Rutgers' battle with No. 4 Michigan extends off field onto recruiting trail
No. 4 Michigan is taking its show on the road for the first time after starting its season with five straight home games, going to the state its head coach has set up as a second home.
In his first full recruiting class since becoming the Wolverines’ head coach in 2015, Jim Harbaugh brought in 5 of the top 8 recruits in New Jersey — including the nation’s top recruit on the defensive end Rashan Gary — and his cherry-picking of the Garden State doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Drew Singleton, the top prospect of New Jersey’s 2017 recruiting class, released a top 12 of his over 20 scholarship offers that contains both Michigan and Rutgers — the home state team that’s struggled to keep top programs like the Wolverines’ from stealing in-state recruits.
All signs and most recruiting websites point toward the four-star linebacker making the move to Ann Arbor.
The Scarlet Knights were able to get a verbal commitment from the next best thing, at least according to the recruiting rankings, in four-star offensive tackle Micah Clark. Head coach Chris Ash’s first full recruiting class also has verbal commitments from four other top-20 New Jersey recruits, but he’s still not ready to call the battle a rivalry.
“We haven't won a Big Ten game. Until you win a Big Ten game, it's hard to say anyone is a rival,” he said in his weekly press conference previewing Saturday’s game at High Point Solutions Stadium between the two programs. “They do an outstanding job of recruiting nationwide. They always have ... my hat is off to them for the job he has been able to do and the classes they have put together.”
Harbaugh made national headlines for the multiple antics he pulled throughout the offseason to impress recruits, including sleeping over the house of one and baking a birthday cake in the shape of his home state for another, but the one that impacts the Knights’ the most is his worldwide satellite camp tour.
College coaches aren’t allowed to hold camps outside of a 50-mile radius of their campus per NCAA rules, but there is a loophole that allows coaches to attend camps hosted by other schools.
Harbaugh made sure to take full advantage.
He and his coaching staff were everywhere from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Melbourne, Australia last summer, with a number of stops in between. The stop that made news in New Jersey was on June 8, when Paramus Catholic — the alma mater of Gary and junior Jabrill Peppers, a Heisman Trophy candidate who committed to Michigan before Harbaugh’s arrival — held a camp with Harbaugh as the relationship between the schools grow.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Ash hosted a camp 30 miles southwest at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, bringing his former boss at Ohio State Urban Meyer and Temple head coach Matt Rhule with him.
And though Ash and his staff declined an invitation to attend Michigan’s camp, he insists it wasn’t a dig at the Wolverines but a chance for Rutgers to build its brand, something he praised Harbaugh for Monday.
“Since Coach Harbaugh has been there, he's taken it to another level,” Ash said. “He's very creative, thinks outside the box, finds new ways to get his brand out there and (I) give him a lot of credit. He's done an outstanding job.”
But not all of Harbaugh’s recruitments have worked out.
While Gary is turning heads with 16 tackles and a sack in the first five games of his true freshman campaign, Ahmir Mitchell, a four-star wide receiver hailed as the fifth best New Jersey prospect in 2016 by all major recruiting sites, left the program eight months into his journey in Ann Arbor, transferring to Rutgers following his suspension at the start of fall camp.
Mitchell was the second former Wolverine to come to the Banks this season following senior defensive back Ross Taylor-Douglas’ transfer in the winter.
Having graduated in three years, the Avon, Ohio, native felt he had a better chance of contributing in another program and he chose the Knights.
“Me and my family, we sat down and we saw that I could graduate at the end of the winter session at Michigan and I could transfer,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have played like I wanted to at Michigan until about my fifth year, so I wanted to transfer somewhere else to get a fresh start and just play in a better playing situation."
Having seen how both coaching staffs operate, Douglas' sees a bright future ahead for Rutgers, but it will take some time.
"Oh, it’s well on our way," he said when asked if Rutgers is heading in positive direction. "Everything we have set in place here is, we’re definitely upward trending here. I mean, things don’t happen overnight. The staff’s been here for 8 months, you see at Ohio State, at Michigan, you staffs that have been there for quite some time so you just gotta come to work every day and things will improve."
Ash said he and his staff work every week to compete in recruiting, building in contact with recruits and coaches into their weekly schedule as to not let it go by the wayside.
When recruiting New Jersey, they have the advantage of being geographically closer, allowing them to attend high school games on Friday night’s before home games and to go to South Brunswick to watch the Vikings suffer a 31-28 upset against an Old Bridge team led by four-star quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
But what Rutgers lacks is a history as rich in tradition and success as Michigan’s, which senior right guard Chris Muller admitted to having a pull on recruits — at least for those who watch college football.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Wolverines win the battle of comparison every time.
“Growing up, I never really watched college football. My dad was a die-hard Eagles guy so we always watched NFL and I was always working Saturday so I was never able to watch games,” he said. “There’s a pull to school like that but that doesn’t deter you from how good a school Rutgers is. Just because things have happened in the past, you just have to keep looking forward. You can always change or rewrite history so you just have to keep doing what you wanna do.”
Rewriting history to make the Knights a team that can compete at the level of a Michigan or an Ohio State is a focal point of the pitch Ash gives to the recruits he’s pursuing.
He admitted that facing a team his program is in competition with on the recruiting trail has an effect in the thinking of the recruits, but he quickly assured the same could be said for every other game his team plays.
And though he hopes the final result in next Saturday’s matchup — the first night game of the season — is far different than the historic 58-0 blowout loss to No. 2 Ohio State last weekend, As long as progress is evident, Ash believes Rutgers won’t be hurt too badly in the eyes of the recruits.
“We have talked to our recruits about the foundation we have laid and the direction we are going and how they fit into our future plans and I don't think anybody has second guessed that or wavered based off of last Saturday's game,” he said. “Coming out of the Iowa game, a lot of people were excited about the progress that we've made, the direction they felt like we were going. One setback is not going to hurt that but we have to play better, we have to be competitive, we need to be well-coached and we need to be well prepared because nobody wants to be a part of a program that's not.”
Muller isn’t from New Jersey, but the Pennsylvania native believes that Ash and the coaching staff are headed towards that direction and they will be successful in bringing in the top talent in the state. But from a recruit’s standpoint, he can’t bring himself to blame the kids if they decide Piscataway isn’t for them.
“I came here because it was right. You can’t knock any recruit for choosing where they feel,” he said. “I can’t fault anyone for going anywhere else. Recruits just have to go where they feel right and I mean, I hope that’s Rutgers but if it’s not, you can’t cry over spilled milk … I think this staff has it in them to win at that recruiting level. I fully believe that this is one of the best staffs in the country and through my time here, I’m extremely excited for the future of Rutgers football and I know they’re going to be great.”