February 7, 2008

Wolverines make history in New Jersey

From 2005-07, the state of New Jersey produced 18 four-star prospects and two five-star prospects. Michigan didn't sign one. However, this year, the Wolverines signed a single-class program-record three Garden State natives -- an impressive effort according to NJVarsity.com publisher Mark Pszonak …

"It was the perfect storm for Michigan," Pszonak said. "A lot of schools come into New Jersey to sign a kid every year, but it's pretty random that one school would sign three of the best in the state. I think when Marcus Witherspoon committed first [June 2], he started talking to J.B. Fitzgerald and Brandon Smith and the kids just really felt a bond that they wanted to take to Michigan."

Each ranked a four-star prospect, Witherspoon, Fitzgerald and Smith have the potential to impact quickly for the Maize and Blue. Smith, a 6-3, 210-pound safety from New Brunswick, may be the quickest to see the field, however, because of his physical abilities.

"Smith is so versatile," Pszonak said. "At safety, he has such tremendous pure athleticism. He's rangy and he has to work on his technique obviously, but he has more than enough skill to step in for Michigan next year, and he's really a guy that should do very well in his career on the next level."

As a senior at New Brunswick High School, Smith impacted on both sides of the ball, recording seven interceptions and 17 pass break ups defensively while throwing for 1,053 yards and 16 touchdowns at quarterback. A dual-threat signal-caller, rushing for 670 yards and nine touchdowns, Smith was recruited to South Carolina as a quarterback, but he has a much brighter future at safety.

"He has a hitch in his throwing and I just don't think he's the natural fit on offense that he is on defense," Pszonak said. "I've talked to people that think he can bulk up to linebacker, but I'd leave him at safety because he could be a freak back there. He could be one of those kids that finds a way to make every deep pass a jump ball and yet comes up and just lays guys out."

A linebacker from Princeton Junction, Fitzgerald amassed 125 tackles, including two sacks, two interceptions and six fumble recoveries as a senior. At 6-3, 230 pounds, he has the size to wreak havoc all over the field during his career in the winged helmet.

"I think he'd make the perfect middle linebacker," Pszonak said. "He is a really smart player, someone the coaches can trust to make all the defensive calls. I was also really impressed when he played tight end, which shows his athletic ability. He moves really well, has the range to be a sideline to sideline player but is physical enough to plug the hole by pushing a fullback aside to make a tackle on the tailback."

Fitzgerald's West Windsor Plainsboro team didn't face stiff competition every week, but when the going got tough, he and his teammates rose to the occasion, advancing to the state finals.

"He carried that team defensively," Pszonak said. "He was a man amongst boys for most of the year. He is so physically impressive when you see him that when you looked at him you thought they could have lined him up on a Division I field the next Saturday and you'd have no idea he didn't belong there yet. He's a real stud."

Witherspoon, a linebacker from Atlantic City, also helped his team qualify for the state finals. He led the defense with 125 solo tackles, including 27 sacks. Pszonak hadn't seen the four-star Holy Spirit High School standout in person until the championship game, and walked away believing Witherspoon's hype.

Matched up against Somerville Immaculata offensive linemen Mark Brazinski (6-2, 280) and Cody Bohler (6-7, 280) - a pair from the Class of 2009 already holding scholarship offers - Witherspoon continued to make plays.

"He was lining up against legit offensive linemen and he was always in the backfield," Pszonak said. "He lined up at defensive end and you never really saw him at linebacker so I can't really comment on the type of linebacker he could be. He did have outstanding natural ability, though - really attacks the ball."

At 6-2, 225 pounds, Witherspoon could get bigger … big enough perhaps to fill a need at defensive end for the Wolverines in future years.

"He's one of those kids that looks bigger than what he is listed at," Pszonak said. "He looks taller and bigger, and a lot of people I've spoken to think he'll be an end. He honestly would be perfect in a 3-4 defense. I'll be really interested to see how Rich Rodriguez uses him because I know Michigan will likely use a few different fronts now and he could really excel as a guy coming off the edge."

Much of Michigan's success in New Jersey this year is owed to former linebackers coach Steve Szabo, who recruited the Garden State and won over Fitzgerald, Witherspoon and Smith. With Szabo moving on, the Wolverines might not have as much success there next year or in the future, but this year's haul will be worth remembering.

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