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July 30, 2013In 2007, at the height of its power under Pete Carroll, Southern Cal was a force on the recruiting trail. The Trojans had landed the nation's top class in 2004, 2005 and 2006 (and was No. 2 in 2007) so there was little expectation that five-star Donovan Warren would wear the winged helmet.
No. 11 - Donovan Warren - 2007
In those days, USC was unstoppable. The Trojans signed two five-stars in 2003, then eight, four, five and six in 2007 - a haul of 25 over a five-year period that not even Alabama has matched (18, 2009-13).
Warren visited Michigan officially in October, for the Wolverines' in-state battle with Michigan State (a bout they won 31-13 en route to a 6-0 record) and had extremely positive remarks to say then.
"I loved it," Warren said. "I really like Michigan. They're definitely going to go down to the end of my decision.
"They always had a chance, but now it's an even better chance seeing the atmosphere, the players, the coaches, the facilities and stuff like that. I'm liking it and feel I could fit in right away."
Still, Warren had just begun the visitation process, and he would see three more programs - all closer to his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. - when he tripped to California Nov. 3, USC Dec. 15 and UCLA Jan. 12.
Though the Bruins were hopeful Warren would become only their second five-star signee since 2003, Southern Cal was the presumed favorite.
"Following his official visit to USC, Warren told us he had given a silent commitment to the Trojan staff on the trip," Rivals.com's Greg Biggins wrote on Signing Day in 2007. "Two weeks ago, we talked with Warren, and again, he said nothing had changed and he was still set to announce for USC."
Michigan had secured Signing Day commitments before, including LaMarr Woodley and Shawn Crable in 2003, James McKinney in 2005 and Jonas Mouton in 2006 - all four keeping Maize and Blue fans on the edge of their seat until the final moment - but this was different because U-M wasn't supposed to have a chance.
So what happened? Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr and defensive coordinator Ron English made a trip to California a week before Signing Day, for an in-home visit, and suddenly the 6-0, 175-pounder was questioning his desire to wear the cardinal and gold.
"That visit really opened my eyes," Warren told Biggins, explaining why he chose the Wolverines. "Up until then, I was still a Trojan but after talking to the coaches, I really started to have second thoughts.
"It wasn't anything against USC, I love that school, but I just felt like Michigan was the best fit for me. They need corners and I'll have a chance to step in and compete right away for playing time.
"At Michigan, they have great success getting corners into the NFL and no one has produced more NFL defensive backs than Coach English.
"Coach English was huge in all of this, he was the most honest and straight-up coach with me. I really love that guy and can't wait to play for him.
"I started leaning towards Michigan after that visit and then after thinking about it all this week, I just became more and more comfortable with the idea of leaving home and playing for Michigan. I love their tradition; they're a big time BCS school and I expect to do great things when I get there."
Warren's decision, coupled with the five-star pledge of quarterback Ryan Mallett (and five more four-star signees), boosted Michigan to 12th in the team recruiting rankings, excited a fan base and brought new enthusiasm to the waning tenure of Carr's career.
In 2007, Warren became the first true freshman cornerback since Marlin Jackson (seven starts in 2001) to start at least half of U-M's games - Warren would start 11 -- while he is one of only two rookie corners to start double-digit contests (Charles Woodson, 12, 1995).
His five pass breakups were the most by a freshman cornerback in school history (current redshirt sophomore Blake Countess surpassed the tally with six in 2011), and his performance garnered him Sporting News Freshman All-America honors as well as the magazine's Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year.
To say it was all downhill from there is being a tad unfair, but certainly Warren didn't come close to fulfilling the enormous promise he showed in 2007. A bad ankle, that required surgery, slowed him as a sophomore, while he clashed with Rich Rodriguez and defensive backs coach Tony Gibson.
In 2009, he vowed to have his best season (and little did we know, was motivated to do so by his desire to leave after his junior year), and in some ways, he did just that, setting career highs in tackles (66), pass breakups (seven) and interceptions (four). His 40-yard interception touchdown return against Iowa was the first by a Wolverine since Grant Mason did so (also against Iowa) in Sept. 2005.
On the surface, one would look at Warren's career numbers - 170 stops, 17 pass breakups and six interceptions (his 23 passes defended ranking him 11th all time at U-M) and give him a solid grade, but for Warren, the standard was a lofty one that he set himself: to be considered one of Michigan's greats, and he certainly didn't belong in that pantheon.
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