COLUMBIA, Mo. — Eliah Drinkwitz hardly is the first Missouri football coach ambitious enough to think he can seal the border around the state when it comes to recruiting its best players. His predecessors said some version of the same goal when they took over the program.
Drinkwitz, on the job just two months, is leaving nothing to chance. All 10 of his assistant coaches will have recruiting assignments within the state, including four in the St. Louis region.
“The state has to be our strength in recruiting,” he said Wednesday after finalizing his debut recruiting class. “It has to be. We have to close the borders. We have to emphasize our state, do a great job of evaluating and make it a strength. That’s the point of emphasis that I made our staff. We are going to see the high schools in this state. We’re going to see the players and we’re going to evaluate them. That doesn’t mean we’re going to take every player in the state. It means we’re going to take the kids that we believe can help us win the SEC East.”
The 2020 recruiting class produced 27 in-state players who signed with power five conference teams, while 11 of the St. Louis metro area’s top dozen players, as rated by 247Sports.com, signed with teams other than Mizzou.
Former MU coach Barry Odom signed eight in-state players in his first recruiting class, in 2016 — several of whom were committed before Gary Pinkel announced his retirement the prior November, then landed just four in the next two classes combined. Odom rebounded with six in-state additions in 2019, but some of the state’s top-rated 2020 prospects barely considered MU.
Drinkwitz has just the coach in mind to reverse that trend starting with the 2021 class. Running backs coach Curtis Luper will be Mizzou’s primary point man in St. Louis, while assistants Brick Haley, Bush Hamdan and D.J. Smith will help swarm the market.
Luper, who spent the last seven seasons at Texas Christian University, could form a college All-American team with the players he’s recruited over the years at Oklahoma State, Auburn and TCU. Luper’s best find on the recruiting trail came in 2009 when he visited Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. Then working at Auburn, Luper was there to see a wide receiver. A Blinn coach insisted he look at a quarterback, too. Auburn didn’t need a quarterback, Luper told him.
“I had already seen him on video, but you know, junior college video you couldn’t really tell if he was 6-6 or 6-3,” Luper recalled this week. “When he walked through the door I was like, ‘That’s him?’ You know the rest of that story.”
That next season, Cam Newton led Auburn to the national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. (The NCAA later investigated Newton’s recruitment and found that his father solicited payments from Mississippi State for Newton’s services but never found evidence of a pay-for-play scheme at Auburn.)
Luper’s recruiting track record also includes Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant and offensive tackle Russell Okung, both All-Americans; former Auburn All-American D-tackle Nick Fairley; and TCU defensive lineman Ross Blacklock and receiver Jalen Reagor, both projected high picks in the upcoming NFL draft.
“Three quarters of my recruiting manual comes from Curtis Luper,” Missouri tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Casey Woods said. “He was our recruiting coordinator at Auburn and did a fantastic job. I’ve learned as much from him as anybody in this business about recruiting and organization. He does a great job in front of people.”
For Luper, who served in the Army as an air traffic controller between playing stints at Oklahoma State and Stephen F. Austin, there’s no secret formula to successful recruiting.
“Just like anything else, it’s work. It’s hard work,” he said. “You can outwork the competition by getting to know what we call ‘the champion,’ the person helping the young man make the decision. . . . Then there’s a level of ‘believability’ that you must have. So, I think I have it.”
Back in December, Drinkwitz’s staff signed four of the St. Louis players who had committed to Mizzou before Odom was fired. The coaches have since spent every day allowed by the NCAA calendar visiting schools around the state with St. Louis an obvious priority.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement,” said Hamdan, the team’s quarterbacks and receivers coach. “It’s certainly on us to create more of that.”
With the 2020 class finalized, the staff has turned its focus to the state’s best underclassmen. MU has already landed a commitment from 2021 De Smet defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo. Last weekend, a large group of players from East St. Louis came to Columbia on unofficial visits, including 2021 quarterback Tyler Macon and wide receiver Dominic Lovett, who both left with scholarship offers.
Mizzou coaches added a special touch to their visit: As the East St. Louis players modeled Mizzou uniforms and helmets for a photo shoot, MU gave them a black No. 6 jersey to hold. That’s the number of former teammate Jaylon McKenzie, who was fatally shot last May. The gesture was captured in a photo that quickly circulated on social media.
McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, tweeted the photo tagged with her late son’s Twitter account and the message: Where ever they go, you go with them #LegendsNeverDie
Whether that small act leads any of the players back to Drinkwitz’s program, based on social media reaction it resonated with a community in East St. Louis that’s had a tenuous relationship with Mizzou over the years.
With Luper running point, Drinkwitz’s staff vows to swarm the state like never before, burning up I-70 and every other road that crisscrosses the state and back to campus.
“If we get them on campus, we got a shot,” Woods said. “We’ve got a whole state full of little boys who grow up Missouri fans, and we got a bunch of them on our team right now. We plan on having a bunch more in the future.”