OAK PARK — Late Friday night, in the moments before the floodlights flicked off at Oak Park High School, Donovan Edwards stood surrounded by media, answering a slew of questions about his future. This is the situation the West Bloomfield running back finds himself in now, as a blue-chip prospect in the backyard of a school that so desperately needs him.
When he speaks, a group of reporters swarms, as if he’s already at Michigan — or Georgia or Oklahoma or any of the other major Division I programs in pursuit of his talents. And when he’s done, the lights darken, as if they had waited for the night’s brightest star to be done dazzling.
Friday, by Edwards’ own admission, wasn’t his finest performance. Quarterback Alex Short and running back Dillon Tatum both saw more usage as West Bloomfield romped to a 39-0 win. But when the Lakers needed him, Edwards stepped up, rushing for three touchdowns and flashing a little bit of everything that makes him the top player on Michigan’s 2021 board.
“My ability to run up the field to score a touchdown, I feel as though it’s unmatched,” Edwards said after the game.
For the Wolverines, though, that’s not why Edwards matters so much.
Per 247Sports composite rankings, he’s the 36th-ranked player in the 2021 class. That’s 10 spots higher than Zach Charbonnet was in 2019 and a few dozen higher than Blake Corum was last year. On the field, he would combine with JJ McCarthy to create a tantalizingly talented offensive duo. He would, in other words, be critical to Michigan’s short-term success.
But the Wolverines’ 2021 class would still be dwarfed by Ohio State’s. Jim Harbaugh would still face an uphill battle to carry Michigan to the heights most envisioned when he arrived in Ann Arbor five years ago.
Here in Metro Detroit, though, Edwards’ commitment would represent a shifting of the tides.
“Given the fact that he’s so highly ranked and he’s right in their backyard and Michigan led very early on big time, it would be a massive disappointment if they couldn’t get that one done,” Steve Lorenz, a recruiting analyst at 247Sports, said.
For years, even as Harbaugh has consistently compiled top-ranked recruiting classes, he’s faced questions in Metro Detroit. Last month, Rocco Spindler committed to Notre Dame amid heavy pursuit from Michigan. In 2020, Justin Rodgers — the state’s top recruit — ended up at Kentucky. The year before, it was Devontae Dobbs and Julian Barnett out of Belleville High School, both of whom went to Michigan State.
Perhaps, Lorenz says, these struggles are blown out of proportion by perception. Recruiting in 2020 requires a national footprint. But at the same time, it’s true that Ohio State doesn’t miss out on the top recruits in Ohio. Michigan, for whatever reason, misses out on the top recruits in Michigan.
In Edwards, the Wolverines have the chance to change that.
“He’s a kid that a lot of kids are following , his lead and his path on things,” Ron Bellamy, Edwards’ coach at West Bloomfield, said when asked whether Edwards could help Michigan’s future recruiting in Metro Detroit. “He’s a kid that whatever college he chooses, he’s going to entice kids to maybe follow his path.”
Bellamy is careful to play politics, too. When asked whether Michigan would be impacted in the long term if Edwards selects Georgia or Oklahoma, he says no, citing the Wolverines’ ability to identify talent. It’s hard to comport that, though, with “he’s going to entice kids to maybe follow his path.”
That’s why Michigan has known Edwards is a player they had to have since he started high school, if not earlier. And it’s why, before games, Michigan running backs’ coach Jay Harbaugh calls Edwards to give him pointers and forge a relationship beyond football.
“The people I’m gonna be around every single day,” Edwards said of what he’s looking for in a school. “The coaches’ personalities, just being around a great atmosphere, an atmosphere that feels just like home.”
Come December, when Edwards is expecting to make his decision, that’s what Michigan will need to provide.
If the Wolverines can deliver, they’ll land not only a future star in their backfield, but an inroads to reclaiming their backyard.