Hickey: Michigan's signing class adds pressure for Wolverines to win big in 2023
February Signing Day, once the crown jewel of the offseason college football calendar, is an increasingly fading relic with some 80% of players (and almost all of the top-100) choosing to sign in December these days.
There’s no more definitive proof of this new era than the actions of Jim Harbaugh. A year ago, Harbaugh spent Signing Day interviewing for a job with the Minnesota Vikings.
Even 2 years prior, such a move would have torpedoed Michigan’s program. Harbaugh didn’t have to worry about that since the Wolverines had already inked the nation’s 9th-ranked recruiting class per the 247Sports composite rankings.
But it’s hard not to wonder what affect that interview had on the class that followed.
Despite a second straight Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance, Michigan has its lowest-ranked recruiting class in 5 years: 18th in the country. That also rates 3rd in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Penn State for the second consecutive season.
Maybe it’s just a blip, but this isn’t the type of blip that should be happening when your program is experiencing its greatest sustained success in decades. And even if it is temporary, it’s still troubling.
It feels like 1 or more of the following is imperative for Michigan in 2023:
- Sign Harbaugh to a long-term contract extension that actually brings an end to his offseason NFL flirtations OR come up with a Coach K-type arrangement where he announces “this season is it” and create a succession plan.
- Win the national championship — either because it will lift recruiting back up, or because the quality of incoming classes is in danger of declining to the point that will no longer be attainable.
- Find an assistant coach who is an ace recruiter, as Ohio State and Penn State clearly have on their staffs.
1. Extend Harbaugh — or move on
The waffling must stop.
Recruiting is kind of like politics. It’s all messaging and branding. Nothing actually needs to be true, but it does need to be believable. And Harbaugh’s past 2 offseasons strain credulity if you’re looking to play for him.
A year after indicating his interview with the Vikings was his last dip in the NFL pool, Harbaugh twice interviewed with the Broncos.
Why should a high schooler trust what that guy is selling?
If this is all Harbaugh’s method of negotiation, then it’s time to strike the deal. Certainly, he deserves no less than the 9 years and $85.5 million Mel Tucker has left on his Michigan State contract.
Or if Harbaugh really is determined to return to the NFL, force him to actually take the plunge. There is, in some way, precedent for such a move.
When Bobby Bowden retired at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher was brought in as a coach in waiting. The same thing happened with Duke basketball last year when Jon Scheyer was named Mike Krzyzewski’s successor.
This would be different. Harbaugh wouldn’t be retiring; he’d be announcing his intent to coach in the NFL next season. That’s a bold gamble, obviously, since there’s no guarantee of jobs opening up. But let’s be real — there’s multiple openings every offseason. And some underachiever would be shown the door a year earlier than usual if Harbaugh was in the market.
But if Michigan created a clear post-Harbaugh plan, it could work. Not as well as a contract extension, mind you. But some form of finality is needed regarding the Harbaugh question.
2. Win the 2023 national championship
Easier said than done, especially given Michigan’s past 2 CFP showings.
But bolstered by a solid group of incoming transfers, Michigan’s 2023 roster will be the most talented Harbaugh has had. And with JJ McCarthy a great season away from entering the NFL Draft, this very much feels like the Wolverines’ most opportune window to win the national title since 1997.
Future signing classes will determine whether or not that window closes. That includes transfers. Even if McCarthy is gone in 2024, it’s now much easier to find a veteran quarterback to replace him with.
Regardless, there are a lot of reasons this feels like the year Michigan needs to get the job done. Penn State is building a collection of talent that might be the league’s best in 2024. USC is coming to the B1G, too. And Ohio State isn’t going anywhere, either.
Michigan needs to fend them off with the strongest possible statement.
3. Find an ace recruiter
According to 247Sports, defensive line coach Mike Elston was Michigan’s top recruiter for the Class of 2023.
Elston ranks a mere 7th in the Big Ten behind Penn State running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, Ohio State defensive line/assistant head coach Larry Johnson, Ohio State tight end coach/offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, and Michigan State defensive ends coach Brandon Jordan.
Wilson, who took the head coaching job at Tulsa, is no longer a factor. But the fact Michigan’s top-rated recruiter was ranked 45th nationally doesn’t inspire confidence. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore ranked 3rd in the B1G in 2021, so perhaps he can rekindle that magic.
Michigan either needs an assistant coach who steps up to be the guy who consistently seals the deal, or add someone with that reputation next offseason.