This is not a fun time of the year. Not for a team like Mizzou, at least. Maybe it’s different at Alabama or Georgia or other blue bloods. Can’t relate.
This is the time of year when no news is good news, and most news makes you want to throw your phone into the nearest river. It’s okay. This is a safe space. We can admit it.
The first shoe to drop in this year’s portal-palooza was Dominic Lovett’s intention to enter. It came as quite a shock. Lovett finished the season third in the SEC in receiving yards, According to Sports Reference, Lovett’s 845 receiving yards were the most by a Mizzou receiver since J’Mon Moore posted more than 1,000 in 2017. The only Missouri sophomores to match Lovett’s receiving production in the last 20 years are T.J. Moe (2010) and Jeremy Maclin (2008).
This is a big loss, and there’s no way around it. Some will try to make the case that the Tigers can replace him. I think that’s mostly nonsense. You don’t replace a player like Lovett. Someone will catch passes. Maybe they’ll have similar overall passing numbers next year. But replacing one of the best young receivers in the country one-for-one? Not impossible, but pretty darn unlikely.
It’s a bummer. It’s also the reality of trying to build a college football program in 2022. Lovett was the first. He is not even close to the last. Chances are, another Mizzou player (or two, maybe more?) have likely announced their intentions to transfer between the time I’m writing this and when you’re reading. More are likely to follow.
So, what does it all mean? How does a program like Missouri continue to build if the portal is going to be a factor every time a player out-performs expectations?
High School recruiting isn’t as important as it once was
This is something I’m still coming to grips with. I’ve been interested in recruiting for as long as I can remember. I’ve spent countless hours in my life researching the importance of high school recruiting for teams to compete at the highest level. It’s quite important, for what it’s worth. Or, at least, it used to be. It still is, to a degree. Just less-so. Allow me to explain.
Let’s take a look back at Eli Drinkwitz’s first two classes at Mizzou. Drinkwitz was able to secure commitments from a total of 41 prospects. At the time of this writing, 15 are no longer on the team either due to transfer, dismissal or because they never made it to campus.
The 2021 class, which ranked 19th nationally, is worth honing in on. Four of the top six rated players in that class have already announced their intentions to transfer. Two of those four were significant contributors prior to their announcement (Lovett and Mekhi Wingo). I bring that up because it’s the new reality at a school like Missouri. If a player balls out early in his career, he can use that as a “platform season” just as an impending NFL free agent would. His production serves as his resume, and teams that weren’t options out of high school suddenly become interested in his services. That’s how Wingo ended up at LSU, and it’s why Lovett is now on the move.
But it’s not just the best players that get picked off. It’s also highly rated recruits who don’t see the field as early as expected. This applies to the likes of Tyler Macon and Travion Ford, for example.
Breaking news: Two more Mizzou players have informed the coaching staff they plan to enter the transfer portal: QB Tyler Macon & DE Travion Ford. Story coming at @stltoday— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) November 28, 2022
So your best players are getting poached by blue bloods and those buried on the depth chart who might not yet be ready to play are leaving for what they believe to be greener pastures. At some point the question has to be asked: Is high school recruiting as important as it once was, especially at a school like Mizzou?
For me, the answer is no. That doesn’t mean teams should completely eliminate their interest in high school recruits. Culture is important, and I think 4-year players are critical in developing the type of team chemistry a coach is looking to create. That said, I think the era of 25-man recruiting classes might be in the past. It’s entirely possible a school like Mizzou will add more players via the portal year-to-year than it does via high school recruiting. That’s not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it might be a good thing, given the restrictions on players transferring for a second time.
It’s nearly impossible to make long-term plans as a coach
I’m in charge of doing our “recruiting resets.” Part of those pieces is to project when a recruit will see the field, and where they fit into their respective position group. That projection is becoming nearly impossible. Let’s use 4-star wide receiver commit Joshua Manning as an example. When he committed in July, the belief was he would come in behind Luther Burden III, Dominic Lovett, Mookie Cooper, Chance Luper, Mekhi Miller, and possibly JaMarion Wayne. Four months later, Lovett is transferring, Luper’s future is unclear after he missed most of the season due to a blood clot in his lungs and Wayne moved from wide receiver to safety. That leaves Burden, Cooper and Miller ahead of Manning. I hope Manning is ready to play right away, because immediate playing time is suddenly available.
How do any team plan for that? And that’s just at one position, a position the Tigers thought they had secured for years to come. The turnover is every bit as high at other positions - both at Missouri and elsewhere. None of this is unique to Mizzou. It’s an unintended consequence of the new rules. And it’s not going anywhere.
Adjusting on the fly is now a way of life. Just when a team thinks a position is set, it’s not. Coaches spend countless hours recruiting throughout the year, but the most important recruiting period of the season has now become the six weeks between the end of the season and the start of the spring semester when coaches must re-recruit their own players and hit the portal like madmen, plugging any holes that have suddenly appeared.
There is reason for optimism at Mizzou
This has been a lot of doom and gloom. The transfer portal is here, it changes the way teams like Missouri can build, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Teams must adjust and figure out the path forward. That does not mean the Tigers are doomed. In fact, they might be uniquely qualified to succeed if they embrace the direction college football is heading.
Missouri has done quite well in the transfer portal over the past few seasons. Missouri’s coaches added Michael Maietti, Damon Hazelton, Keke Chism, Connor Wood, Akayleb Evans, Allie Green IV and Blaze Alldredge in the portal over the first two seasons Drinkwitz was at Missouri. All of them were impact starters. The work the staff did the past offseason was even more impressive, completely overhauling the defense with additions like Josh Landry, Kristian Williams, Ty’Ron Hopper, Tyrone Hopper, Jayden Jernigan, Dreyden Norwood and Joseph Charleston. The Tigers also added some talent o the offensive side of the football with Cody Schrader, Tyler Stephens, Nate Peat and Bence Polgar. The biggest losses for the Tigers in the portal have been guys like JJ Hester, Mekhi Wingo, Daniel Parker, Jr. and Christian Holmes. There were plenty of other players who have left, but the impact was not as severe.
Blaze Alldredge, Akayleb Evans, and now Allie Green IV.— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) June 17, 2021
Mizzou dominated the transfer portal this offseason. Tigers are gonna be a force on defense. https://t.co/wPNZ6e4IRy
Hitting in the portal every year the way this team did a year ago is not an easy task. Scouting college players with pedigree who haven’t played in a couple seasons is incredibly tough. Recruiting college players can be a very different experience than recruiting high school kids. Priorities change, for better or worse. Players are typically looking for something they did not find in their first stop.
So, now what?
Now, we wait. The portal “officially” opens on December 5th. We’ll have plenty of announcements between now and then. I would imagine we’ll get a second wave of transfer announcements following Missouri’s bowl game. The list will be long. There will probably be more names that come as a surprise to all of us. It’s going to be a whirlwind.
I know plenty of people have said this but the transfer portal is going to be wild. It's NFL free agency on multiple steroids and I'm here for it.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) November 29, 2022
This is college football in 2022. It’s not going to change. The combination of a free transfer plus the advent of NIL deals (but not as incentives to transfer! Nobody would be doing that!) have changed the game. It’s college football free agency season. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.