For college football coaches, signing day represents perhaps the easiest opportunity on the calendar to generate positivity. The introduction of a crop of new players allows programs to sell hope, either by touting the players and classes ranked highly by recruiting services or claiming the staff found hidden gems in the form of a lower-ranked prospects.
The tone was especially positive when Eli Drinkwitz spoke to reporters on Dec. 16, 2020, the first night of last year’s early signing period. Missouri had just inked 22 players to start off Drinkwitz’s first real recruiting class as head coach, eight of them from within the state or just across the border in East St. Louis, Illinois. The class would go on to rank No. 20 in the nation — the highest for Missouri since Rivals started its rankings in 2002.
There was one area, however, in which Drinkwitz acknowledged Missouri needed to recruit better. Asked why, despite the staff’s emphasis on sealing the state borders, the Tigers didn’t land any players from the Kansas City area, Drinkwitz didn’t offer an excuse about finding the right fit or liking players from other areas better. He admitted that the program needed to improve its Kansas City recruiting.
“There’s always great players in Kansas City, there’s great football in Kansas City, tremendous high school coaches,” Drinkwitz said. “And we just, quite honestly, we just missed. We missed on a couple of guys, weren’t able to get it done.”
Six months later, despite the fact that he and his staff haven’t been allowed to step foot in a Kansas City area high school or the home of a prospect, Drinkwitz and his staff have taken a major step toward addressing that issue. Missouri has already landed commitments from three Kansas City prospects in the 2022 recruiting class: Lee’s Summit tight end Max Whisner, Lee’s Summit North offensive lineman Armand Membou and Blue Valley North (Kan.) wide receiver Mekhi Miller. Assuming their commitments hold, the trio will go on to be the first scholarship players from the Kansas City area to sign with Missouri since the 2018 class, when the Tigers landed Daniel Parker Jr. and Dominic Gicinto.
When the Missouri program has been at its best, Kansas City products have played prominent roles. Tony Temple, Chase Coffman, Aldon Smith, E.J. Gaines, Shane Ray and Drew Lock all hail from the western side of the state. But Missouri’s struggle to land players from Kansas City predates Drinkwitz’s arrival. With larger numbers of prospects leaving the state to play for traditional powers, the St. Louis area has received more attention, but the Tigers have actually been far more successful at landing players from the eastern side of the state than the western in recent years. Since Gary Pinkel retired in 2015, Missouri has signed just four total players from Kansas City area high schools, and one of them, wideout DaRon Davis, never made it to campus.
Jamar Mozee, the head coach at Lee’s Summit North, said Missouri’s ability to finally buck that trend in the 2022 cycle is the result of Drinkwitz and his staff forging stronger relationships in the area. He called the current Missouri regime “different.”
“Recruiting is building relationships,” Mozee said. “Recruiting is getting to know kids. Recruiting is coming to workouts and watching. Recruiting is active, I think it’s something that’s alive. I think some guys say they’re recruiting and they’re not really recruiting. Well this staff, they’re recruiting. They’re doing a really good job of building those relationships, of making the kids understand, hey, we want you here, this is the part you play. … I think it’s something that the KC area’s been waiting on.”
Mozee’s comments echo what virtually every local high school coach and committed prospect say about Missouri’s staff: The Tiger coaches excel at building relationships — even when forced to do so virtually as a result of the NCAA dead period that has been in effect since March 2020. Membou said that his recruitment got to the point where he found the constant communication from other schools annoying, but he enjoyed talking to Drinkwitz, Missouri offensive line coach Marcus Johnson and recruiting coordinator (and lead Kansas City area recruiter) Casey Woods. Miller said the fact that so many different members of the Tiger staff called him and got to know him showed how much the program wanted him.
“With the other schools, it was mainly just kind of the head coach and the position coach,” Miller said. “But I knew it must be important to them if they had their whole staff reaching out to me and just wanting to build that bond with me.”
Coaches, too, say they’ve already formed a better relationship with this Missouri staff than the last one. Mozee noted that he feels like if he tells a coach about a younger prospect to keep an eye on, the coach actually listens and remembers to check in on that player. Leon Douglas, the head coach of North Kansas City high school, said the fact that the staff called the head coach of every high school football team in the state proved their commitment to keeping players home — and not just from the St. Louis talent factories that get most of the attention. In all, seven of Missouri’s eight commitments so far in the 2022 hail from within the state or Kansas City, Kansas.
“I think they put their money where their mouth is,” Douglass said. “… I think it’s little efforts like that, putting value in other areas in the state that have kids.”
Speaking to reporters in Kansas City at Tuesday’s Tiger Club takeover event, Drinkwitz said Missouri hasn’t done anything differently in the 2022 cycle than it did a year ago. He credited the Tigers’ success recruiting the city to those relationships needing time to take hold.
“I think our relationships are taking root in the entire state of Missouri,” he said, “and I think it’s been helping us do a better job of what the stated goal is, which is close the borders.”
Another key factor that has made the 2022 cycle different: Missouri got a player from the Kansas City area to jump on board early. Momentum is real in recruiting; getting a commitment from one player in an area often leads to more.
And Whisner, Missouri’s first commit in the 2022 class, provided more than just momentum. He didn’t wait long before taking it upon himself to help recruit other targets to Missouri, from Kansas City and elsewhere. Whisner downplayed his role as a recruiter, saying Drinkwitz and his staff make it easy to sell Missouri, but he talked to both Miller and Membou about the Tigers before they committed. Currently, he said he’s in the ear of North Kansas City defensive tackle Domonique Orange, St. Thomas Aquinas (Kan.) defensive tackle Jalen Marshall and Boonville defensive end DJ Wesolak. He’s even tried to help Cuonzo Martin and the basketball team out, too. Whisner plays on the same AAU team as five-star Bishop Miege product Mark Mitchell, and he said he’s given his pitch to Mitchell, as well.
“I just try to have a conversation with them about what’s on their mind and all that as much as possible,” Whisner said. “I just be me and I just ask them how things are and where they stand and all that.”
While Missouri’s recruiting results in Kansas City during the 2022 cycle represent a breakthrough, it won’t matter much if the Tigers go another four years afterward without landing a prospect from the area. The goal for the current crop of commits is to start a pipeline headed east to Columbia. There are quite a few candidates to join the movement. The Missouri staff has offered Orange and Marshall in the 2022 class as well as several class of 2023 prospects: wide receiver Jaidyn Doss, defensive tackle Edric Hill and offensive linemen Cayden Green and Logan Reichert.
Adam Pummill, who coaches Miller at Blue Valley North, likes Drinkwitz’s chances of keeping the talent flowing from Kansas City to Columbia. After seeing the Missouri staff recruit Miller, he praised the staff’s ability to connect with players, and he believes having more Kansas City natives on the team will only make it easier to catch the eye of elite prospects in future years.
“I think it’s huge, because these kids all have friends back here,” Pummill said. “… A lot of them work out together. They know who the elite kids are in the city.”
Drinkwitz vowed to strike while the iron is hot.
“I think momentum is always key, and it’s kind of fickle, so once you get it you gotta capitalize on it,” Drinkwitz said. “We’ll try to do the very best to do that.”