If there’s one thing I like doing in this here hodgepodge of screen space that I call a column, it’s delving into “narratives.”
You know a “narrative” when you see one, right? It’s one of those things that coaches, players or writers — and sometimes, all three! — start saying so often that, eventually, they’re just taken as established fact.
Some of them are fairly useful. “Defense wins championships,” for instance. Yes, it’s an oversimplification but, also, yes, teams with great defenses tend to increase their odds at winning at high levels.
Others aren’t quite as useful. “Recruiting stars don’t matter,” for instance. They do. Oh my, do they.
One that falls in the middle is “spring practice makes a difference.” You’ve seen my existential cries about the relative veracity of that statement in this space before, so I’m not going to subject you to them again.
Instead, I want to discuss an offshoot of that above narrative: if you want to get a meaningful head start on your college career, graduate early and enroll in time for spring drills.
That’s something coaches seem to sell players on quite frequently: “Want a leg up on the other five linemen we’re signing in this class? Well, why don’t you come on down in January instead of June, then?”
Beat hacks, myself most definitely included, play into this as well. Many a preseason depth chart analysis hath I filled out in which I used some form of the phrase “going through those 15 extra spring practices can’t do anything but help PLAYER X see the field as a true freshman this fall.”
But how true is that, Past David? How about we go through all of Missouri’s early enrollees of the SEC era and see how they’ve turned out.
They’re ranked within class year (subjectively) from most to least impactful. There were none in 2012, at least that I could find.
- QB Eddie Printz: redshirted for a year, then backed up Maty Mauk and Drew Lock for two seasons before graduating and transferring to Texas State. He spent a year as a backup there, then signed with an Italian football team in 2017. The sum of his Missouri career was an incomplete pass.
- QB Trent Hosick: much the same story as Printz. Redshirted a year, then transferred to community college Arizona Western after spring 2014. Played two years at the junior-college level before landing at Youngstown State and getting into four games in 2016. He didn’t even get to throw the pass that Printz did during his time at Missouri.
- LB Brandon Lee: A definite early enrollee success story. Lee blossomed into a solid starting outside linebacker for the Tigers last season — finishing with 42 tackles, five for loss, and an interception — and will, in all likelihood, hold down that spot this year as well. Not only that, but he’s already earned his bachelor’s degree and is going into the MBA program at Mizzou. Good stuff.
- CB Kenya Dennis: A junior college transfer, Dennis used his first spring with the Tigers to work his way near the top of the corner depth, then replace John Gibson as starter early in the 2014 season. He started all through the 2015 season and had a bit of a rougher go, but still managed to total 96 tackles, seven for loss, and 18 passes defended in two seasons.
- CB Logan Cheadle: Cheadle played his way out of a redshirt with an impressive spring, installing himself as an essential special teams player and depth-filling corner as a true freshman. The narrative fits quite well on him. Cheadle sort of cycled in and out of the rotation over the next three seasons and ended his career with 51 tackles and 11 passes defended.
- QB Marvin Zanders: Ah, Marvin. How many column inches (is that still a thing that people know what it is?) did I devote to your possibilities during your three years on campus? Zanders arrived early to get a head start on being Mauk’s heir apparent, but then Drew Lock got in the way. He ended up completing 10-of-12 passes for 114 yards and running for 198, mostly in garbage time, in 2016 before transferring. Then he went to Virginia. Then left. Then was maybe kind of sort of going to Vanderbilt? Then didn’t. Most recently, he signed at North Carolina Central, where his younger brother, Micah, goes. Still think it would’ve been cool to see him and Lock in the same backfield a couple times… (I seem to remember a little bit of trepidation, by the way, over Lock deciding to play his senior season of prep basketball instead of coming to Columbia for spring 2015. Turned out pretty OK for him, seems like.)
- OL Michael Fairchild: Redshirted, then rose briefly, gloriously to the top of the depth chart in the spring of 2015 before falling out of favor again. He left the team after the season to focus on his mechanical engineering degree.
- OL Malik Cuellar: coaches and fans alike had high hopes for the junior-college transfer as a solution at tackle following the graduation of Mitch Morse. Never really materialized, though, and Cuellar left the team in spring 2016.
- OL Tanner Owen: Owen, like Fairchild, had a brief jaunt to near the top of the depth in spring 2016, but then missed the whole season with what was only ever termed as a “health issue” and left the team. He was honorable mention All-MIAA for Northwest Missouri State last season and is somehow…still a sophomore?
- OL Tyler Howell: Missouri thought they’d have the hulking junior-college transfer tackle for the 2015 season, but academics delayed his arrival until the start of 2016. Once he got to Columbia, though, he made good on his promise, seizing a starting tackle spot through spring ball and holding it all season, until he was usurped by fellow early enrollee Yasir Durant last fall.
- K Tucker McCann: A freshman year he’d like to forget, yes, but an impactful one nonetheless. And it set up a pretty nice redemption arc for last season. After hitting on only 6 of 12 field goal attempts as a freshman, McCann steadied up and knocked through 15 of 17 last year.
- WR Dominic Collins: A junior-college transfer, Collins played sparingly over his two seasons with the Tigers and ended his career with 10 catches for 154 yards. There was a doghouse period in 2016 in which he wasn’t even dressing for games, though, so his smooth sailing through 2017 denoted progress.
- LB Trey Baldwin: Saw exclusively special teams snaps as a true freshman, then transferred after the season. Baldwin put up 69 tackles in 12 games at Trinity Valley Community College last fall.
- QB Jack Lowary: A post-signing day addition to the class of 2016, Lowary redshirted that fall then was passed over by Micah Wilson on the depth last year and saw action in only two games. Even with Lock leaving, the quarterback room seems pretty crowded for 2019, when Lowary will be a senior, Lindsey Scott and Wilson juniors and Taylor Powell a sophomore. Could be a free-for-all.
- OL Yasir Durant: We already discussed him a little bit earlier, but the junior-college transfer played himself into the rotation during the spring, then took over for Howell as a starter during the season. He promises to be a key member of a powerhouse offensive line this fall.
- DL Rashad Brandon: A bit of a surprise early arrival, the junior-college transfer went about turning heads as soon as he showed up in Columbia. He was part of the tackle rotation all year, but battled a knee injury and never really differentiated himself from the rest of the non-Beckners, ending up with 21 tackles and 5.5 for loss. He and the other NBs (non-Beckners, you know) get to duke it out in fall ball this year.
- RB Isaiah Miller: Early enrollment turned into redshirt year, and now he’s part of the equation behind Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree with Dawson Downing. If the injury bug stays away, though, there really shouldn’t be that many carries to go around past the top two on the depth this fall.
- OL Pompey Coleman: Missed his entire senior year of high school with a broken leg, rehabbed it during a redshirt year in Columbia, then medically retired from football.
And here are the 2018 early enrollees, who I’ll probably be unfairly judging at this point next year:
- CB Tyrone Collins
- WR Dominic Gicinto
- LB Gerald Nathan
- QB Lindsey Scott
- DT Antar Thompson
So, from 2013-17, you’ve got 18 early enrollees. Only six of them (Lee, Dennis, Cheadle, Howell, McCann, Durant) ever really got more than a spot start, though Lowary, Brandon and Miller can conceivably add to that.
At best, it’s a 50-50 proposition.
So, if you’re a high school recruit who has his academics in line and is just itching to go to college and get the experience started, go ahead and enroll early.
But if you’re one that’s really sweating the decision and thinking that what you do between January and June will make or break your next four years … maybe just go to prom and don’t worry about it until the summer.