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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

BRANDON HARRISON - CB - Chaminade-Julienne(OH)

Height: 5'9" Weight: 190
Lemming: #11 CB
Rivals: ****, #16 CB, #11 OH ****, #17 CB
Projected Role: Elfin cover corner

How does a 5'9" guy get four stars from recruiting services and offers from Michigan, Iowa, and Notre Dame? Running an electronically-timed 4.25 forty (check the linkfest) at the OSU Nike camp will just about do it. It also helps to lead your team to a 9-4 record by playing corner, free safety, running back, wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner after the other D-1 prospect on your team, Michigan State commit Javon Ringer, goes down with a knee injury midway through the season.

Harrison committed to Notre Dame early in the recruiting year but reopened his recruiting when Tyrone Willingham was shown the door. He quickly picked the Wolverines over Iowa. OSU showed little interest throughout his recruitment, possibly because they recruited 8,000 defensive backs the past two years.

Harrison is clearly physically limited. That 5'9" is more like 5'8.5", and as anyone who watched Braylon Edwards annihilate 5'9" Jaren Hayes during this year's MSU game will tell you, when you're a cornerback size does matter. Harrison isn't a Marlin Jackson type player you can throw out against any receiver you want to erase, but he's no scrub either. Look at this video from Insiders (free): whenever he's challenged by an opposing team he is in great position, looking for the ball and making a play on it. If he was three inches taller he'd be Justin King.

He isn't three inches taller. He isn't Justin King or Marlin Jackson, but he should be the kind of player you can line up over a slot receiver like Dorien Bryant or Bam Childress. He's certainly going to be fast enough to play corner and will probably have to do so very shortly after arriving on campus (no pun intended).


Height: 6'1" Weight: 178
Lemming: NR
Rivals: ***, #26 CB, #56 CA ***, #31 CB
Projected Role: Boom or bust at CB

More on the movie poster later. Sears is one of two California sleepers (Chris Richards is the other) that will make or break this recruiting class and possibly the Michigan defense. By the time Sears stepped onto the field to play his first varsity football game--he transferred to Edison for his junior season and was forced to play JV due to California transfer rules--he was already a Michigan commitment. He had never set foot on the Michigan campus. Late his junior year, his appendix burst at a track meet. In the aftermath, he lost 30 pounds.

So it may be a bit of an understatement to declare Sears a risk. When Michigan took him they undoubtedly thought they would receive a commitment from Justin King or Victor Harris and that if Sears took a couple years to find his way at the Big Ten level that would be fine. Neither of those five-stars ended up leaving home, however, leaving Sears all by his lonesome in this year's cornerback class until Ty Willingham was unceremoniously dismissed by ND and Harrison fell into Michigan's lap.

Recruited as an athlete, Sears played like a big-time corner this year, racking up 103 tackles and 7 interceptions for Edison. He's still got the impressive combination of size, speed, and leaping ability that prompted Michigan to offer a kid who had never attended a Michigan camp or played a down of varsity football. There's certainly a possibility that Sears was overlooked by the big time schools in the area due to his low profile. He could be a Braylon Edwards-type athlete at corner. Or he could be not much at all. (How's that for a nothing statement? Pretty good, I think. But it's true.)

CHRIS RICHARDS - CB - North Hills Monroe(CA) (Greyshirt)

Height: 5'10" Weight: 170
Lemming: NR
Rivals: ***, #61 ATH, #71 CA ***, #55 CB
Projected Role: See you in two years, kid

For some reason, typing "chris.richards" into Google's image search yields a the "Undercover Brother" promo poster seen at left on page five or six. Serendipity indeed, because Richards is indeed undercover. And a brother. Just like Johnny Sears. In fact, Richards' recruitment was eerily similar to Sears'. Both California sleepers that Michigan jumped on very early, Richards and Sears both drew late interest from big Pac-10 programs. Both freaked out Michigan recruitniks with their flirtations--Sears visited Oregon State; Richards actually was a Cal commit for 24 hours. Both are reservoirs of untapped potential.

Richards is a year young for his high school graduating class and will be taking a greyshirt to catch up physically. He may not need that long, as showed up at the CaliFlorida bowl weighing 170 pounds--up from the slender 155 he played his senior season at--and played very well against a set of Florida receivers including Fred Rouse, one of the top recruits in the country. Richards picked off a pass and could have had two more. It is unwise to place too much stock in all-star game performances but history has proven that good ones (Ginn, Breaston) are often indications that the player's athleticism is sky-high. Richards didn't exactly dominate like Ginn or Breaston but he did prove that he is certainly capable of competing with top flight athletes.

Richards is more raw clay for English. He won't play next year. He may even redshirt the following year (otherwise, why bother with the greyshirt at all?). But there's something there already which is only going to get bigger, stronger and faster. Dude is dedicated to his cause. He put on those 15 pounds in only a few months between the end of his high school season and the CaliFlorida All-Star game. Like Sears, Richards is high risk, high reward.

NIC HARRIS - S - Alexandria(LA)

Height: 6'3" Weight: 208
Lemming: #11 S

Rivals: ****, #94 overall, #5 S, #3 LA ****, #92 overall, #14 LB
Projected Role: Search and destroy

Check out the Nic Harris linkfest for a few action photos of him. It's telling that in two of three (including the one at left) he's murdering some poor Louisiana kid who was in the wrong place (anywhere around the ball) at the wrong time (any time Harris is on the field).

Harris is a package of physical ability, intangibles, and academic performance that doesn't come around very often. Harris is 6'3, 210, with a 35 inch vertical leap and that ubiqitous 4.5 forty time. He is also tougher than most, playing most of a first-round playoff game after taking a vicious cheap shot while attempting to fair catch a punt. Harris picked off a pass late in the fourth quarter to seal the game away. Then he went to the hospital. He also has a 3.4 GPA.

Harris is a relative newcomer to defense, having only played it for his final two years in high school. He adapted quickly, however, intercepting 10 passes as a junior. As a senior, Harris gathered 71 tackles, 11 interceptions, three sacks, and the LA class 4A defensive MVP award. He returned 9 of his 21 career interceptions for touchdowns, returned punts and kicks, and took the occasional handoff as a tailback.

Harris may end up at linebacker at Michigan, but will start out at safety. No matter where he ends up his nose for the ball and tendency to show up at the point of attack with malicious intent will be welcome.


Height: 6'4" Weight: 220
Lemming: NR
Rivals: ***, #2 K/P ***, #4 P

Projected Role: Program savior

Best. Punter. Ever. Ever!!!

Seriously. Lemming called Mesko the "best high school punter in the last ten years." As a senior he averaged 43.6 yards a kick with 4.4 seconds of hang time. At the Army All-American game people stopped practicing to watch him punt (and he beat Iowa QB recruit Jake Christensen in a QB skills competition). At Michigan camp, well (lifted from the linkfest):

...the stakes were raised a month later when he [Mesko] attended the Michigan camp, averaged 48.5 yards per kick with an average hang time of 4.6 seconds and was offered a scholarship as a punter on the spot -- which he accepted less than a day later.
The hang time is the most critical aspect of his game, especially since Michigan's punt coverage has been notoriously bad for a while. The half-second or so that separates Mesko from your average punter probably means 40 percent fewer returned kicks, a comforting thought with Ted Ginn looming the next two or three Novembers.

Mesko will punt from day one at Michigan and will likely handle kickoffs as well, as he put 85 percent of them into the endzone as a senior. If he can pooch punt he really will be the best punter Michigan has had in forever. Even if he's not particularly good at that he should singlehandedly move opposing offenses back a few yards a possession and almost eliminate opponents' kickoff returns, which is well, well worth one scholarship out of 85.

MGOBLOG Editorial Stance

Defensive Backs: B-. Michigan needed a sure thing and had two five-stars in its sights but could not close the deal on either. The three corners they did get all have serious question marks: Harrison is undersized and both Richards and Sears are sleepers--cynics would say "risks."

The news isn't all bad, though. Nic Harris is a big get, a prototypical SS with a propensity to leave opposing players face-down on the field wishing they were dead or at least unconscious. Harrison probably is as fast as reputed. His much-publicized 4.25 was a Nike camp thing. Even if the track was a little fast that day, he still beat every other attendee and won the camp's MVP award. Sears and Richards both got chased by Pac-10 schools all year (USC and OSU for Sears, Cal and WSU for Richards), were impressive enough to offer very early, and seem to have high ceilings. Sears' lack of experience and Richards' youth and small size make them risky prospects, but the fact that despite those drawbacks Michigan offered both of them very early implies that they have enough athleticism to make those concerns secondary.

How much you like this class of defensive backs is probably a reflection of how much you trust Ron English's ability to identify raw talent and coach it up... certainly a question mark since his tenure at Michigan has been very brief. At the very least, the Undercover Brothers look promising. The fact that Pac-10 teams made late-season runs at both of them is encouraging, as was Richards' bravura performance in the CaliFlorida All-Star game. The way they were recruited makes it look like English pulled a fast one, locked up a couple guys when their stock was low, and managed to hold on to them when they blowed up. Brandon Harrison looks like the kind of player who can step in quickly and hold his own. He's not the next Woodson but it looks like he has a nose for the ball and will be a productive player. Harris has all the physical tools to become a great safety. He may not have the coaching, but that's a separate issue.

Kickers: A. Michigan has a new attitude about special teams that is beginning to pay dividends. Mesko is the latest piece of evidence, and possibly the best. Michigan's net punting was 77th in the country last year, due to a variety of factors: Finley's propensity to line-drive long punts and boom short ones into the end zone, a block against MSU, Michigan's inability to deal with Ted Ginn or Ryne Robinson. Mesko won't solve those problems by himself but should move Michigan up the list with his hangtime. One opposing high school coach said he was a "weapon" when it came to pinning opposing teams inside their 20, so he has to be better than Finley.

Compare Michigan's punting statistics with Tennessee's Dusty Colquitt, a Mesko-like punter who will go in the second or third round in the upcoming draft. Michigan's opponents returned 56% of Finley's punts and averaged 13.1 yards a return. Tennessee's opponents returned 40% of Colquitt's punts and averaged 3.7 yards a return.

Michigan punted 66 times last season and kicked off 70 times. As near as I can figure, opposing teams started at about their 25 off of kickoffs. If Mesko can bump up the net punting three yards and bump back the opposing team's kickoff start three yards, he'll account for almost 420 extra yards of field opposing teams will have to travel to score. If he can get every kickoff into the endzone and get his net punting stats up to Colquitt's level, he'll account for almost 700 yards. That's huge.

Yes, I'm going to track this next season. No, I am not a virgin. (Unless my mom is reading, in which case, I am.)