Can Jim Harbaugh revive Michigan? Offseason of change, recruiting revamp could be start of something

Rayshaun Benny, a four-star, top-100 recruit, committed to the University of Michigan on Wednesday, the first day of the late national signing period.

Considering Benny starred as a defensive tackle at Oak Park High School in suburban Detroit, this shouldn’t be that big a deal ... just another in-state recruit signing with an in-state school.

Getting Benny to flip from rival Michigan State is nice, but he’s just one player, an interior lineman no less. Even at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he isn’t going to single-handedly swing the fortunes of the Wolverines, who have stalled out under coach Jim Harbaugh.

Unless it is a sign of something bigger. Which, well, perhaps it will be. On National Signing Day, hope always springs eternal for programs.

Among the criticisms of Harbaugh has been his shotgun approach to recruiting, which appeared to lack a consistent strategy, let alone the necessary precision.

He once, for example, famously set up satellite camps across the South (among other places) in an attempt to make Michigan relevant in a talent-rich area. He then quickly abandoned the strategy rather than return to build long-term ties there. Recruiting in nearby Ohio, where Michigan has long had success, including Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson, has been scattershot.

Nothing has been as puzzling though as his work locally, especially metro Detroit, which has to be the lifeblood of the program.

As recently as mid-December, Michigan appeared on its way to signing just two of the top-15 in-state recruits in the Class of 2021, per That’s the same number as it was getting from both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Meanwhile, Penn State landed three four-stars from Detroit alone. Alabama got the best player, defensive tackle Damon Payne. LSU beat them for an offensive lineman. High school coaches grumbled about strained relations between local talent and the Wolverines, and said they couldn’t understand what Harbaugh was doing.

That’ll doom any school.

In conjunction with signing an extension that staved off, for now, his firing, Harbaugh shook up his staff — going younger and more diverse. Five new assistant coaches, all in their 30s, were hired. Coupled with four returning 30-somethings, Michigan’s staff now has an average age of 36, which all alone shakes up a program led by the 57-year-old Harbaugh. That includes returning defensive line coach Shaun Nua, 39, who was instrumental in Benny's recruitment, among others.

The new arrivals include Mike Hart, a 34-year-old former star running back at Michigan, who was hired from Indiana where he served as an associate head coach. He’ll also handle the running backs. Hart has local ties from stints as a player and as an assistant at Eastern Michigan.

There’s also Mo Linguist, a 36-year-old Texas native with a reputation as an elite recruiter and coach, who was brought in from the Dallas Cowboys to work as co-defensive coordinator. Linguist was behind Michigan’s other signing day flip, pulling Garland, Texas, defensive lineman Ikechukwu Iwunnah away from Colorado.

Then there’s Ron Bellamy, 39, a former Wolverine receiver who just won the Michigan Division I state championship as the head coach at West Bloomfield High School, outside of Detroit. Bellamy’s star player, Donovan Edwards, ranked 58th nationally by Rivals, rushed for 257 yards on just 14 carries in the school’s title game and committed to Michigan in December.

“I love the moves they made with this staff, I think it’s going to help in the state of Michigan,” Jermain Crowell, coach of powerhouse Belleville High School, told the Detroit News, echoing sentiment among local coaches.

Crowell coached Payne, who is headed to Alabama, just the latest talent from his program that didn’t choose the historic college team located just 17 miles away.

None of this assures the Wolverines bounce back from a disastrous 2-4 season. Nor does it guarantee they win the Big Ten East or even defeat rival Ohio State, blemishes in Harbaugh’s otherwise respectable return to Ann Arbor. There’s a lot to be done.

It does suggest a new direction and a new energy in the program, though. Harbaugh got a reprieve, but he apparently isn’t going to continue doing the same things the same way. At least not in recruiting.

Neither the state nor the region produces enough good players to contend with Alabama or Clemson (even Ohio State recruits aggressively on a national level). At this point, that isn’t even the immediate goal.

Michigan will never get there by letting the best players from their backyard skip off to Notre Dame, Penn State, Kentucky or elsewhere.

Michigan is at least in the mix locally right now. A new young staff rallied to land four of the top seven players in the state from the Class of 2021 and finish No. 9 nationally, per Rivals.

The Wolverines are considered the leaders, at this point, for the top four in-state players in the Class of 2022. That includes five-star cornerback Will Johnson of Grosse Pointe and four-star safety Myles Rowser of Belleville.

So maybe Rayshaun Benny’s flip on Wednesday will just be one recruit making one decision. Maybe Michigan will struggle on the field this fall and he’ll wind up playing most of his career for a head coach not named Jim Harbaugh.

Or maybe it’s an early sign of something better to come, which is what signing day has always been about.

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