In just his second full recruiting class, and third overall, Rich Rodriguez was already losing momentum. A year after finishing eighth in the team rankings, Michigan was 20th in 2010, boasting an average star rating of 3.19. Safety Ray Vinopal epitomized what the Maize and Blue had become.
No. 17 - Ray Vinopal - 2010
The Wolverines had already landed 20 recruits, including defensive backs Courtney Avery, Terrence Talbott, Carvin Johnson and Cullen Christian when Vinopal's name surfaced as a possibility in mid Nov. 2009.
In 2008, the Maize and Blue had ranked 79th nationally in pass efficiency defense, and in 2009, they sat 70th. Mike Williams had proven he wasn't the answer at free safety and Michigan was desperate for an upgrade.
Boasting an offer sheet that included only Kent State and Bowling Green, Vinopal wasn't a Big Ten-caliber recruit, standing in at 5-10, 178 pounds, but then, during that era of Michigan football, competing with the likes of Mid-American Conference programs became the norm on the recruiting trail.
In a matter of two weeks, Vinopal went from an unknown from Youngstown, Ohio, to a Michigan offer, to a Michigan commitment. When he made his announcement for the Wolverines public Dec. 4, it was met with considerable uproar from subscribers on The Fort - Vinopal was a two-star recruit, the fourth such signed by Michigan in Rodriguez's brief tenure (third non-kicker).
In the Ohio Division III State Title Game that fall, Vinopal starred, scoring on a 56-yard touchdown run while notching six tackles in a 35-7 victory for Mooney High School. The performance impressed area scouts, who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"I thought he played extremely well on both sides of the ball," OhioVarsity.com writer Mike Parris said. "He was the second-best player on the field, behind his teammate, Braylon Heard [a four-star running back committed to West Virginia].
"The thing that really impressed me was after he shook a few tackles on his touchdown run, he got into the open field and just turned on the jets, separating himself from DeSales' defensive backs. I think there were a lot of critics saying he wasn't fast enough to be a Michigan recruit, but he quieted any such talk right there."
Still, Parris admitted, Vinopal had a long road ahead of him.
"Ray's a kid that when you look at him, he's always going to be underestimated because he's not as athletic as most of the Division I safeties probably are. But Cardinal Mooney guys are pretty darn successful. If you look at a guy like Kyle McCarthy at Notre Dame, he's probably not as big, as fast or as athletic as any other defensive back there [at ND] but he led them in tackles each of the past two seasons."
"Ray Vinopal could be similarly productive."
Vinopal was really just at the wrong place at the wrong time. During Lloyd Carr's career, Michigan signed two-star recruits - Brandent Englemon (2003), Marques Walton (2004), Andre Criswell (2005), Bryan Wright (2006) and Marell Evans (2007) - though only Englemon would have success at U-M, but to Maize and Blue fans languishing over the fall of their program, Vinopal came to represent all that was wrong with Michigan's recruiting under Rodriguez.
Three years later, he is the poster child for a 2010 class that experienced unparalleled attrition, seeing 17 of 27 signees (63.0 percent) leave U-M before completing their eligibility, including Vinopal.
Michigan's pass defense was even worse in 2010 than in the previous two seasons, ranking 103rd in pass efficiency, allowing 261.9 yards per game while opposing quarterbacks completed 63.8 percent of their 409 attempts on the year.
Midway through the season, the coaches thought they identified part of the problem, moving redshirt freshman Cam Gordon from free safety to linebacker, acknowledging he was better near the line of scrimmage and poor in pass coverage. The man who took Gordon's place? Vinopal. A true freshman.
The 5-10, 197-pounder started U-M's final six games but didn't make much of a dent, as opponents completed 65.4 percent of their passes for an average of 221.7 yards per contest. Vinopal would record 33 tackles in those six games, and added three pass breakups, but he wasn't the answer either.
In the offseason, Vinopal asked for his release, claiming he was homesick and transferring to Pittsburgh, which was 160 miles closer to Youngstown than Ann Arbor was (2.5 hours by car).
After sitting out a year due to NCAA rules, Vinopal appeared in all 13 games in 2012, recording 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. He is expected to compete for a starting job this fall after emerging out of the spring No. 1 on the depth chart at safety.
Ironically, Vinopal shared a defensive backfield in 2010 with Jordan Kovacs, who was similarly built (6-0, 202 for Kovacs), and was knocked for his perceived lack of elite athleticism, speed, and strength. Yet, Kovacs defied the odds and would finish his career a four-year starter and the top-tackling defensive back (334 stops) in school history.
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