Harbaugh Isn’t Relying On Stars To Win

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There are two things Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh remembers about his search for a new director of strength and conditioning after the 2017 season, and both involve Ben Herbert, the man he eventually hired.

Harbaugh’s first memory is the initial telephone conversation with Herbert, who spent the previous five seasons at Arkansas. Herbert struck him as “the absolute perfect blend, perfect melding of old school strength coach and cutting-edge in every way, detailed strength coach,” and that was enough to become a finalist for the job.

The second memory relates to the beginning of Herbert’s in-person interview, at which point he shook Harbaugh’s hand, leaned forward and stared into his future boss’ eyes, “like he’s looking right through your entire soul.”

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Five years later, Herbert has been singled out by players and coaches as an integral figure in the restoration of Michigan’s wing in the blue blood pantheon. It’s Herbert, they say, who deserves credit for the physical and mental transformations so many Wolverines have undergone since arriving in Ann Arbor. And it’s Herbert who brewed the program’s wondrous elixir of physical strength and mental fortitude that’s catalyzed certain members of Harbaugh’s team to outperform their modest recruiting rankings.

In doing so, the Wolverines have found a way to make up ground on the recruiting machine at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes featured seven five-star prospects and 11 four-star prospects among their 22 starters in Saturday’s loss at Ohio Stadium. But the sustainability of a recruiting model that prioritizes culture fits over rankings is unclear, and the next few seasons at Michigan will shed some light on the balance of power in college football’s best rivalry. Did Harbaugh’s back-to-back wins over Ohio State unearth a formula for long-term success, or did the Wolverines simply have the ideal collection of players and coaches at exactly the right time?

“We’re looking for the guys who really like football, you know, who really want to get good at football,” Harbaugh said in his weekly news conference ahead of the Big Ten title game. “No matter what their star rating is, that’s fairly irrelevant to us.”

Viewed through the prism of recruiting rankings, the talent disparity between Michigan and Ohio State was vast in each of their last two meetings. A year ago, the Wolverines had nine combined starters on offense and defense rated as three-star prospects or below coming out of high school based on the 247Sports Composite. The Buckeyes had just two such players: free safety Bryson Shaw (now at USC) and wide receiver Chris Olave, an eventual first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Ohio State lost anyway, 42-27.

This year, Harbaugh’s team again trotted out nine players with three-star ratings or worse onto the field as starters, including six on the defensive side of the ball. The Buckeyes had four such players in 2022 — RB Miyan Williams, OT Dawand Jones, S Tanner McCalister, DL Ty Hamilton — and were soundly beaten for the second year running.

Consider the average star ratings of each team’s starters for the last two versions of The Game:

  • 2022 offense: Michigan 3.73 stars; Ohio State 4.18 stars
  • 2022 defense: Michigan 3.54 stars; Ohio State 4.09 stars
  • 2021 offense: Michigan 3.45 stars; Ohio State 4.45 stars
  • 2021 defense: Michigan 3.82 stars; Ohio State 4.09 stars

“What’s the same is the grit, the determination, the underdog mindset that we had last year,” Michigan nickelback Mike Sainristil said after Saturday’s win. “Just the Michigan-versus-everybody mindset. What’s different is the fact that it’s not the same team as last year. We don’t have the same guys defensively. We have a majority of the same guys offensively, but the identity is not the same as it was last year.

“We play with a different attitude. Not to take nothing away from last year’s team, but right now what we’re doing is we just have a mindset of nothing that gets in our way is going to stop us. That’s just what we pride ourselves on.”

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Sainristil, who ranked 595th overall in the 2019 recruiting cycle, was among a handful of unheralded prospects who made critical plays for the Wolverines as they pulled away from Ohio State in the second half Saturday. A former wide receiver, Sainristil stabbed the ball from between tight end Cade Stover’s hands to break up a pass in the end zone that would have trimmed Michigan’s lead to single digits in the fourth quarter. He finished second on the team with six solo tackles, tying a career-high.

There was a clutch 15-yard reception by tight end Luke Schoonmaker on a jump pass from linebacker-turned-running back Kalel Mullings during a drive that ended with a Michigan touchdown. Schoonmaker, who has gained 17 pounds in Herbert’s strength and conditioning program, was ranked 796th in the class of 2018. NFL scouts gave him a preliminary third-round grade in the spring.

There was a critical block from center Olu Oluwatimi to spring tailback Donovan Edwards for a 75-yard score that extended the Wolverines’ lead to 15 in the fourth quarter. Oluwatimi, who transferred to Michigan from Virginia, was a two-star recruit and the No. 3,330 overall prospect when he signed with the Cavaliers in 2017.

There were five tackles and two crucial pass breakups from safety Rod Moore, a former three-star prospect rated No. 506 in the 2021 recruiting cycle. During training camp, Moore told reporters his body would hurt from the neck down after games because he weighed just 173 pounds as a freshman. He worked with Herbert to add 12 pounds of muscle ahead of the 2022 season. Now, he’s identified by coaches as the team’s best pure tackler.

“There’s kind of a disrespect that some guys feel (about their rankings),” Harbaugh said when describing Moore’s approach since arriving in Ann Arbor at 17 years old. “And some guys will get bitter. He doesn’t. He just wants to get as good at football as he possibly can. He was all over the field in this past game.”

Saturday’s victory all but assured Michigan of a spot in the College Football Playoff regardless of what happens in the Big Ten title game against Purdue. And if the Wolverines can cap their dreamlike season with the school’s first national championship since 1997 — at which point Harbaugh was still playing for the Indianapolis Colts — the roster they will have used to get there bucks a trend that suggests strong correlations between stars, rankings and titles.

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Each year, the 247Sports Team Talent Composite ranks college football rosters based on how a program’s players were rated coming out of high school. Since Harbaugh took over his alma mater in 2015, no school ranked outside the top nine in a given season has won the national championship, and 2016 Clemson was the only team ranked outside the top six. 

Here’s how the last seven national champions rated: 2021 Georgia was second; 2020 Alabama was second; 2019 LSU was fifth; 2018 Clemson was sixth; 2017 Alabama was first; 2016 Clemson was ninth; 2015 Alabama was first.

“It’s really more about the right fit,” said Harbaugh, whose 2021 team ranked 15th and whose current roster ranks 14th. 

Members of the coaching staff have faced questions in recent weeks about Michigan’s slow start to the 2023 recruiting cycle. There are 18 players verbally committed to the Wolverines, yet none of them rank among the top 100 prospects nationally. The program’s incredible on-field success from the last two seasons hasn’t translated to the recruiting trail the way most people expected.

But the days following Michigan’s win over Ohio State have produced four verbal commitments from prospects in the next two classes: three-star athlete Breeon Ishmail in 2023; three-star corner Cameron Calhoun in 2023; three-star athlete Jason Hewlett in 2023; and four-star offensive tackle Luke Hamilton in 2024.

It’s another crop of unheralded players for Harbaugh and Herbert to develop.

“Never had a better hire than Ben Herbert and what he’s meant to this program,” Harbaugh said.