How Don Brown's departure could transform Michigan football recruiting

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Back when Michigan football linebacker Kalel Mullings was a freshman in high school, with so many highlights still to be made and stars to be added to his recruiting profile, his coach at Milton Academy in Massachusetts had a hunch the promising two-way player would find his way to Ann Arbor.

“I always just figured that was where he was going to end up, even though he himself did not know that," Kevin Macdonald recalled last month.

Macdonald’s prophecy, confirmed almost three years later, was tied to one man: Don Brown.

Brown was a champion of sorts for New England football, believing the players who excelled in one of the sport’s overlooked regions could compete anywhere in the country. That included Michigan, where Brown spent the last five seasons as defensive coordinator before being dismissed in December and resurfacing at Arizona in the Pac-12. In the Wolverines’ past five signing classes, 15 prospects from Brown’s old stomping grounds — eight from Connecticut, six from Massachusetts and one from Rhode Island — joined college football’s all-time winningest program.

Boston Milton Academy linebacker Kalel Mullings
Boston Milton Academy linebacker Kalel Mullings

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“I think obviously it first starts with Don Brown’s connections to the area,” Ryan Dugan, the head coach at Shepherd Hill Regional in Dudley, Massachusetts, told the Free Press in April.

But with Brown working for another program, will Michigan be as much of a factor in a section of the country it prioritized because of his presence on staff?

Some are skeptical, including Macdonald.

Brown, after all, is a beloved figure within Northeastern football circles. Macdonald refers to Brown as “Donnie,” and remembers first meeting him when the man known affectionately as "Dr. Blitz" was working at Yale in the 1980s.

“He knew everybody,” Macdonald said. “Everybody likes him. He’s a very personable guy. Great recruiter. Great coach. This is an area he feels comfortable. He knows the players around here.”

Brown, in fact, was the first person to offer Mullings a scholarship, when he was on the cusp of turning 14. He also was out in front during the recruitment of Michigan signee Greg Crippen, an offensive lineman who played under Macdonald before transferring to IMG Academy.

A native of Massachusetts, Brown leveraged relationships formed over a career that spanned decades and included stops at eight colleges and universities in the region. His influence over Michigan’s recruiting strategy was immediate when he was added to Jim Harbaugh’s staff in December 2015. In the three years predating Brown’s arrival in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines reeled in one player from New England — defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who would go on to play in the NFL. With Brown on board, Michigan built a pipeline to the Northeast as he continued to make the rounds at the area’s high schools. Different assistants accompanied him, and Harbaugh, too, made trips to Massachusetts and the surrounding states — piggybacking on Brown’s contacts there. In this part of the country, they believed they could find players not only interested in a holistic experience that combined football and academics but also equipped to thrive at a school like Michigan.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown looks on during the game against Illinois, Oct. 12, 2019 in Champaign, Ill.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown looks on during the game against Illinois, Oct. 12, 2019 in Champaign, Ill.

Still, some wondered if the effort was worth it. After all, it has been 20 years since Brown’s native state produced a top-100 prospect — two-way player Diamond Ferri, who signed with Syracuse in 2000.

In this neck of the woods, Michigan wasn’t waging recruiting battles with Ohio State, Alabama, Penn State or Oklahoma, but rather Ferri’s Orange and Wake Forest, Duke and Boston College.

Many of the sport’s powers ignored New England, believing there wasn’t enough top-end talent to supplement their rosters on a consistent basis.

“There is not a lot of time spent there by those programs,” said Brian Dohn, a national analyst with 247Sports.

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It’s why Dohn wonders if the net effect of Brown’s departure will be minimal if the Wolverines’ recruiting focus shifts away from the Northeast. Of the ten scholarship players from New England on Michigan’s roster this past season, only one — Kwity Paye — has been a difference-maker. Most have been complementary pieces, from receivers Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil to fullback Ben Mason. Others, including offensive lineman Andrew Stueber and Zak Zinter, have helped stabilize position groups.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford runs for a first down as MIchigan's Kwity Paye chases during the first half against Michigan at Beaver Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford runs for a first down as MIchigan's Kwity Paye chases during the first half against Michigan at Beaver Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

“If you don’t recruit New England,” Dohn said, “is it a huge loss? I don’t know. I think there is talent all over the place. They just had the connection there and it was easy to recruit there.”

But with Brown out in the desert, that may no longer be the case. Macdonald even acknowledged as much. He said he has five or six players at Milton he foresees playing at the Power Five level. Not long ago, they might have had their eyes on Michigan.

Now, they could look elsewhere.

Asked what impact Brown’s dismissal could have on Michigan’s New England recruiting , Macdonald responded, “It’s going to leave its mark.”

Contact Rainer Sabin at Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football recruiting: Don Brown's departure could shake it up