ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When projections began to roll in for the Class of 2024, it seemed likely that Jerod Smith, Jacob Smith and Brian Robinson would end up playing together in college.
It turns out they will. Just not at Michigan.
Robinson, a four-star edge rusher and top-100 prospect from Westerville, Ohio, announced his commitment to Kentucky on Wednesday. That came less than three weeks after the Smith brothers, four-star pass-rushers from Corbin, Ky., switched their commitments from Michigan to UK.
With the early signing period less than three months away, the picture has changed for Michigan since the Wolverines climbed to No. 1 in the rankings in the spring. Michigan’s class sits at No. 13, and the crop of incoming edge rushers isn’t as deep as it once appeared. In Michigan’s off-and-on recruiting rivalry with Kentucky, it’s the Wildcats who have the hot hand.
“We’re one or two years away from being seriously considered in the SEC every year,” said Jerod Smith, the No. 218 player in the 247Sports Composite. “That’s the direction I feel like Kentucky’s going.”
Big Blue Nation lets go pic.twitter.com/P0F9E5lw9D
— Jacob Smith (@jjls_14) September 16, 2023
Led by a deep and talented defensive line, Michigan’s defense has been dominant this season. The Wolverines lead the FBS in scoring defense at six points per game, and the first-string defense has allowed just 13 points — a touchdown by Rutgers and two field goals by Bowling Green — in five games.
Despite their success on the field, the Wolverines have had trouble holding on to pass rushers in the Class of 2024. Michigan has commitments from three players classified as edge rushers: four-stars Devon Baxter and Owen Wafle and three-stars Dominic Nichols. Elias Rudolph, a four-star edge from Cincinnati, flipped his commitment from Michigan to Miami in August, and Robinson had been trending toward Kentucky for several months after his connection with Michigan appeared to fade.
Landing the Smith brothers was a coup for Kentucky and a loss for Michigan. Jerod had been committed to Michigan since April, and Jacob, the No. 231 player nationally in the 247Sports Composite, announced his commitment in July. Once his brother committed, Jacob said he felt a pull to pick Michigan, even if his heart wasn’t in it completely.
“I wanted to go to Michigan so I could play football with my brother,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t my No. 1 choice.”
The Smith brothers are originally from Kentucky and recently moved back to their home state after attending a prep school in Connecticut. The decision to play their senior seasons at Corbin High School fueled speculation that a flip to Kentucky was imminent. Jacob initially shot down those rumors, but Jerod said a change of heart had been brewing.
The twins didn’t publicly decommit, but Jerod said he reached out privately to a few schools to gauge his options. He said Kentucky’s 3-4 defense was a better fit for his skills than Michigan’s scheme, and he’d started to question whether his role at Michigan would be the one he envisioned during the recruiting process.
“I was told a few things, and I watched film on the school, and I feel like I wouldn’t be doing that there,” he said. “A few things they told me were going to happen with how many people they were going to take ended up being something totally different. Opportunity-wise, I didn’t feel like I was going to have the best opportunity there to make it to the next level as I would in a different conference.”
Both brothers acknowledged the opportunity to play early factor into their decisions. It’s not unprecedented for freshmen to play at Michigan — defensive tackles Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant did it last year — but the deep roster and heavy rotation make it challenging for young players to have major roles.
Michigan’s coaches have stated their desire to rotate as many players as possible up front, and they’ve stuck to it this season. Edge rushers Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart are averaging between 17 and 26 snaps per game, per TruMedia, with Harrell playing the most, Stewart playing the fewest and McGregor and Moore each averaging 22.
That kind of system isn’t for everyone, Moore said. Michigan’s rotation works because the Wolverines have buy-in from the entire group, especially the upperclassmen who sacrifice snaps to keep the defense fresh.
“A lot of guys can get frustrated with that if they’re not getting a certain amount of snaps or they’re not playing as much as they want,” said Moore, a top-50 prospect from the Class of 2022. “Especially with Braiden and Jaylen, they’re seniors. For (seniors), they probably think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be out there every play.’ But we don’t even think like that.”
The Smith brothers felt they could play anywhere, but they saw Kentucky as the program that offered the clearest path to the NFL.
“I feel like I would have developed just as good (at Michigan), but I don’t really want to sit for a year or two and develop,” Jerod said. “Most players now want to go to a college where they’re going to be given as fair a shot as that junior that’s been there a couple years. I just want to go to a school that’s going to give you that shot and value you for who you are.”
Michigan and Kentucky compete in different leagues, come from different parts of the country and occupy different tiers in the college football hierarchy. Even so, Kentucky frequently goes toe-to-toe with Michigan for players in Ohio and the Midwest and wins its share of recruiting battles against the Wolverines.
In the latest round, Michigan’s loss was Kentucky’s gain.
“I solely believe I can be the best version of myself just about anywhere,” Jerod said. “Kentucky just had that slight advantage on other schools.”
(Photo of Jerod Smith, left, and Jacob Smith, right, courtesy of Jerod Smith)