It was a big year for Missouri’s football program in the state of Georgia.
Missouri upset UGA on the road during the regular season, returned to Georgia to play for the SEC Championship, and held off some serious competition to sign two of the state’s top football prospects last month.
Missouri’s momentum in these parts kicked off with a 41-26 road win over UGA last October. It was a signature win for the new SEC program in football, and it may have been just as important for recruiting purposes, considering Missouri’s intense efforts to mine future talent from the state.
“I think this year we earned our respect back a little bit,” Missouri’s Gary Pinkel told the AJC, when asked about the recruiting significance of the UGA win.
“The year before, we had all those injuries. And we should’ve overcome them. And if I had done a better job coaching, we probably would’ve. But I think people want to see you be successful. They want to see you play the best teams and be competitive with them. I think the success we had this past season was very positive for our football program.
“The success we’ve had in the SEC, the success we’ve had in graduating players at a high rate, and the success we’ve had putting players in the NFL have been a huge selling points for us. Atlanta is a great city for high school football, and it’s important for us to get in there and give kids the opportunity to come to Mizzou.”
Missouri got three early 2014 commitments from Georgia, and the Tigers were able to hold on and sign all three of them in February, despite some fierce late competition.
Missouri was one the first big schools to show serious interest in North Gwinnett High School’s Nate Brown, who was hindered most of his junior year with a leg injury. Brown committed to Missouri near the start of his senior year, and ended up having arguably the best season for a wide receiver in the state’s largest high school classification in more than 20 years.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Brown got late offers from UGA and South Carolina but decided not to visit either. How was Missouri ahead of others with evaluating Brown?
“I’m not going to try to compare us with everybody else,” Pinkel said. “We have an evaluation system we use, and we’ve used it since day one. We never look at stars. We have a system that we plug in. In fact, I don’t want our coaches to look at stars. I don’t want stars to influence them either way positively or negatively with their evaluation.
“We have a system in place, and we felt that Nate was a very high-level player. With the great senior season he had, as he continued to go, other people started recruiting him. Certainly he is a player who we think is a high-level player. He is a guy we think has great potential.
“It’s interesting that if you look at our recruiting in the last 7-8 years, we probably average around the No. 30 class in the country. And in the last seven years, we’re the eighth-winningest BCS program in the country. So the numbers kind of don’t fit. But that’s what our evaluation system is all about.”
And one of the state’s most interesting recruiting story lines this year was Tavon Ross, the safety from Bleckley County High School. What’s really amazing (and stunning) about this one is that Missouri offered Ross last summer without him ever participating in camp or visiting the campus. The Tigers took a big gamble on a little-known recruit based on their evaluation system. In fact, Missouri was the only offer that Ross had from a BCS-level school at the time — and he took it.
Fast forward to December: After a stellar senior year, Ross earned late offers from Alabama, UGA, Auburn and Miami, among others. He took official visits to UGA and Miami, but decided on signing day to stick with Missouri, perhaps out of loyalty to their early belief in his ability.
“Again, we have a system in place that we use. It’s our staff evaluation, it’s a high school evaluation, it’s evaluating athleticism and trying to get accurate information on strength, speed and quickness, along with family background,” Pinkel said.
“We do things we call ‘Tough questions.’ Is he trying to be a great player? Does he have great toughness? How much room does he have to improve? Is he a great leader? With all of these things, we’re really thorough with all of this stuff. I’d like to tell you that there’s something magical we do. There’s just a system we do. We do our thing.
“We don’t really care who else is recruiting a kid as long as we have done our evaluations. Honestly, a lot of people will look at certain programs that are recruiting a guy, and they respect (those programs), so they’ll start recruiting the guy, too. They won’t even hardly evaluate them on their own because they respect what other people are doing. We don’t do any of that. We use our evaluation system and don’t have any outside influences that can detour us from making a good decision.
“We don’t really care who is recruiting them. We just do what we do. The thing we found out is that what is going to happen is that a lot of people are going to respect us and the things that we do. If they find out that we offered a player, other people will start looking a little quicker. And I think you will see that happen more (in the future).”
What was going through the Missouri coach’s mind when other SEC powerhouses much closer to home made a late charges for his two longtime commits?
“That’s the way recruiting is now,” Pinkel said. “Every program generally loses a guy or two every year. But the bottom line is that recruiting is about relationships and it’s about trust.
“And in two out of the last seven years, we’ve been in position to (earn a berth in the national championship game). In 2007, if we win the second half against Oklahoma, we go to the national championship game. This year, we win the fourth quarter against Auburn, and we go to the national championship game.
“So we’ve been in the hunt twice. We’ve been a quarter away from playing in those games. We have a lot to sell. There’s a lot of positive things about Missouri football.”
Tavon Ross was a scarier situation than Nate Brown because he took official visits to other schools. What is Missouri’s policy of commitments visiting other schools?
“Our philosophy is this pretty much: If a recruit visits another school, we’re not going to cross him off our committed list,” Pinkel said. “But we’re start actively looking around for somebody else in case he goes somewhere else. We don’t really want our kids to visit other schools, and most of our kids don’t.
“But occasionally, there’s a player with a lot of pressure from the community to visit other places. Tavon took a couple of visits, and he told us he was doing it. It was nothing undercover. And I think those other visits really reinforced that he wanted to come to Mizzou.
“It worked out in a positive way, yet we tell recruits we’re going to activate some other people because if jump to another school we’ve got to be ready to bring in somebody else at that position.”
Some more with the Q&A with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel:
What kind of feedback have you gotten from recruits about Michael Sam, the former Missouri football star who will likely be the first openly gay player in the NFL? “It has just been very positive from everybody. And so that’s something that’s historical, and Michael is a great kid. And, you know, at Missouri, we treat people with respect. That’s what we do around here. That’s something that went really well for us.”
You recently signed a seven-year contact extension through 2020. Your thoughts on that deal? “I’m really pleased. It’s a seven-year contract. I’ve been here. I’m very committed to being here. I’ve had other opportunities over the years. But I’m going to stay at Missouri. I’ve been pretty upfront about that. I’m excited to continue to build our program.”
How big of a deal is that contract in recruiting? There’s so much instability in coaching, yet Missouri made a seven-year commitment to you. “I think it’s big. I think it’s important to see the continuity. We’ve probably had as much continuity here as much as anybody in the country and certainly within the SEC in terms of staff and personnel. I’ve only lost four coaches in the last 13 years. That’s obviously very, very unusual. All have had opportunities to leave. So the continuity of winning, graduating players at a high level, and this whole program and our system I think is a real big selling point for us. It has been important for us in our success.”
What is your plan for an early signing period? “I’ve got a couple of ideas that I like. My first one is this: A lot of players commit by Dec. 1 of every year. The one I like the best is for that guy who knows he always wanted to go to that school. He didn’t want to visit anywhere else. ‘This is where I want to go to school. This is what I want to be.’ On Dec. 1, he can’t take an official visits. If he takes any official visits, he can’t sign early. But Dec. 1 for a guy who has always known he wanted to sign with a certain school. Let those guys sign on Dec. 1. Then they can officially visit the place they signed with so they can still get the experience of an official visit. Almost all those guys have been on campuses at other places. What that will do is really clean up a lot of stuff with all those commitments. We’ll find out how many guys are committed or not, and that’s OK. We’ll find out in December, rather than in the middle of January. That’s my No. 1 choice, and my No. 2 is that you have a signing period right before Christmas around the junior college date. You keep all the rules the same. You’re going to activate more official visits during the football season, which puts a lot of pressure on high schools and universities. But we’ve got to do something. Some of these commitments last from March (of their junior year of high school) to when a player signs. What we don’t want to do is start changing our recruiting calendar. We don’t want to start taking official visits during the summer. Coaches have about a five-week period of time in the middle of the summer where they can get away. All of us do. We’ve got to protect that a little bit because all coaches want to do that. But we don’t want to have a lot official visits. Because all of sudden you change the signing date, and then it also changes when kids can visit. Then it’s a quality of life (issue) for all of us coaches, and we’re gone tons of time. In determining an early signing date, it’s important that it’s really analyzed. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing it for all the right reasons.”
How much of a recruiting priority is the state of Georgia for Missouri? “I think it’s really big. You’re in SEC country. We kind of compare it to Dallas, Texas. They have great football there, and they have great high school football in the Atlanta area. They are very similar type cities in terms of great football, population base, and number of athletes. We do analysis and research on athletes that come out of every city in the country. So we’re still in Dallas a little bit, and Dallas has always been good to us. But we’re certainly getting into Atlanta, and we always felt that was going to be very important to us. We’ve worked real hard there, along with Florida and parts of Tennessee. We’ve made a big effort in Atlanta, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
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