Brady Hoke isn’t winning enough football games to satisfy a diehard Michigan fanbase, but boy oh boy can he recruit.
Not to be outdone by a horrid 8-5 finish in 2012, the Wolverines—after floundering versus Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl—sputtered to a final record of 7-6 in 2013, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of their followers.
Indeed a season to forget, most Michigan fans couldn’t wait to turn their attention to the “other” season—recruiting season.
Winning on the trail isn’t as great as claiming victory on the field, but it’s one of few things left to hang on to at the moment—well, that and the addition of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
On Feb. 5, Team 135—minus seven early enrollees—will sign letters of intent, giving Hoke another star-studded collection of talent for the third straight year. According to 247Sports, Michigan’s 2014 class ranks No. 14 overall and No. 2 in the Big Ten.
Now entering his fourth year as head man in Ann Arbor, Hoke’s had consecutive top 10 classes that have yet to fully reach their potential.
Sure, everyone is fixated on Feb. 5, 2014. The current class typically generates the most excitement, and that’s perfectly understandable. However, the 2013 and 2012 classes have untapped talent that’s yet to hit the field, especially at receiver.
The loss of Jeremy Gallon will put a dent in the aerial attack, and Drew Dileo's elusive ways will certainly be missed. But Hoke has fill-ins ready to start what should be a highly competitive race for top dibs this spring.
Breaking down a few of the freshmen-to-be and gauging them against sophomores will give an idea as to who’s primed to do what in 2014.
Catch Me If You Can
Already possessing a glossy resume, Drake Harris is the most likely 2014 recruit to have an impact at wideout. A skilled pass-catcher, the former Grand Rapids Christian star could be one of a few younger options for quarterbacks Devin Gardner or Shane Morris.
A state champion on the gridiron, Harris also excelled at basketball, so much that he was offered by and committed to Michigan State two years ago. There's no debating his athleticism. It's there. It just needs to be put to good use.
At 6’4” and 180 pounds, Harris carries a 4-star ranking and enters Ann Arbor as the No. 7 receiver of his class. Already enrolled, he’ll benefit by an early acclimation process. Time spent with teammates and around facilities, coaches and other staff members should give Harris a leg up over the fall enrollees.
Another 4-star wideout, Freddy Canteen has the physical build fit for Michigan’s desired style of play. At 6’1” and 175 pounds, the former Elkton Christian (Md.) standout sits at the lower end of the size spectrum, but he’ll fit right in with the rest of the recruits.
The early enrollee is a vertical threat and short-route weapon, both of which will be needed this fall.
Maurice Ways, a 3-star prospect out of Detroit Country Day, is one of the more slept on recruits in the Big Ten. At 6'4" and 195 pounds, he's ideal for the vertical game and possesses a skill set comparable to those ranked higher. He's just not as polished.
Harris, though, is the more intriguing prospect. Acrobatic catches were the norm for Harris, who often looked out of place while playing against athletes his own age.
Transitioning is the challenge, but Harris could step out as Hoke's breakout frosh this fall.
According to a recent tweet, Harris wants to rid himself of distractions and get on to the next phase of life.
No Groceries Needed
An anemic offense led to Al Borges’ demise in early January, but he did a suitable job of filling the cupboard for Nussmeier, who inherits a stable of eager receivers that includes Da’Mario Jones (2013), Csont’e York (2013), Amara Darboh (2012), Devin Funchess (2012) and Jehu Chesson (2012).
At the moment, Chesson appears to be headed for a prominent role. If not for a foot injury, Darboh probably would have had a respectable 2013. Look for him to emerge as a No. 1 option in spring.
And, of course, there's Funchess, who had 49 catches for 748 yards and six touchdowns—for all intents and purposes, he’s the guy to beat come spring ball.
|Younger, Faster, Taller, Stronger, Better?|
|Dennis Norfleet (slot)||2013||5'7"/169|
|MGoBlue/247Sports *Note: List doesn't include walk-ons and isn't a full depth chart (Funchess, Chesson and Jake Butt, a TE, are only returning players who had 15 or more receptions in 2013).|
Chesson, Funchess and Norfleet each played 13 games in 2013, making them the three "vets" when compared to the rest. But Darboh has a couple of springs to his credit, and as mentioned above, Harris and Canteen will have spring ball experience before hitting fall camp.
Depending on adjustments made by Nussmeier, the Wolverines could roll with guys who know what they're doing. Seeing Gardner at quarterback wouldn't be a shock, nor would it be a surprise to see Funchess and Chesson get the bulk of the work.
But in an attempt to try something new, something fresh—like actually playing these supposed superstar kids—Nussmeier could start Morris, a fellow lefty, at quarterback. He could also opt for up-and-comers such as Harris and Jones rather than fully relying on Funchess or Jake Butt at tight end.
An ideal lineup would blend the best of both worlds. Funchess takes care of games played and ability. Easily one of the most hyped recruits of 2014, Harris could immediately flourish if he's given an opportunity to showcase himself during early weeks.
Michigan made a grave mistake by not playing its young stars during the opening stretch of 2013. Due to miscues and flat-out terrible efforts, Team 134 needed each available minute from starters versus lower-tier, should-have-been-blown-out teams such as Akron and UConn.
Of course, saving eligibility also came into play. Amidst a 59-9 romping, throwing York or Jones out there against Central Michigan in Week 1 would have been a waste. Shelving those guys for as long as possible makes a bit of sense, but an argument against that could have been made.
Change was in the air. Getting the new guys—Hoke's guys—snaps should have been of higher priority. With added depth, expect that to be the game plan this fall.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81