Jim Harbaugh Building Elite Michigan Defense Through Recruiting

Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh has been great on the recruiting trail, and he’s been building the framework for what can be an elite Michigan defense for years to come. 

When Wolverines fans finally saw Rashan Gary put on that Michigan hat on national TV, they knew it was all starting to come together.

Their team had wrapped up a 10-3 campaign and had beaten the pants off the Florida Gators in the Citrus Bowl to cap Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach of his alma mater. But when that 6-foot-4, 286-pound rockstar of a recruit donned maize and blue, it clicked in everyone’s minds.

Great things were happening in Ann Arbor, but since then, it’s only gotten better.

Gary, the No. 1 defensive tackle in that 2016 class, wasn’t the only big-time defensive recruit Harbaugh landed. You may remember the Michigan head coach climbing a tree out in California. That occurred at the home of current Wolverines freshman cornerback David Long, a former 4-star recruit.

Michigan also landed 4-star cornerback LaVert Hill, 4-star defensive end Carlo Kemp, 3-star linebacker Devin Bush Jr., and a few other promising defensive prospects. It was quite a pull for Harbaugh’s first full recruiting cycle with the Wolverines, but it was nothing compared to what he has going on in the 2017 cycle.

Take a gander at the names Harbaugh’s staff has committed at the moment: 4-star cornerback Ambry Thomas, 4-star safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell, 4-star defensive end Luiji Vilain, 4-star linebacker John Ross, 4-star defensive end Deron Irving-Bey, 4-star safety J’Marick Woods, 4-star defensive end Corey Malone-Hatcher, 4-star defensive tackle James Hudson and 4-star defensive end Donovan Jeter. And those are only the 4-star prospects.

That isn’t even taking into consideration guys like 3-star defensive end Ben Mason, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Connecticut.

At all three levels of the defense are covered with heavily recruited playmakers. And it really makes you wonder how great this Wolverines defense can be.

In 2015, Michigan ranked No. 4 in total defense (280.7 ypg) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.4 ppg). This past season, those rankings improved to No. 2 (252.7 ypg) and No. 2 (12.5 ppg), respectively.

Sure, there were some talented players on those defenses, but now Harbaugh and Don Brown will be working with a majority of players they recruited to Ann Arbor.

On Thursday, Michigan added highly touted linebacker Jordan Anthony to its 2017 haul. And the Wolverines are gearing up to add 4-star linebacker Drew Singleton as well. If they do, picture that defensive core.

Imagine, if you will, a defensive line featuring Gary, Malone-Hatcher, Irving-Bey, Kemp, Jeter, Vilain, Hudson and Mason simply rotating in and out, providing a fresh pass rush for 60 relentless minutes.

Picture a linebacking core that has Anthony, Bush, Ross and Singleton smothering opposing rushing attacks and taking away the flats for quarterbacks.

The secondary  — oh, man, that secondary — will feature Long, Hill and Thomas locking down receivers, refusing to allow separation. Kelly-Powell and Woods will be roaming deep in that third level, playing center field and solidifying that last line of defense.

Will they all pan out? Nobody knows. Rarely does every recruit live up to his potential. But the framework is there. The talent is there. The coaching has been there.

If Harbaugh keeps this up, we may be looking at one of college football’s next elite defensive units.

MORE: Michigan Football Recruiting Update – December 22, 2016