ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michael Onwenu has been on Michigan’s campus for less than a year but gained an early familiarity with the program.
He learned early on about Michigan, but did so from more than just a handful of campus visits and meetings with coaches.
To prepare for college, Onwenu leaned on a certain support system made up of Michigan players, including Delano Hill, David Dawson and Jourdan Lewis — who were also graduates of Onwenu’s high school, Cass Tech in Detroit.
They had gone through the same process Onwenu went through in recruiting: the phone calls and text messages from coaches, the visits to campuses, the rankings from recruiting services and even the sometimes overwhelming feeling that the recruiting process can bring upon high school football players.
Those players offered him advice, both in the recruiting process and in their urging of him to play at Michigan.
“They have been here for three or four years, and they know the leadership,” Onwenu said. “I looked to them in high school and look to them in college.”
Many college football coaches insist the recruiting process isn’t just about building the future of a program. It’s also about building relationships with prospective players, regardless of what program they decide to join. During that process, the high school recruits also form relationships with college players.
The insight they gain from those players is just as valuable as what the coaches tell them, if not more so. There’s different a level of understanding between teenagers and college students.
Emil Ekiyor, a 4-star offensive guard from Indianapolis, committed to Michigan in October as part of the 2018 freshman class, already ranked by 247Sports at No. 13 in the country.
Ekiyor has maintained a friendship with Michigan running back Chris Evans. They grew up together in Indianapolis. Ekiyor was an AAU basketball teammate of Evans’ younger brother, and he also played against quarterback Brandon Peters. He communicates with several more of Michigan’s players through instant messaging.
The advice he’s gotten from players about preparing for college football?
“To come there in shape and work your hardest in high school so you won’t have to redshirt or waste any time there,” Ekiyor said earlier this month at The Opening in Chicago. “You can just get to work right away.”
No one in specific gave Onwenu a certain piece of advice, but the group sent a strong message to the offensive lineman, who will be a sophomore at Michigan in the fall.
“Listen to what the coaches say, and do it,” Onwenu said. “And do it to the best of your abilities.”
For players who aren’t committed, the bonds formed through the recruiting process have a value. L’Christian Smith, a wide receiver from Dayton, Ohio, has maintained contact with Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel — who went to the same high school as Smith.
Outside of Michigan’s coaches, Smith considers Kinnel as his primary recruiter.
“Being with Tyree up there is a lot of fun,” Smith said at The Opening in Berea, Ohio. “He went to my high school, so I know him really well. I talk to him every day, FaceTime him every night. He tells me ‘Michigan wants you, we want you, but go where you’re happy.’ ”
The value for coaches
There’s a reality that comes with being a recruiter in college football. You’re not going to get every player you pursue, or offer a scholarship, to commit to your school.
But there’s another reality of recruiting: You have an opportunity to form relationships with the players whom you try to bring to your program.
Chris Partridge is Michigan’s linebackers coach and special teams coordinator, and he has a strong hand in recruiting; 247Sports recently named Partridge its 2017 recruiter of the year. He’s seen the payoff of players helping players through the recruiting process.
“When the players can build relationships with each other, it just helps with recruiting, number one,” Partridge said. “It helps your team, down the road, because they feel bonded from before they were even a teammate. That helps. And it just gives a better understanding of how to be a great person to the players.”
Sometimes, though, those recruits decide to go to other schools. Partridge said he doesn’t believe that choice strains the relationships that are formed during the recruiting process.
“Even if the player doesn’t come to Michigan, you’ve still built a relationship with someone from a different standpoint, from a different background,” Partridge said. “You don’t have to be their enemy. But it is important. It is a good thing, and I think we do a good job of it here.”
Land of 10’s Luke Srodulski and Brandon Justice contributed to this report.