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March 9, 2012
In search of a few good Michigan men
Call him the Wolverines' unofficial chief area recruiter.
Morris, the No. 16 overall 2013 prospect, announced last spring that he would play for Michigan and thus became the Wolverines' first commitment in his signing class. Ever since, he has constantly communicated with Michigan prospects, particularly those within his home state.
He hasn't taken a single snap for the Wolverines, yet he has played a major role in helping Michigan land 14 verbal commitments for 2013 nearly a year before National Signing Day. Five of those 14 commitments have come from Michigan prospects, and only two have been from outside the Midwest.
"I've been talking to kids on Twitter, on Facebook, finding out what their interest is and when they're going to visit," said Morris, who lives about 45 minutes from Michigan's campus. "Maybe I try to get up there for a visit when they're visiting and talk to them. I consider myself a recruiter."
Michigan needed all the help it could get in that regard.
A look at the last five signing classes for each of Michigan's two Big Ten programs shows that only 21.2 percent of the players to sign with the Wolverines over the last five years came from Michigan. Over that same time frame, in-state residents have made up 42.3 percent of Michigan State's signees. Coincidental or not, Michigan State has won each of its last four meetings with its in-state rival.
In his introductory press conference a year ago, Michigan coach Brady Hoke emphasized the importance of winning more of those in-state recruiting battles.
"The lifeblood of your recruiting has to be in the Midwest and has to be the state of Michigan," Hoke told reporters.
He already has made quite an impact.
Michigan's two signing classes under Hoke included a total of 15 in-state recruits. Michigan State signed just nine guys from the state of Michigan (not including preferred walk-ons) during that same stretch. Michigan signed four of the state's top six 2012 prospects, though Michigan State landed the state's No. 1 recruit in Farmington Hills (Mich.) Harrison wide receiver Aaron Burbridge.
The Wolverines already have verbal commitments from four of the state's top five 2013 prospects: Morris, Novi Detroit Catholic Central athlete Wyatt Shallman, Detroit Cass Tech cornerback Jourdan Lewis and Cass Tech offensive tackle David Dawson. The lone exception is Midland High offensive tackle Steve Elmer, the state's No. 2 prospect and a Notre Dame verbal commitment.
"I just think the difference is that they're just recognizing you've got to win with kids in the state," Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher said. "They're just trying to make sure Michigan comes first."
That represents a major change from the approach of former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who came to Michigan in December 2007 after a successful seven-year stint at West Virginia, favored a more national recruiting plan that emphasized areas such as Florida as well as the Midwest. That strategy had its benefits. Denard Robinson signed with Michigan out of Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High and has since developed into one of the nation's most electrifying quarterbacks.
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But the Wolverines may have let their base slip away in the process. They signed only five players out of Michigan in 2008. They added just four Michigan prospects each of the next two years. Michigan State capitalized by signing a total of 35 players from the state during those three years, including former 1,000-yard rusher Edwin Baker and all-Big Ten defensive end William Gholston.
"Michigan State was winning ballgames," Rivals.com Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said. "Michigan wasn't. Michigan State kind of took over as the hot team in the state. They were winning more recruiting battles in-state while Rodriguez and his staff were putting a heavy focus on other areas."
It wasn't all because of Rodriguez.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio made a clear-cut effort to recruit the state as soon as he took over the program at the end of the 2006 season.
"Michigan State, they make it a priority each year to come in and ask about the next recruiting class, usually the next few recruiting classes," said Flint Carman-Ainsworth's Nate Williams, the coach of 2013 Michigan State verbal commitment Gerald Holmes. "Michigan, they communicate with me also, but it's not as much. But Michigan State comes every year. ... Michigan State has stopped in, whether I have a recruit or not, they come and talk to me. If I don't have a recruit for this class, they'll talk about the next year's class."
Hoke now is doing his best to win back the state.
Michigan started turning things around with the 2012 class and is off to one of the fastest starts of any team in the 2013 cycle. A look at that 2013 class underscores the emphasis on area players.
"They're really focusing on the Midwest and around there," Dawson said. "I think that's good. You get the guys who grew up watching Michigan and who like Michigan a lot, and we're going to go up there and do our best to try and keep winning."
The early commitment from Morris was critical in establishing momentum with other top prospects from within the state and Midwest. Morris believes getting all these early commitments from players in close proximity should make it easy for future Michigan teams to establish chemistry.
"Building relationships is a lot easier when we're so close together," Morris said. "That's definitely what we're trying to do. We're building relationships before we even get on campus. At Michigan, we're trying to build a huge family."
Michigan got so many top 2013 Midwest and in-state players to commit already that it naturally could lead to questions about Michigan State's progress. In this case, however, it's all a matter of perception.
Although the Spartans aren't nearly as far along as Michigan, they do already have four commitments. Last year, they didn't get their first verbal commitment until April 30. The list of Michigan State 2013 commitments is headlined by Bloomfield (Mich.) Brother Rice linebacker and four-star recruit Jon Reschke.
"Why would they be frustrated?" Helmholdt asked. "They picked up two running backs, which is a huge need for this class because they lose Edwin Baker [who declared for the NFL Draft after last season] and don't have a lot of depth at the running back position. They've got a four-star linebacker and one of their top targets in state. ... They've got four commitments, and they all meet needs and are all high-quality players.
"I think it's a good start for Michigan State. If you compare it to what Michigan's doing, at this point, we're 11 months away from National Signing Day. You can't really compare classes at this point."