If not for the microphone, even people who sat in the front row would have struggled to hear Charles Harris in the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex last December.
The soft-spoken defensive end was hunched over the mahogany lectern in the team meeting room while reading a prepared statement. He thanked his family, teammates and coaches. Then he announced his decision to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
“[I want to thank] the Mizzou football staff, especially [receivers] coach Andy Hill for taking a chance on me four years ago as a little Kansas City kid from a three-year high school,” Harris said.
Applause from Harris’ parents, family, teammates and coaches filled the room.
This early December scene might have seemed unrealistic and unfathomable for Harris four years prior, when he had only one Division I offer and no profile on any major recruiting websites. It’s the type of narrative those opposed to the star-ranking system, in which sports websites assign recruits a maximum of five stars based on perceived talent, love to tout when an unheralded talent defies expectations.
Data compiled by The Maneater of the star rankings of all 229 SEC East players — plus 57 players from the University of Alabama — drafted to the NFL in the past 10 years show Harris is more of an outlier than a standard, though. Despite what the opposition might say, star rankings are quite accurate in predicting long term success; 67 percent of prospects drafted in the first and second rounds received at least a four-star rating.
Missouri, however, has found a way to turn lower-star prospects into high-round draft picks.
Based on an average of star ratings assigned by Rivals and 247Sports, Missouri has turned the most three- and 3.5-star prospects into first- and second-round NFL draft picks of any SEC East school. Alabama, an SEC West school that won four of the past eight national championships, has produced the same amount of three- and 3.5-star prospects who have became first- and second-round picks as the Tigers. Georgia, one of the SEC’s other premier programs, has not produced any.
Two-star recruits who become high round draft picks are practically imaginary — Missouri has one of those, too: Sean Weatherspoon, whom Atlanta drafted in the first round in 2010.
“Any time schools turn out high-round draft picks, it certainly is in part to recruiting,” said Charley Casserly, a Super-Bowl-winning NFL general manager. “The major factor is the development of the players by the coaching staff.”
Developing players was former head coach Gary Pinkel’s specialty. Pinkel, who led the Tigers from 2001-2015, became known across college football for his ability to develop talent.
“He had a real knack for it, whether it was through the weight program or whether it was through tremendous coaching,” said ESPN’s Jeremy Crabtree, who has covered recruiting for 20 years.
Others in coaching circles also took notice. DeMontie Cross, who joined coach Barry Odom’s staff at Missouri in 2016 as defensive coordinator, spent time coaching at Iowa State, Kansas, Wisconsin and TCU during the Pinkel era. He said Missouri players gained a nationwide reputation for relentlessness.
“Coach Pinkel had sustained a good formula for really coaching guys and being consistent of what they asked the guys to do over time,” Cross said.
Pinkel not only found success in developing players, but he also showed a strong ability to find talent others failed to discover.
Thanks to the limited exposure in the early 2000s before YouTube or Hudl made their debuts, many more prospects went unnoticed. Pinkel capitalized.
“Missouri had so much success with guys in podunk towns in East Texas,” Crabtree said.
See former Missouri receiver Danario Alexander, a two-star prospect from Marlin, Texas, who would wind up playing for the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers. Missouri was the only out-of-state school to offer him a scholarship.
Crabtree said Pinkel’s high involvement in the process led to his recruiting success.
“He knew what he was getting,” Crabtree said. “He knew the type of guys they were going after.”
Once Pinkel began to bring in talent from small towns no one heard of, his recruiting pitch became easier. He could simply point to players like Alexander who went through the Tigers’ system. That’s the pitch former Missouri receiver T.J. Moe said he received when Pinkel recruited him.
“[Recruits know about the development] because it was preached to us as far as a recruiting tactic once they see that type of thing happening,” Moe said.
Crabtree said recruits today are aware of Missouri’s ability to develop talent. That pitch is starting to lose its effect, though, because the success on the college football field has not been what it typically was under Pinkel, with two consecutive losing seasons in 2015 and 2016.
“It is also, ‘What have you done for me lately?’” Crabtree said.
Lately, Missouri has struggled on the field. In Odom’s first season as head coach, he put together an uninspiring 4-8 effort, good for last place in the SEC East in 2016.
Odom will need to improve that number if he hopes to bring talent to Columbia. Developing unknown players, such as Harris, won’t be enough to convince top high school players to join the Tigers.
“Yeah, all of these guys have dreamed about playing in the NFL, but they want to win more first and foremost,” Crabtree said. “That is something I think Missouri is going to have to battle here.”
Edited by Eli Lederman | firstname.lastname@example.org