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Mizzou goes far and wide to fill 2017 recruiting class

FOOTBALL VANDERBILT-MIZZOU

Missouri's head football coach Barry Odom walks the sidelines during the second quarter against Vanderbilt at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri on November 12, 2016. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

COLUMBIA, MO. • When Missouri coach Barry Odom unveils his second recruiting class in a few weeks, the casual fan might have trouble distinguishing most of the prospects. A thin pool of in-state recruits pushed Odom’s staff beyond the state border to fill the 2017 class, a strategy Odom planned before the bulk of area prospects committed elsewhere.

Odom continues to assign assistant coaches to recruit regions of the country, but his staff also recruits for their specific position group. That’s led to a more national approach for this year’s class. Odom’s staff has crisscrossed the map from New Mexico to Michigan to New York to land commitments.

“That’s something we’re trying to build on and use,” Odom said last month. Defensive line coach “Brick Haley is one of the best in the country. For him to walk in and show (recruits) who he’s coached and what he’s done, that can help us out. It’s the same with coach (Josh) Heupel coaching the quarterback position. We’re more position specific going forward.”

Three of MU’s 21 commitments have already signed financial aid agreements and will enroll in classes for the winter semester, which starts Tuesday. The other 18 recruits, and any more Mizzou picks up the next three weeks, can begin signing national letters of intent Feb. 1.

The 21 high school and junior college players who have pledged verbal commitments to Mizzou attend schools in 15 different states. That’s more states represented than any other class across the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers have just one commitment from a player who attends high school in Missouri, wide receiver Da’Ron Davis from Lee’s Summit North. Jafar Armstrong, a receiver from the Kansas City area, lives in Missouri but attends high school in Kansas, at Bishop Miege in Shawnee Mission.

While next year’s in-state class is loaded with priority recruits, Missouri offered scholarships to only six 2017 players from Missouri high schools, plus a few more from just outside the state border in Kansas and Illinois. Four of the six in-state players with MU offers have pledged commitments elsewhere: St. Louis University High athlete Tony Adams (Illinois), Trinity offensive lineman Larry Boyd (Illinois), Pattonville offensive lineman Marquis Hayes (Oklahoma) and Columbia Battle receiver Jaevon McQuitty (Nebraska). Park Hill defensive lineman Chester Graves is uncommitted and expected to attend a junior college.

“I know some fans and some rival fans have knocked the Tigers for not having success locally, but when you take a step back and look, there might have been three or four (in-state) guys they would like to have, but it’s just not one of those years that’s going to be a make-or-break year with local players,” said Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN.com senior recruiting writer. “Are those guys the war daddies, the must-get guys that we traditionally see Missouri get? No. They’re good players but not at that level.”

In other words, there’s not a Sheldon Richardson or Blaine Gabbert or Dorial Green-Beckham in the state this year, a five-star phenom who can name his school of choice. Just beyond the Missouri-Illinois border, East St. Louis receiver Jeff Thomas might fit that description, but Thomas eliminated Missouri from consideration in recent weeks.

If anything, Missouri’s string of local misses forced the Tigers to look farther for players in places where they couldn’t use one of their most valuable sales pitches: proximity.

“It’s important to geographically hold your own or better,” said recruiting analyst Danny Heitert, who publishes his in-state rankings every year in the STC Grid Report. “That is because it’s just logical that your best chances with good players are the ones close by, whose parents and guardians still want to physically see these players play.”

“Now,” he added, “at the end of the day, what counts is good players from wherever.”

Missouri hopes that’s the epitaph for the 2017 class. The Tigers collected multiple verbal high school commitments from Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan and a class-high four from Texas, plus one each from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“They’ve done a good job in Texas, and you sprinkle that in with the success they’ve had in the Southeast states, it’s a solid approach,” Crabtree said. “I’m excited to see what happens moving forward in the next couple classes.”

Of all the local targets on Mizzou’s radar, Thomas was the player Heitert believes could have sent a jolt through Odom’s class.

“The reason he’s so valuable to Missouri — and someone else can do this job — but he would be a final piece of an offensive puzzle that will be hard for people to solve,” Heitert said. “If you have Dimetrios Mason on one side, J’Mon Moore on the other and Johnathon Johnson (in the slot), you add somebody like Jeff Thomas and you have a tailback (Damarea Crockett) who can threaten you and force you to tackle perfectly, you’re on your way to be being big trouble in either division in that conference. Because he’d represent a really valuable piece right from the get-go. His value to me is super high.”

Instead, the Tigers expect to land three receiver commitments: Elijah Gardiner from Kemp, Texas, and the two Kansas City pledges, Armstrong and Davis. They won’t deliver the same star power as Thomas — Illinois, Louisville, Miami and Tennessee appear to be his top choices for now — but both Kansas City targets could figure into the offense sooner than later. Davis also could project as a defensive back or, Crabtree said, maybe running back.

On Davis, Heitert said, “Very similar to (former MU receiver) Jimmie Hunt at the same stage. Strong, physical, athletic and fast enough that it’s not a problem.”

“You’re going to have a hard time finding someone that’s a bigger Jafar Armstrong fan than me,” Crabtree added. “He’s legitimately blossomed. He demands the ball.”

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