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Eli Drinkwitz’s Three-Step Process to Elevating Roster Talent

Another successful national signing day in the books. Transfer portal season off to a hot start. How have Eli Drinkwitz and his staff elevated the talent level in Columbia?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Last spring I wrote a story on these electronic pages diving into how Eli Drinkwitz’s approach to roster building evolved from his first to his fourth seasons at Missouri. In his first two years, he went heavily into high school recruiting, signing some of the best prep classes in the school’s history. With the advent of the transfer portal, and with the maturation of his roster, he scaled back in signing high schoolers and augmented his team with veterans – specifically focusing on adding transfers from Power Five schools with multiple years of eligibility.

So far in this offseason, we have seen that trend continue, but with a new wrinkle. Eli and his staff – and the tremendous efforts of the NIL program and top-down alignment – have elevated the caliber of players Missouri can acquire. This luxury has been made possible by success in all three key areas of roster building and talent acquisition.

1. Upping the high school recruiting game

We don’t need to hash and re-hash this to death, but Eli’s first big wins at Missouri were on the high school recruiting trail. In hindsight, his reaction to the commitment of Ennis Rakestraw Jr. on signing day – with an Alabama offer on the table – was a portend of success to come.

While some of the blue chippers signed have not seen the field or were misevaluated, many of them have already made a big impact for the Tigers on the field, and you could argue that Luther Burden III is the most impactful recruit in school history. (Hmmm, offseason column idea?) Drinkwitz and company continued their high school recruiting success yesterday, signing a top-25 class with six blue-chip players in 247’s rankings. Williams Nwaneri is one of the top players in the country, and guys like Courtney Crutchfield, Cameron Keys, Kewan Lacey, and more round out another great crop of prospects. In the most important of the three areas of roster building, Eli Drinkwitz has been the best in Mizzou’s modern history.

2. Hitting the Transfer Portal... hard

My piece last season charted how Drinkwitz had embraced the transfer portal era, and specifically his clear preference for the style of transfer he targeted: Power Five players with multiple years of playing eligibility. That trend continues so far this offseason, with three of Missouri’s four transfers so far fitting that designation.

But there is something different about this year’s portal class: Missouri has been able to grab a higher level of player in the secondary market so far this cycle. Mizzou’s four committed transfers are all four-stars in the 247 database, and their transfer class is second in the country when ranked by average player rating. Last year’s transfer class also finished with four four-stars but ranked 18th by average rating; 2022’s had only one four-star and finished 32nd.

And so this is the story of Missouri’s elevated player acquisition. The Tigers have reshaped their fortunes with transfers – Theo Wease, Ty’Ron Hopper, Joseph Charleston, Cam’Ron Johnson, Cody Schrader, DJ Coleman, the entire DT rotation this year – and now have even further leveled up into a higher concentration of blue-chippers. 2024’s transfers are star players brought in to be impact starters from day one, not just because of a hole in a roster but because they are that good.

Eli spoke about this in an interview with Sirius XM Radio a few weeks ago: “For the first time in my career, we’re picking – we’re not recruiting.”

3.) Re-recruiting your own roster

This is a new job for college coaches, and probably the one that leads to the most burnout and exasperation among the coaching ranks if we’re being honest. Roster building is no longer just about scouting prospects, developing connections in high school ball, and getting to know players and their families. Now, one of the key elements of the job is convincing your contributors to stay with you. For coaches with a paternalistic attitude towards players or otherwise old-school mindsets, this is an affront to what they believe college coaching should be.

Across the sport we see instances of schools that bleed talent. South Carolina and Arkansas are two schools in Missouri’s peer group that have lost a myriad of starters each of the past two offseasons. This has not been a problem yet for Drinkwitz and his staff (knock on wood, as there is still time for players to seek new homes), but Mizzou has largely kept the players they need to keep.

And that – yes, along with a good NIL program – is how Mizzou has been able to elevate their concentration of transfer portal talent. With a more stable roster and with returning impact players, you are augmenting your two-deep, not reshaping it. The 2022 transfer class was necessary because Missouri HAD to plug holes on every level of the defense, and so they were bringing in every available body. With Cayden Green, Toriano Pride, Marcus Carroll, and Darris Smith in the fold so far, Missouri has elevated to a new level of portal shopping.

Eli Drinkwitz has ushered in a new era of Missouri recruiting success, and is thriving in all three areas of roster acquisition. 247Sports releases an overall team talent ranking late each summer, and Missouri has moved from #46 entering the 2021 season all the way to #25 before this year, and should be even higher in August 2024.

A competitive NIL war chest, a breakthrough season on the field, and a great clubhouse culture have all contributed to this success. With portal hot stove season in full swing and a successful early period signing day, Drinkwitz and his staff continue to achieve unprecedented levels of recruiting success for the Missouri Tigers. Enjoy the ride.