So much of Gary Pinkel's reputation stems from his staff's illustrious evaluation process. There's a reason for that. For the last decade, Missouri has topped just about every overachievers list when comparing recruiting rankings to output. They look for great athletes who might not yet know the game of football, and they turn them into stars.
This current team has plenty of Evaluation All-Stars on it, and you know the names by heart. No-star Charles Harris, who just had to assure everybody that he's probably not turning pro at the end of his redshirt sophomore season. Two-star Walter Brady, who is keeping pace with Aldon Smith. Kentrell Brothers, who couldn't score an offer from Oklahoma State right down the road. Two-star Harold Brantley, who was becoming Mizzou's next great #DLineZou star until a summer car wreck. Et cetera.
Missouri has one of the best defenses in the country once again, despite perilous youth and almost no blue-chippers. It is an incredible feat, especially considering how young the unit is and how much it brings back next year.
That's only one side of the ball, however. And on the other side, we're beginning to see the effect that a single bad class can have on Missouri's developmental process.
When you don't sign many blue-chippers, you don't get many instant-impact guys and end up relying heavily on fourth- and fifth-year guys to hold the fort. That tends to work out pretty well for Missouri. But the 2012 recruiting class, which is supposed to account for the fourth-year guys, has withered away. To be sure, the class has still produced some key contributors, but quite a few have either left town or probably will soon.
- Evan Boehm (OL): four-year starter, Missouri's best offensive lineman.
Torey Boozer (LB): kicked off the team
- Harold Brantley (DL): 2014 star, redshirting due to injury in 2015
Levi Copelin (WR): kicked off the team
- Sean Culkin (TE): second-year starting tight end
- John Gibson (DB): backup cornerback, likely starter in 2016
- Markus Golden (DL): outright star, drafted last year
Dorial Green-Beckham (WR): 2013 star, kicked off the team, drafted last year
- Russell Hansbrough (RB): two-year starting running back
- Rickey Hatley (DL): starter, strong rotation member
Brandon Holifield (TE): kicked off the team Maty Mauk (QB): suspended twice, probably kicked off the team soon
- Donavin Newsom (LB): starting linebacker, burgeoning star
- Mike Scherer (LB): two-year starting linebacker, almost surefire captain in 2016
- Morgan Steward (RB): career sidetracked by injuries
Ka'Ra Stewart (DB): kicked off the team Jordan Williams (OL): transferred after barely seeing the field Chaston Ward (DB): transferred after barely seeing the field Evan Winston (DL): transferred after barely seeing the field
This 19-man class produced 10 starters, which is lovely. And Boehm, Brantley, Golden, Green-Beckham, Hansbrough, and Scherer have supplied some strong star power. If this is a 'bad' class for your program, you're probably doing pretty well overall. (And even if Mizzou is 4-8, the Tigers will still be 27-13 over the last three years with a great D returning most of its guys in 2016. That qualifies as "doing pretty well," I figure.)
Still, as has been proven so frequently in college football, you need depth. And when you're not signing top classes, that means you can't have too many misses. And a class in which 16 percent of signees left because they weren't up to par and 32 percent were (or are about to be) kicked off the team leaves you with minimal depth. And that can have an effect for multiple years.
Granted, DGB wouldn't have been around this year anyway, but unexpectedly losing both DGB and Copelin last year left Mizzou with what was basically a three-man receiving corps. And Copelin's absence has been felt this season. And as it pertains to Holifield, while Culkin has been a contributor at tight end, Mizzou has still been average at best at the position for the last few years.
It goes beyond the guys Mizzou signed, though. Missouri may have suffered more key decommits in this class than at any other point in Pinkel's tenure: running back Jonathan Williams flipped to Arkansas, offensive lineman Simon Goines to UCLA, and Germain Ifedi to Texas A&M. Granted, Williams and Goines are both injured and out for the season at their own respective schools, but I guess that doesn't automatically mean they'd be hurt at Mizzou, too.
(And if we're talking about misses, then it probably bears mentioning that while Mizzou landed the biggest fish in the state in DGB, the Tigers missed out on two other in-state receivers: Michigan's Jehu Chesson and Oklahoma's Durron Neal. Neal has been pretty mediocre as a Sooner, and Chesson's averaging just 6.0 yards per target as UM's No. 3 receiver this year, but needless to say, Mizzou could have benefited from not trotting out loads of freshmen and sophomores there this year.)
This will have an impact next season, too. Here are the current juniors on Missouri's depth chart:
Offense: WR Eric Laurent (walk-on), TE Sean Culkin (2012 class), LT Malik Cuellar (2015 class)
Defense: DT Josh Augusta (2013), DT Rickey Hatley (2012), LB Michael Scherer (2012), LB Donavin Newsom (2012), CB John Gibson (2012), CB Aarion Penton (2013)
That's it. That's a motherlode of defensive talent ... and almost nothing whatsoever on offense. Congratulations in advance for being elected an offensive captain next year, Sean Culkin. Maybe you, too, Eric Laurent.
This class has suffered to the degree that even Gary Pinkel said he and his staff would assess some aspects of their evaluation process to make sure there's not something they should have seen coming. But I can't imagine what they're going to find.
This was the year Missouri announced its move to the SEC. Did that play any role in the decommits? Maybe, but Goines was a Texas kid who flipped to the Pac-12, and Williams and Ifedi both flipped to SEC schools.
Did the SEC announcement lead Mizzou to taking any late risks (perhaps without appropriate vetting) in their new recruiting area? Perhaps with Holifield (a late signee from Tallahassee), but that's it. Copelin and Stewart each committed after the SEC announcement, but so did Brantley, Hatley, and Hansbrough. And of the nine players who were either kicked off the team or left after failing to crack the two-deep, eight were from Missouri's old recruiting stomping grounds -- three from Texas and one each from Missouri, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio.
I'm open to input in this regard, but I'm struggling to find any one reason why this class became what it became. For now, I'm just thinking it was a confluence of random factors. Mizzou has barely been hit at all by decommitments in recent classes but got nailed here. The Tigers have rarely been hurt by in-staters choosing out-of-state schools (it happens, but rarely does it end up impacting the product on the field), but they were here. Mizzou seems to have better control over disciplinary issues than a lot of schools, but it hasn't with 2012ers.
It's a lot more satisfying to find a cause, isn't it? As it currently stands, Missouri's offense will have to be rebuilt from scratch in 2016 with almost no help from fifth-year seniors. That puts immense pressure on offensive players from the 2013 (Alec Abeln, Nate Crawford, J'Mon Moore, Jason Reese, Clay Rhodes) and 2014 classes (Paul Adams, Sam Bailey, DeSean Blair, Kendall Blanton, Nate Brown, Keyon Dilosa, Mike Fairchild, Trevon Walters, Ray Wingo, Ish Witter) to produce before they're ready, and we're seeing the effects of that strain this season. All Mizzou fans can hope is that this year's strain gives these sophomores- and juniors-to-be a head start on providing leadership in 2016. It could mean awesome things for 2017, but it certainly isn't doing much for 2015.