The gridiron is not the only place where Michigan has brought in highly touted prospects lately.
In 2013, the Michigan wrestling team hauled in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Now juniors, that class has buoyed the Wolverines (5-1 Big Ten, 10-2 overall) to their current No. 8 ranking. Domenic Abounader and Adam Coon are undefeated in dual meets, and fellow junior Brian Murphy, 157 pounds, is ranked ninth in the country.
But before the group dominated on the mat, they all shined in another sport, too. Coon, Abounader and Murphy were all stars on the gridiron in high school.
Coon — a 6-foot-5, 250-pound heavyweight— was sought after by fairly high-profile schools in both sports at the collegiate level.
His football offers included Michigan State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. All three squads finished in the Associated Press Top 25 in 2015 and posted a combined record of 32-7.
The schools were enamored by the fact that Coon was a two-way starter for the Fowlerville (Michigan) High School football team — linebacker and offensive lineman. He earned All-State honors in 2012 for his linebacker play and was voted All-Livingston County Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
“I went up to the varsity coach as an eighth grader and told him ‘I want to play varsity,’ ” Coon said. “He kind of laughed it off a bit, but when he saw that I was serious, he started thinking about it a little bit. I went to a couple of training camps and showed that I was deserving of a varsity spot and a starting job (the next season).”
Coon, for his part, was always a fan of the Big Ten’s “smashmouth” style of play, predicated on strong offensive and defensive lines.
“It doesn’t matter what people say, football is won in the trenches,” Coon said.
But all of that paled in comparison to his accomplishments in wrestling.
He posted a 212-3 dual-meet record in high school, including three straight years without a loss. He was an individual state champion all four years and was named both the 2013 Detroit Athletic Club High School Athlete of the Year and Michigan’s “Mr. Wrestler.” These accolades made him the No. 1 heavyweight wrestling prospect and the No. 2 overall wrestling prospect in 2013.
As if all of that weren’t enough, Coon finished second in the MSHAA discus and shot put events for track and field.
“Track was my more laid-back sport,” Coon said. “It wasn’t as grueling as football and wrestling. But a lot of football players will take ballet to work on their foot movements. Discus was my ballet.”
Ultimately, academics, a dedicated coaching staff and the desire to remain close to his mother and his father, who was his high school wrestling coach, convinced Coon to join the Wolverines.
“I came down (to Ann Arbor) for a workout with the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club one day, and the coaches laid down a plan for me,” Coon said. “They said, ‘We have a great lifting program, we have a great engineering program.’ It wasn’t just about the next four or five years, it was long term. Showing that level of commitment showed me that this place really wants me.”
Yet, Coon still holds on to his dream of playing in the NFL. That is, after he wrestles in the Olympics and before he attempts to become an astronaut, as he is enrolled in Michigan’s aerospace engineering program.
“(Being an astronaut) is one of those dreams every little kid has,” Coon said. “I never really grew out of it. That’s kind of the reason I’m in the aerospace program, to get my foot in the door.”
While Abounader did not get the football recruiting offers Coon got, he still managed a strong career as a safety for St. Edwards (Ohio) High School.
As team captain his senior year, he led the Eagles to an undefeated regular-season record before being upset, 63-56, by Mentor in the second round of the Ohio Division I playoffs. Abounader was selected All-State First Team that season. His former coach, Rick Fenotti, is now the director of football operations at Michigan.
“The loss to Mentor was kind of upsetting,” Abounader said. “But it was all about the journey. I’m still able to follow a lot of my high school teammates in college. It’s cool having (Fenotti) around, too.”
But it was Abounader’s wrestling that put him on the map of collegiate scouts. He compiled a 135-8 career record in high school, won all 36 of his matches his senior year and was a three-time state champion. He was the No. 1 184-pound recruit and No. 11 overall in 2013. A desire to stay relatively close to home compelled him to choose Michigan over Virginia and Virginia Tech.
“(Being a multi-sport athlete) worked because football season bled right into wrestling season,” Abounader said. “It kept me from getting burned out in any one sport. You work on a lot of the same skills, especially as a defensive back.”
Despite having to undergo knee surgery in 2014, Abounader emerged as a force for the Wolverines shortly thereafter. He took home the 2015 Big Ten individual title at 184 pounds; Michigan’s first individual championship in three years.
“(The surgery) was disappointing because I had a really good summer,” Abounader said. “I have two years left (at Michigan), and I want to make the most of them.”
Even though Abounader is dedicated to wrestling, he still gets a kick out of watching football at the Big House — especially right-tackle Kyle Kalis, his former teammate.
“I’m friends with a lot of the guys on the defense,” Abounader said. “I watch them pretty closely and kind of know what is going on. It was nice to see the defense to perform the way it did. They still have a long ways to go, but it seems like they’re putting in the right work and the coaching staff is doing a good job.”
In contrast to Abounader and Coon, Murphy excelled at quarterback in his high school days.
While he averaged more than 100 yards passing per game as Glenbard North (Illinois) High School’s starting signal-caller, he was also a threat with his legs, making him a smaller version of Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Murphy used these skills to help the Black Panthers to playoff runs in 2011 and 2012.
Murphy did not want to compare himself to those superstars, however.
“I didn’t have the cannon that (Barrett and Watson) have,” Murphy said.
Yet he did give a large amount credit his teammate, running back Justin Jackson, for Glenbard North’s success. If Murphy was analogous to J.T. Barrett, then Jackson played the part of Ezekiel Elliott in the Black Panthers’ offense. Jackson, who now plays for Northwestern, rushed for 6,531 yards and 85 touchdowns in high school.
“It was nice to have (Jackson) back there,” Murphy said. “A lot of teams would key in only on him, and that allowed me to have a lot of my success.”
Due to his size, Murphy knew he would have to choose wrestling if he was going to extend his athletic career into his college years.
Not that it would prove an issue for him, though. Murphy accumulated a 166-14 dual-meet record in high school and was a four-time Fargo freestyle All-American. In 2013, he was the No. 6 wrestling prospect in the country at 157 pounds and was No. 27 overall.
It was not an issue for Murphy to be a dual-sport athlete. Aside from some good-natured ribbing, Murphy’s football coach did not give him grief if he had to miss football practice for something such as wrestling nationals, as was the case in 2012.
“(Wrestling) teaches you balance and strength and how to use different types of strength,” Murphy said. “It made me more explosive.”
But for all of his success, Murphy has one chip on his shoulder.
During his time at Glenbard North, he came within striking distance of either an individual wrestling title or a football team title in Class 8A six times. He never once took home the gold and finished runner-up in four of them — three times in wrestling (2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13) and once in football (2012).
“It stung, especially in my wrestling career,” Murphy said. “But I think those things help you later on in life. Coming out of high school, I feel like I didn’t accomplish anything and it makes me work harder here. I want to win something.”
With the Wolverines’ loaded roster, both Murphy and the Wolverines will be reaching for a long-coveted championship. Michigan last won a team Big Ten title in 1973 and has never won an NCAA title — the Wolverines finished runner-up in the 2005 NCAA Championships.
“It’s a big motivating factor for the team and my individual goals,” Murphy said. “I think we have potential to win a national championship, and I think I have potential to win a national championship. That’s what we are striving for.”
Michigan wrestling may be making headlines as the No. 8 team in America, for boasting two wrestlers who are undefeated in dual play and topping defending national champion Ohio State in Columbus.
But in the Wolverines’ spare time, they could also make a fairly formidable football team. Just don’t challenge them to a pick-up game.