ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh climbed a tree for a recruit.
He rode go-karts for another.
He had sleepovers and barnstormed around the country hosting satellite camps.
And, you know what, it worked.
Entering his third season at Michigan, Harbaugh and his staff have signed 37 ESPN 300 recruits — including DE Rashan Gary, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2016 — after the previous Michigan staff signed 28 in the four classes before Harbaugh arrived. The old adage for college football coaches is “just wait until he gets his guys in there.” In extraordinary fashion, Harbaugh has gotten his top-level targets at Michigan.
The Wolverines also have the fewest returning starters of any FBS team. That means all of those guys Harbaugh went to such lengths for will now have to step up.
“So many young talented players,” Harbaugh said. “Young and untalented is not a very good formula. I know we have to coach them up; we really have to do a great job coaching all of our players, especially the young ones that will be training.”
Gary is right in the middle of that. The coaches did everything they could to land Gary and even had a little luck on their side when a snowstorm cancelled Gary’s flight back to New Jersey and extended one of his recruiting visits.
Harbaugh fought off Clemson, Ole Miss and USC all the way up to signing day, when Gary finally picked the Wolverines on SportsCenter.
That marked the first time Michigan had landed the No. 1 recruit since ESPN started its rankings in 2006 and only pushed the expectations up even higher.
Gary chose Michigan so he could compete for championships. He knows there is pressure on the young players to lift this team, but he believes the way Harbaugh has recruited makes their goals attainable.
“I feel like Michigan changed their recruiting in terms of guys that are ready to start,” Gary said. “Ready to come in and compete for a spot. You see that this year. Sometimes it challenges the older guys to make sure they’re on their p’s and q’s, and that’s a good thing to have that much competition.”
Among those older guys on Michigan’s two-deep roster, only 11 were not recruited by Harbaugh. Gary, who contributed last season as a freshman, will start in his second year. Other second-year players include running back Chris Evans, receivers Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom, offensive linemen Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson, linebackers Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush Jr., and defensive backs Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus.
Hudson will take over the Viper position on Michigan’s defense. He might have the biggest shoes to fill since he’s taking over for do-everything Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers, who was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.
“We know it’s important to fill the holes and play well because that’s why we came here, to win championships,” Hudson said.
And being this young and inexperienced won’t be an excuse. That’s been proved by the last three College Football Playoff national champions. Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State each had at least 22 true and redshirt freshmen who saw game action in their respective championship seasons.
Harbaugh has embraced the challenge that lies ahead. He hasn’t looked at the youth as an excuse that lowers expectations, but rather as an opportunity for his players, the prospects he recruited, to get Michigan to the Big Ten title game and beyond.
“Really excited about it, because historically I have learned that the biggest jump you can make as a player in college, biggest single year, is going from that freshman year to that sophomore year,” Harbaugh said. “Those 12 months that you have to train yourself, but also now everything they do from this moment on, the rest of this entire year, they’ve already done before. I don’t have a study to show you, but experience has taught me that that’s when you can make your biggest improvement in one year as a football player.”
Harbaugh thinks Hudson is one of those who will take a big step. “We’re not going to settle for less just because we’re young and we don’t have a lot of seniors,” Hudson said. “We all have confidence, we all have high expectations for each other, and we’re all confident we’ll have a great year.”
For Harbaugh, who hasn’t yet beaten Ohio State, a big year would be great. He is nowhere near a hot seat, but the Wolverines did lose three of their last four games last season. That has left some fans anxious to know if all the antics are going to pay off. If this Harbaugh-built team wins this year, all those young players become experienced upperclassmen.
“They all have the opportunity to show how good they can be, find out how good of a player they can be,” Harbaugh said. “And it all happens on the football field in the most honest manner possible. The truth must be told when you step on the football field.
“You can no longer bullcrap or email somebody. You have to go out there and actually prove it, what your talent is, what your effort is, and how well you’ve trained yourself up to that point.”