In its infancy, Rivals.com sought to generate excitement in recruiting. The 2003 recruiting class provided the first big boost, as speculation created a level of unparalleled enthusiasm for a Signing Day announcement by five-star LaMarr Woodley, fueling the recruiting craze.
No. 1 - LaMarr Woodley - 2003
To call Woodley any old recruit would be a lie. From the beginning, the 6-3, 245-pound linebacker out of Saginaw was a national recruit drawing attention from the best of the best of college football, including Southern Cal and Oklahoma (two of his four finalists along with Michigan and Michigan State).
Woodley was well-known throughout the state following a dominant junior season that would earn him a spot in the Rivals100 at No. 14. He was also a five-star, the No. 1 player in Michigan and the No. 3 linebacker nationally.
It was thought that Woodley favored the Spartans, a childhood team that he grew up with, and with Bobby Williams at the helm of the program, they would be hard to beat for the talented in-stater. But with running backs coach Fred Jackson on his trail, Michigan stood a chance the longer the process went on.
In the fall of 2002, in Woodley's senior year, four-star Saginaw teammate Jerome Jackson also became a hot commodity, and the two made it know they had an interest in playing together. USC wasn't involved in Jackson, though, so the two in-state programs emerged the leaders in the race.
"One day LaMarr is wearing maize and blue and singing the fight song, and the next day he and Jerome come in with Spartan hats on" Saginaw coach Donald Durrett said at the time. "It's going to come down to the wire for both of these guys."
In November, following a 49-3 drubbing at the hands of the Maize and Blue, MSU fired Williams, who had admitted in his post-game press conference he had lost his team, and Woodley was suddenly reeling.
"I just have a lot to think about," Woodley said. "I can't believe it."
In the aftermath, Woodley dropped Michigan State down his list, and almost off of it completely, as he narrowed his decision down to Michigan and Southern Cal, visiting U-M officially Dec. 6 and USC Nov. 29.
The Spartans would hire John L. Smith to replace Williams, and because he felt a sense of loyalty to the Green and White, Woodley visited Dec. 10. Was the visit a success? Reportedly, Smith slapped Woodley. Not in a harsh, confrontational manner but in the way southern folks do as a term of endearment. Of course, the 'slap' was discussed ad nauseam, with folks convinced it would cost MSU any chance of landing Woodley.
While Woodley was still entertaining MSU, USC and U-M up until the very end, Jackson had made up his mind, but he would wait to announce with his linebacker teammate on Signing Day. Thus, over the final four weeks of the 2003 recruiting cycle, recruitniks and pundits had a field day predicting which way the two would go, generating incredible buzz and interest in Rivals.com (and Scout.com).
For TheWolverine.com this was the type of recruitment that changed the game for us because it became obvious reporting the news wouldn't cut it - fans demanded the scoop and we turned over every rock to bring it to them.
If you followed our site back then, we began showing greater confidence Woodley would be a Wolverine over the final seven to 10 days, and flat-out announced he would pick Michigan on Signing Day. Like with Shawn Crable, we had been tipped off by the high school coach, given his trust and confidence to keep it a secret, but so that we would know how to dismiss rumors (and so that we could be in attendance at his ceremony).
"When you go to Michigan, you are guaranteed a bowl game every year," said Woodley. "I'm not trying to bash Michigan State, but they had a little downfall this year.
"In the past, whenever I went to a Michigan game when they were playing Michigan State and I never rooted for Michigan. Then coming up this year, I got to meet the coaches, I went around a little more and started meeting the players, and I just started liking them more and more every time I went down there."
Woodley moved from linebacker to defensive end as a rookie in 2003, starting twice among 13 appearances. He had four tackles for loss and two sacks, and showed the promise of what was to come.
In 2004, Woodley played outside linebacker in a 3-4, much to the chagrin of Michigan fans that wanted no part of that defensive scheme. He was effective, however, recording 16 tackles for loss and four sacks. Still, most felt he was being misused and could be a force off the edge if he was given the freedom to simply rush the passer.
The Maize and Blue still ran a 3-4 in 2005, though it looked a lot like a 4-3, with Woodley at rush linebacker (the role he largely plays with the Pittsburgh Steelers now) and he notched a career-high six sacks while battling injuries that kept him out of three games.
After three years, Woodley had 12 sacks and 32 tackles for loss, already ranking in the top 20 in both categories, yet it seemed like he was coming up short of his potential. That changed in 2006.
With a new coordinator at the helm (Ron English), a new mission (just get after the QB) and a new confidence (Woodley said in the preseason it was his goal to set the single-season sack record), the senior lived up to his billing, tying the Michigan sack record with 12 among 15 tackles for loss for a dominant front seven that helped hold opponents to a mere 43.4 yards rushing per game.
He was the leader of the best defense U-M featured since 1997, and would earn All-American first-team honors as well as becoming the first Wolverine in school history to win the Hendricks Award (nation's top defensive end).
One of the country's top high school recruits proved why he merited such lofty expectations, and would go down as one of the best defenders in school history, and to think, he was always supposed to be a Spartan.
We've reached the conclusion of our Top 20 recruiting storylines of the Rivals.com era (2002-present). You can find the entire list below if you missed one along the way.)
Top 20 Recruiting Countdown Stories