Aubrey Solomon, Drew Singleton and Luiji Vilain were three top-100 recruits in 2017, to name a few), it’ll get even worse. Not every recruit will pan out. But this isn’t good enough.

The average upperclassman the Wolverines started on offense Saturday had a .8782 composite score on 247Sports — firmly in three-star range. On defense, it was .8923 — just barely above the four-star threshold.

Want to find where this program’s struggles start? It’s right there. You can trace a line straight through to the late hours of Saturday night, when Harbaugh sat in front of a Zoom camera and said, “Every part is not close to where it should be.”

Some of that is out of Harbaugh’s control. The pandemic hastened departures for Thomas and receiver Nico Collins. Starting tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes, and starting defensive ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, missed Saturday’s game with injuries. But the lack of ability to withstand such losses falls on Harbaugh’s shoulders.

So, too, for that matter, does the bad body language — hung heads and sullen looks — and failure to react to adversity and the complete, utter mess we’ve seen for the last three weeks. All of that is on Jim Harbaugh, and $8 million a year should buy Michigan more than this.

Here’s a challenge: Name three good things about the Michigan football team right now.

There’s Ronnie Bell, who continues to defy any reasonable expectation. Then there’s … well, punter Brad Robbins seems to be doing a good job.

Five days earlier, Harbaugh bristled when a reporter asked about his lack of a contract extension, and whether he wants to be at Michigan over the long term. Those questions will keep coming now, in waves. But if Michigan keeps playing like this, the question can’t be whether he wants to be at Michigan over the long term. 

It needs to be whether Michigan wants him.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.