COLUMBIA, Mo. • An assistant football coach from a Big Ten school recently sat down in the coaches’ office at North Gwinnett High School just outside Atlanta, an area always fertile with football recruits.
“The guy said, ‘Boy, they seem to be all over the place down here. They’re really hitting it hard,’” North Gwinnett coach Bob Sphire said.
By "they" he was referring to Gary Pinkel and his Missouri coaches, a staff that’s made the state of Georgia a priority since announcing plans to join the Southeastern Conference in 2011. And not just Georgia. Before the Tigers ever played a down of football in the SEC, Pinkel’s staff shifted its recruiting radar to the south, handing out close to 100 scholarship offers for the 2014 recruiting class to players from the traditional SEC states.
The process started with last year’s class, but the results came in short supply. This year, with national signing day coming up Feb. 5, Mizzou is expected to bring in a bushel of Southern imports. Heading into the weekend, Missouri had received oral commitments from 12 players from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Two are already on campus after enrolling at the semester break: quarterback Marvin Zanders (Jacksonville, Fla.) and junior college defensive back Kenya Dennis (Raymond, Miss.).
The headliner from Mizzou’s newfound Southern strategy is Sphire’s top player at North Gwinnett, Nate Brown, a four-star wide receiver who committed to MU in September and has since rebuffed interest from two SEC Eastern Division powers. Fellow Georgian Tavon Ross, a safety from Cochrane, Ga., committed to Missouri in August and has since picked up offers from Alabama, Georgia and Miami, where he visited this weekend. Pinkel’s staff is finding itself trying to secure other previous commitments from its new recruiting territory, most notably defensive end Rocel McWilliams, from Pensacola, Fla., who committed in April without much fanfare but has since picked up interest from Florida.
Whether or not Missouri loses some of its commitments in the final weeks before signing day, the staff has managed to burrow its way into a rich market. As Mizzou coaches crisscross the South to meet with recruits during the final stages of recruiting season, they’ve added some substance to their sales pitch, a 12-2 season that included an SEC East title and a victory in the Cotton Bowl.
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The 2013 season earned Pinkel’s staff credibility it might have lacked a year ago, said J.C. Shurburtt, the national recruiting director for the recruiting network 247Sports.
“Last year, a coach from another school could say, ‘Do you want to go to Missouri and get your teeth kicked in or do you want to come here, play in some bowl games and go to the NFL?’” he said. “Well, that argument is taken off the table because they won the Cotton Bowl, beat Texas A&M, only lost two games all year. Now it’s, ‘Do you want to come to Missouri and get us back to the (Georgia) Dome?’ That’s a much stronger selling point than just selling the SEC.”
When North Gwinnett’s Brown committed to Mizzou, the Tigers had just started their second SEC season, coming off of 2012’s disappointing 5-7 finish. But a 12-2 campaign and the program’s ability to compete and thrive in the SEC helped secure Brown’s commitment once Georgia and South Carolina expressed interest late in the fall.
“Good lord, kids today live in the moment like no other,” Sphire said. “When you’ve got that kind of ammo, coming down in the SEC championship game in this area, that’s huge.
“If Missouri would have had another season like last year, I’m sure people here would be hammering Nate, ‘Why are you going there?’ But no one’s saying that now.”
Sphire credited Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch with quickly building relationships around the state of Georgia and getting an early read on some 2014 targets in the area, including Ross and safety Thomas Wilson of Buford, Ga., MU’s other commitment from the state. Mizzou’s success on the field only boosted the program’s reputation in a state that’s bombarded by recruiters from the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference every year.
“Winning solves most deals,” Sphire said. “Winning is its own form of communication, where a whole lot else doesn’t have to be said. What they did this year validated their sales pitch.”
In 2013, the Tigers landed just one player from Georgia, quarterback Eddie Printz from Marietta. After focusing mostly on the Atlanta area and surrounding suburbs, Grinch widened his net last year and began scouring the entire state for players.
Back in the fall, Grinch insisted Missouri isn’t just settling for marginal players in Georgia but targeting players who project as legitimate SEC starters.
“It’s about the quality of the guys we find down there,” he said. “If they’re not good enough to play in this conference, it’s not worth bringing them into our program.”
Recruits are apparently noticing the job Missouri has done evaluating local players and offering scholarships earlier than some of the more traditional programs. According to Rivals.com’s 2014 national database, Missouri has offered scholarship to 35 players in Georgia, 34 in Florida, eight in Mississippi and Tennessee and six in Louisiana.
Woody Wommack, Rivals.com’s recruiting analyst for the Southeast, said several 2015 recruits regularly mention their interest in Missouri, usually unprompted, he said.
“The good thing down here is the kids are fans of the game,” Wommack said. “They pay close attention. When Missouri has a season like they had, kids notice that. A lot of Missouri fans are hoping for a bigger impact this recruiting cycle, but next year is probably when they’re going to see the biggest impact in terms of players really knowing who Missouri is when they come in and say what they have to offer.”