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Signing day blues for Michigan

ANN ARBOR — It was appropriately gray and gloomy Wednesday in Ann Arbor, where several inches of snow blanketed the ground.

National Signing Day has been a triumphant occurrence in the era of Jim Harbaugh. Michigan has welcomed top-five recruiting classes the past two years and hosted an extravagant “Signing of the Stars” event complete with celebrity appearances.

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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh could only watch as the Wolverines saw some major targets get away on signing day.

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There was none of the pomp and circumstance this year. It may as well have been Black Wednesday after the Wolverines lost five-star offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere to Ohio State and four-star linebacker Otis Reese to Georgia in a span of 15 minutes.

Just last month, Michigan spent an entire week practicing at Petit-Frere’s Tampa high school ahead of the Outback Bowl. It offered an up-close glimpse at how major programs operate and gave Petit-Frere an intimate look at a school he was strongly considering. But the Buckeyes got the final official visit from Petit-Frere and he seemed to be trending toward Ohio State as the process came to a close.

RELATED: National Signing Day hub

The final blow came Wednesday morning when Petit-Frere picked the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer was shown on ESPN delivering a fist pump that resembled Tiger Woods at Augusta National Golf Club.

Minutes later, Reese, who committed to Michigan in June, 2016, flipped to his home-state Georgia Bulldogs, completing Michigan’s worst recruiting stretch in recent memory.

The impact of each players’ decision has varying effects of pain for Michigan. Petit-Frere felt like a longshot once singing day finally arrived, but his choice of Ohio State was a gut punch for the Wolverines.

There were also ominous signs that Reese was slipping away as Feb. 7 approached. The reality of actually losing the top-rated, longest-committed player of the class hit Michigan hard.

“It caught us off guard, but we understood that was a possibility,” Harbaugh said. “As one person closes a door, that opens a door for somebody else, and it’s our job to make sure that whoever turns the nob on that is what’s right for Michigan.”

Reese was the second 2018 target who decommitted this week, joining three-star quarterback Kevin Doyle.

On Nov. 25, Michigan’s visitor’s list for the Ohio State game, a bi-annual Super Bowl for recruits, read like a high school all-star game roster: Petit-Frere, five-star defensive end Eyabi Anoma, four-star defensive end Tyler Friday, four-star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, four-star defensive end Jayson Oweh, four-star athlete Talanoa Hufanga, and three-star tight end Tommy Tremble.

None picked Michigan — and two signed with Ohio State (Petit-Frere and Friday). The others chose Alabama, LSU, Penn State, USC, and Notre Dame.

Bad news has been an almost constant for the Wolverines ever since they took a 14-0 lead against the Buckeyes in November. OSU outscored Michigan 31-6 from there, UM experienced an epic second-half collapse against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, there’s been a revolving door of assistant coaches, and signing day featured a chorus of sad trombones.

It’s all a reminder that 8-5 seasons have consequences. Michigan lost ground to Big Ten East foes Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State during the 2017 season, and then the recruiting cycle emphasized that Michigan is looking up at the competition.

The final numbers for Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class are more Northwestern than Ohio State: zero five-star prospects, seven four-stars, and not a single top-100 player. The only other time that’s happened was 2011 during the Rich Rodriguez-Brady Hoke transition. The highest-rated signee in the 19-member class is four-star Aidan Hutchinson, a homegrown defensive end from Dearborn who committed a year ago. He’s the nation’s No. 129th-ranked prospect.

Rivals.com ranks Michigan’s class No. 24 nationally, 247Sports tabs the Wolverines 21st, and ESPN has them 18th.

“Very excited about the class,” Harbaugh said.

The Wolverines welcomed three players Wednesday that were previously unsigned after December’s early signing period: two-star wide receiver Ronnie Bell, who signed a financial aid agreement because he previously signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at Missouri State, three-star cornerback Vincent Gray, and three-star athlete Michael Barrett.

Perhaps the triumvirate could be remembered for the 2020 national championship. History, however, says an infamous 15-minute stretch during the 10 o’clock hour could leave a lasting impact. 

Contact Kyle Rowland at krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110 or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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