Having spent almost all of the last month visiting and dining with some of America’s finest high school football players, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr announced at yesterday’s national signing day press conference that he had come away from the meetings with more than just a full stomach. Carr confirmed that 23 high school seniors had signed binding letters of intent, including six of ESPN recruiting expert Tom Lemming’s top-100 players.

As expected, headlining the Wolverines’ class — which Lemming rated fifth-best nationally and second-best in the Big Ten — is Kevin Grady, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back from East Grand Rapids High School. Grady holds several Michigan high school records, including state records for scoring and rushing yards, and is regarded as one of the top running backs in the country.

“Everyone in (the East Grand Rapids) community had great things to say about Kevin Grady, both on and off the field,” Carr said.

Luckily for Carr, he got an early start on recruiting Grady. Carr has had a longtime friendship with Grady’s uncle, and P.J. Cwayna, the son of Grady’s high school principal Patrick Cwayna, played at Michigan. Because Grady verbally committed to Michigan in the fall, he was able to gain some valuable experience by practicing with the Wolverines while they prepared for the Rose Bowl.

“Because of NCAA rules, (Grady) was allowed to go to Pasadena with us,” Carr said. “He probably got five or six practices in out there. And in a short time, I think everybody was impressed with his ability and saw the things you look for in a back.”

While Grady and fellow running back Mister Simpson of Cincinnati’s Colerain High School, will have the mammoth task of competing with freshman Michael Hart for playing time, the Wolverines’ four defensive line recruits will be called upon to make an immediate difference.

With the uncertain status of junior Larry Harrison — who faces felony charges for indecent exposure — and the loss of Alex Ofili to the NFL Draft, new recruits Marques Slocum and Terrance Taylor will look to compete for playing time. Both Slocum and Taylor were named to the EA Sports All-American football team. In addition, James McKinney, a defensive end from Louisville, Ky., announced his decision yesterday to attend Michigan .

“The area we need freshmen to come in and help us is the defensive line,” Carr said. “I think we have three guys that can do that. Watching film we thought (Slocum) was a guy that could really make a difference for us, and I think he will.”

McKinney, who could be used on both sides of the ball, and Slocum also played in the US Army All-American Bowl with Michigan recruit Zoltan Mesko, a punter from Twinsburg, Ohio. Mesko was signed to solidify Michigan’s special teams and replace graduating punter Adam Finley. Carr was introduced to Mesko at a summer kicking camp, after Mesko’s performances caught special teams coordinator Mike Debord’s eye.

“We have a kicking camp on a weekend after our regular camp,” Carr said. “And (Debord) called me up and said, ‘you’ve got to see this kid kick.’ I think that (Mesko) will be a real weapon as a punter.”

Mesko’s family immigrated to the United States from Romania, and Carr enjoyed the food and company of a family he described as “a great American story.”

“I went down (to visit Mesko’s family) on a Monday — it was the Martin Luther King holiday,” Carr said. “Mrs. Mesko had the most incredible lunch that I’ve ever had. It was about ten courses, two types of fish, triggerfish, catfish, chicken cordon bleu, stuffed peppers, potatoes and this sausage that was made at a local place. So we ate and ate and ate and had a wonderful day.”

While other recruits might not have measured up at the dinner table, Carr continued digging to help ease the big hit to Michigan’s receiving corps after the graduation of Braylon Edwards and backup Jermaine Gonzales. To help returning starters Jason Avant and Steve Breaston, Carr secured Mario Mannigham from perennial power Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio and Laterryal Savoy from Mamou, Louisiana. After watching Mannigham play in a basketball game at Cleveland’s Gund Arena, Carr believes that Manningham’s quickness will help him compete for immediate playing time. Savoy is a bigger receiver at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds and could play with a style similar to Edwards. But before he makes a significant impact, Carr said Savoy has to work on building strength.

The Wolverines also signed Antonio Bass from Jackson, Mich., and Carr was thrilled to secure such a strong in-state recruit. Carr spoke highly of his abilities and suggested that Michigan fans might see Bass in a variety of positions.

“Antonio is one of the great athletes in recent memory to come out of this state,” Carr said. “He brings wonderful size and athletic ability. He’s smart. He’s tough. There are a number of places he can play, and I think his greatest upside is as a receiver. But we’ll also give him an opportunity to do some things at quarterback.”

With Chad Henne entrenched at quarterback, the Wolverines are set at the position for a few years. Bass and the Wolverines’ sole quarterback recruit Jason Forcier are more mobile than recent Michigan quarterbacks and might be used for a change of pace. Current backup quarterback Clayton Richard is playing baseball in the spring and will miss spring practice, and Carr hopes that he returns to the lineup in the fall.

To protect Henne and his backups, Carr signed five new offensive linemen, but it will take time before any of them mature into starters.

“I don’t envision any of (the offensive line recruits) coming in and starting,” Carr said. “They will have an opportunity to have a backup role to see who comes in and who picks things up the quickest. Most of them, from a physical standpoint, are not ready to compete as starters in the Big Ten.”

In an effort to prepare for the loss of senior tight end Tim Massaquoi and junior tight end Tyler Ecker after next year, Carr signed Carson Butler from Detroit Renaissance High School. When Carr attended a game between Renaissance and Detroit Rogers, he was impressed that Butler never came off of the field. Carr suggested yesterday that Butler might also see action at outside linebacker. Carr also signed Butler’s teammate, fullback Andre Criswell, who Carr suggests might be the proverbial sleeper of this class.

In all, Carr was pleased with the class, and said that his only concern was their depth at defensive back. The Wolverines recruited Brandon Harrison of Lexington, Ky. and two other cornerbacks, but with the losses of Marlin Jackson, Markus Curry and Ernest Shazor, Michigan will likely be shorthanded.

“I think we would have liked to have had another defensive back,” Carr said.

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