Under Pinkel, Mizzou has thrived finding and developing lower-rated players

No one will confuse Columbia with Tuscaloosa on National Signing Day. But the Tigers are obviously doing something right considering their ongoing success on the field under Gary Pinkel. E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy, James Franklin, Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Sheldon Richardson, Ziggy Hood, William Moore, Sean Weatherspoon, Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Lucas, Michael Sam, Aldon Smith, Peter Travers, Michael Bay, L'Damian Washington, Henry Josey, Justin Britt, T.J. Moe, Pat Ivey

Defensive end Michael Sam arrived at Mizzou as a two-star recruit and leaves as a unanimous All-American and a potential first-round draft pick in May.

Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports

When recruiting experts -- and by experts, we mean websites such as Scout.com, Rivals.com and 247Sports.com -- do their thing, they use stars to rate players, just like film critics reviewing movies. And they stack up the recruiting classes nationally and within each conference, so folks like you and I can tell how Iowa stacks up against Nebraska, just like Peter Travers slotting "Captain Phillips" a notch above, well, "Nebraska."

And they mean about the same thing. Which is to say, not much. To paraphrase the financial industry, recruiting rankings are not indicators of future performance.

Especially at Missouri, where highly ranked recruiting classes are about as common as clever dialogue in a Michael Bay movie. And that bothers Gary Pinkel not one bit. It's not that he gives a thumbs-down to recruiting rankings; it's just that he doesn't lose any sleep when the reviews aren't glowing.

"I sit in these recruiting press conferences every year and I don't know where we're ranked -- I don't pay much attention to it," says Pinkel, who will face the media glare again Wednesday to discuss Mizzou's latest haul on National Signing Day. "But everybody's got all their stars out there and obviously, we're making some good decisions."

Gary Pinkel says he pays scant attention to recruiting rankings.

Tim Heitman / USA TODAY Sports

Evidently. Pinkel's team went 12-2 last season with an SEC East championship, a Cotton Bowl win and a No. 5 final national ranking. All without the benefit of players who made the recruiting gurus swoon.

Pinkel is 102-63 in his 13 years in Columbia -- that's more wins than any other football coach in Mizzou history -- and he's never had a recruiting class that Rivals or Scout ranked among the top 20. Pinkel's best group, according to Rivals, was the 21st-rated haul in 2010 that included four-star prospects James Franklin, Kony Ealy, Marcus Lucas, Nick Demien and Tyler Gabbert and three-star E.J. Gaines among 23 commitments.

Not a five-star recruit in the bunch, and not many at the next level down. Yet Mizzou has managed to find and develop prospects, some unknown and unheralded, into significant contributors and future pros.

"We talk with our recruits now about 'Mizzou Made,'" Pinkel says. "That's a big thing we're doing now, 'Mizzou Made,' because we think that in our player development, when you come in there, the academic resources that we have, obviously the coaching staff, Pat Ivey with strength and conditioning, speed improvement, quickness improvement -- I think we do it as good as anybody in the country, and better than most."

The mural in the lobby of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex is a testament to that. It features massive photos of Chase Daniel (2007 Heisman Trophy finalist), Jeremy Maclin and Ziggy Hood (2009 NFL first-round selections), Sean Weatherspoon (2010 first-rounder), Aldon Smith and Blaine Gabbert (2011 first-rounders) and Sheldon Richardson (2013 first-rounder).

Gabbert and Richardson, a defensive tackle with the New York Jets who was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year on Saturday, were among the most sought-after recruits in their classes coming out of high school. Gabbert, a quarterback with the Jacksonville Jaguars, even turned down Alabama and Nick Saban to stay in Missouri to play his college football. Richardson, who had to go to junior college before arriving in Columbia, was rated by Rivals as the fourth-best prospect in the Class of 2009.

Everybody wanted those two.

Other players, however, were not as highly regarded or heavily recruited.

Daniel was rated by Scout.com as a three-star recruit in 2005, when Hood was a 230-pound two-star prospect. Maclin was a three-star recruit in 2006, when Weatherspoon and future Ram Danario Alexander were two-star recruits. Smith was a three-star recruit in 2008. William Moore, a Pro Bowl safety with the Atlanta Falcons who was a second-round pick in 2009, was rated a two-star recruit by Scout in 2004.

Some of the key contributors to this season's 12-2 squad -- Michael Sam, Justin Britt, Henry Josey and L'Damian Washington -- were all two-star recruits (by Scout and Rivals) in the Class of 2009.

T.J. Moe, a three-star recruit (by Scout) as a safety in 2009, says Mizzou's success finding lower-rated players with good upside is a testament to the hard work by Mizzou recruiters.

"They are pretty thorough with who they look at and they have good contacts with coaches they trust," says Moe, was recruited as an athlete after impressing as a dual-threat quarterback at Fort Zumwalt West High School in suburban St. Louis and was turned into a wide receiver who caught 188 passes for 2,101 yards and 11 touchdowns in four years in Columbia. "So they'll go down to Texas or wherever and say, 'OK, who gave you a lot of trouble this year? Is there anybody on your team that's worth looking at?' More than anything, you probably ask coaches about other teams' players because coaches are always trying to get their kids recruited.

"Sometimes they accidentally run into guys. I know it's happened before where you come down to look at one kid and he happens to be playing against a kid you've never heard of who is just lights out and all of a sudden you start recruiting that kid. Sometimes it's by accident, but I think it tells you how thorough they've been and they've done well creating relationships."

The Tigers have had particular success in Texas over the years recruiting players who were overlooked by other programs.

Weatherspoon, now a linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons, was committed to Houston at one point but picked Mizzou over scholarship offers from TCU, Iowa State and Tulane. Alexander, a wide receiver with the San Diego Chargers, signed with the Tigers after receiving offers from Baylor, Houston and SMU.

An important aspect of Mizzou's development program is strength and conditioning, a program headed by Ivey, Mizzou's assistant athletic director for athletic performance. Ivey, a defensive end for the Tigers from 1993-95, is responsible for the entire player development program for football and oversees the development of the Tigers' other varsity athletes.

"Certainly, Coach Pinkel and the staff find the kids, but then Pat Ivey and his staff are the ones who really develop them," Moe said. "He's the guy who takes over in the summertime. We don't have any contact with the football coaches really in the summertime. It's all the strength coaches. And Pat Ivey, he's as good at it gets."

So for the Tigers, it's a matter of finding the talent -- even if it doesn't come adorned with lots of stars -- and then developing it.

"We really sell that now, 'Mizzou Made,'" Pinkel says. "If you come in here, we will make you the best you can be. You've got to work hard. You have to have a great attitude. But we will make you the best that you can be."

You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com.