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TIGER KICKOFF: Missouri football team finds hidden gems deep in Texas

Thursday, November 17, 2011 | 11:30 p.m. CST; updated 8:54 p.m. CST, Friday, November 18, 2011
MU senior safety Kenji Jackson poses for a portrait with a Texas flag. Jackson, who is from Mansfield, Texas, is one of many MU football players from the state.

MARLIN, Texas — In a single-story cinder block building on the outskirts of a depressed central Texas town, Bennie Huitt and Dustin Sowders are diagramming plays.  

Computers and video screens surround a big table in the center of the office. Both swat seemingly ever-present flies with one hand while highlighting portions of Marlin High School's plays in various fluorescent colors with the other.

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The team has already begun a film session in the room next door. Huitt and Sowders, the team's defensive and offensive coordinators, are due inside as soon as their work is complete. Perhaps it's the flies that have delayed their arrival.

In the early months of 2006, after Marlin's season was over, Missouri's Dave Steckel sat in this office to look at film of Marlin's star quarterback, Jeremy Sanders. The Tigers were hot on the recruiting trail for the 6-foot-2 athlete who had just won the district's offensive MVP award in his senior season.

But then-Marlin head coach Jerry Malone had something else in mind for Steckel, who is responsible for recruiting the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and its outlying areas. Malone put in a highlight tape of a skinny receiver by the name of Danario Alexander.

"I was like, 'Wow, nobody knows about this guy?'" Steckel recalls. "I tried to keep him a secret as long as I could."

It was a secret that was easy to keep for the most part. Marlin just isn't one of those places you'd expect to find a lot of high-level athletes.

Legion Stadium and the adjacent fieldhouse, which contains Marlin's locker room, coaches offices and weight room, sit at the intersection of Texas Highway 7 and Farm-to-Market Road 2958, more than a mile east of the school itself. On the side of the fieldhouse that faces the stadium, a mural featuring a larger-than-life bulldog brands the place "Tha Dawg Pound."

Alexander says the smell of cow and horse manure wafting from the tract of land behind Tha Dawg Pound doesn’t bother him anymore. Maybe you get used to it, but for a first-time visitor, the aroma is impossible to ignore.

The stadium is not impressive. It bears no resemblance to the big, fancy stadiums people see in shows such as "Friday Night Lights." A tiny two-level press box with chipped white paint and a quickly deteriorating black-shingled roof sags on top of 20 rows of bleachers.

This is no Texas powerhouse high school football program. It's a shrinking dot on the map 20 miles southeast of Waco, mainly supported economically by two prisons, a few mines in surrounding communities and welfare.

It was from here that Missouri found another player overlooked by the premier programs: Alexander, who led the nation in receiving yards at Missouri in 2009, got overlooked by everyone, at least at first.

"Missouri didn't offer him," Huitt recalls about the initial stages of Alexander's recruitment. "Nobody offered him."

The religion of Texas

When Gary Pinkel and his staff arrived at Missouri before the 2001 season, the program was in shambles. Missouri had been to two bowl games in 17 seasons. The previous season, the Tigers were 2-6 in the Big 12.

Something had to shift from the way things were done before. When the coaches looked at the rosters of the Big 12 teams that were at the top of the league, it was clear what they needed to do.

They needed more players from Texas. It was time to start visiting both the big cities, such as Dallas and Houston, and the small towns they had never heard of, such as Marlin.

The team had a handful of players from Texas when Pinkel took over, but Missouri's presence among high school coaches there was virtually non-existent.

"There were some schools that you just weren't going to see walking down your hall," said Joey Maguire, who has coached at Dallas-area powerhouse Cedar Hill for 15 years, the last nine as head coach. "Missouri was one of them."

It obviously wasn't a coincidence that the most successful teams in the conference were laden with players from Texas. The state produces quality football players because football is serious business there.

"You go to church on Sunday, and you play football on Friday," Maguire said. "It's a religion here in the state of Texas."

In Texas high schools, students attend what's called activity period, where they have an actual class in one of their extracurricular activities. Basketball players go to basketball class. Band members go to band class. Football players go to football class.

"They have a whole class period of 50 minutes a day or whatever to go work on football," Steckel said. "That shows a little bit more in the development of the athlete."

Texas players also benefit from spring practices and offseason 7-on-7 drills.

Florida and California also produce many players for major conference schools. A Sports Illustrated study showed that from 2004 to 2008 Florida produced 981 major conference signees, Texas produced 974 and California produced 826.

Texas, though, was the most accessible for Pinkel's staff. Geographically it's the closest, and there were four Big 12 schools in the state, so the exposure was there.

But recruiting an area isn't as simple as just deciding you're going to do it. It takes time and dedication, both to understand the ins and outs of where players are coming from and to build relationships with the high school coaches that are so influential in the process.

Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was on the front lines at that time, trying to make progress in Greater Houston. It wasn't easy.

"When we first went down there, I would get asked, 'Missouri? What conference are you in?'" Kuligowski said.

Despite the initial struggle, Kuligowski kept going back. He wasn't alone. Missouri increased its presence from two coaches to seven over a period of a few years. High school coaches such as Freindswood’s Steve Van Meter started to take notice.

"The immediate change was that they were here. They were in my office, and they were visible. They created a friendship and a rapport," said Van Meter, who coached Missouri linebacker Will Ebner in high school. "Coach Kuligowski and I will talk. I'll just call him to say 'Hey, how's Will, what's going on?' I feel comfortable doing that, and he feels comfortable telling me things."

Building that trust is important. Former Kansas coach Mark Mangino, who revitalized the Jayhawks' program by filling one-third of its roster with Texans, said the best way to do that is relatively simple.

"You just have to be honest and up front," Mangino said. "Don't make promises you can't keep and be consistent in your approach."

Over time, Missouri has built that trust, and with it, a legitimate presence in Texas. Nine of Saturday's projected starters come from the state, and nine of the 17 prospects Missouri signed to its most recent recruiting class are Texans.

Leftovers

If you skim through Missouri's media guide, at the end of each player's biography, there's a revealing line about Missouri's Texas recruiting presence.

"Chose Mizzou over Nebraska, Oregon, Oklahoma State, TCU and Kansas State," it reads for quarterback James Franklin, of Corinth, Texas.

"Chose Mizzou over TCU, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Purdue and Baylor," Henry Josey’s entry says.

Not a single one says, "Chose Mizzou over Texas." Josey is one of a select few that list Texas A&M.

Marlin's Huitt summed up the recruiting landscape rather succinctly.

"Texas, then Texas A&M," he said. "Then leftovers."

Missouri's coaches won't admit it, but save for a precious few exceptions, they aren't taking any players out of Texas that the Longhorns want. They aren't winning a lot battles against the Aggies, either.

No one is.

The echo of Huitt's statement in the Lone Star State is resounding. Texas natives know the reality.

In the Metroplex especially, where Norman, Okla., is actually closer than Austin, Texas, Missouri also has to compete with Oklahoma, another school absent from those biography-ending lines in the media guide.

"They're seeing that they're the premier programs. For a kid from Texas, when you're offered by Texas, it's tough to say no," Maguire said. "And both of them are so close."

Yet while Missouri is losing the big-name, high profile recruits to Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, on the field, the Tigers are 4-1 against those teams in the past two seasons.

If that puzzles you, you're not the only one.

"Personally, I don't know how Texas doesn't win a national championship every year when they get their pick of what's going on in the state of Texas," Van Meter said. "I was just looking a little while ago and seeing all of their commitments. It's pretty impressive."

One obvious factor that helps Missouri compete is Texas' sheer size. There are 1,200 high schools in the state. Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M only have 85 scholarships each. They get the first choice, but there are plenty of players for everyone. According to Randy Rodgers, a former recruiting coordinator at Texas who now runs a well-respected recruiting service, the state produces 350 FBS players every year.

Everyone gets a shot at the leftovers, and everyone is looking. At Marlin, there's a three-inch high stack of business cards from college coaches on head coach Keith Willis' desk. The one on top is from the University of Miami's defensive backs coach. It's not just Big 12 schools that are in on this game.

But there are certain schools, Missouri among them, that have made more regular use of Texas' talent than others. One that inevitably comes up as part of this discussion is Texas Christian University.

"That's one thing that (coach) Gary Patterson has done better than anybody in the nation at TCU. He doesn't care how many stars," Maguire said. "He says, 'This is a TCU kid.'"

TCU might be the most successful of the bunch. Patterson has turned the leftovers into a feast worthy of kings — most notably an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 2010.

Missouri's coaches are trying to do the same thing: Find players that "fit" their program.

The definition of that fit is elusive. Steckel came as close as anyone to explaining it.

"There's things that you look for on film. Athleticism, speed, explosiveness and then character," Steckel said. "Character is a big factor. You've got to admit, we've got some really good kids here."

Ultimately, Missouri doesn't waste its time in Texas, either. Coaches have limited time and money to spend on recruiting. Schools such as Missouri can't afford to waste it on big name prospects it doesn't have a chance to sign.

"They (Missouri) found their niche in how they recruit, just like TCU has found their niche in how they recruit," Van Meter said. "But, from my standpoint, there's a lot of schools that don't have that niche. They waste their time chasing ghosts down here."

One thing that has helped schools recruiting against Texas is early commitments. Once Mack Brown arrived as head coach in Austin, the Longhorns began offering their scholarships earlier than just about everyone else in the region.

Soon, Texas A&M and Oklahoma began the practice as well. Now, not only do those schools get their first choice of kids, but they actually choose first chronologically.

"You can be the University of Missouri and literally say, 'Texas, you just take the 20 guys you want, and we'll start recruiting the rest of them,'" said Rodgers, who worked at Texas under Brown's predecessor John Mackovic. "Quite frankly, that's what a lot of schools really want to do."

Missouri's coaches maintain that it doesn't really help them. They claim to be competing for the same recruits. Mangino was more realistic.

"It shores up the gray areas for you," he said. "It just gave us a much clearer picture of who was available."

Now, Texas and Oklahoma offer the vast majority of their scholarships to juniors. That makes the evaluation process more difficult and might cause those schools to miss late bloomers.

Alexander was one of those late bloomers. Former Kansas and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe, a Cedar Hill product who finished seventh in the nation in receiving in 2009, was another.

"The early commitment is a tough deal. I know why you do it. You do it to get ahead. You do it because you feel like you can get the guys that you want," Maguire said. "Dezmon Briscoe could have played anywhere in the nation, but he had a great senior year and went to Kansas."

Missouri has found others. Sean Weatherspoon was a two-star recruit from Jasper, Texas, who no one paid much attention to. Now, he's 11th in the NFL in tackles in 2011. Ziggy Hood was a three-star recruit from Amarillo, Texas. He was a first round draft pick in 2009.

Henry Josey "was labeled as a track guy playing football," Rodgers said. He was among the nation's leading rushers before tearing his ACL, MCL and patellar tendons last Saturday.

Looking South(east)

Soon, Missouri will face a new challenge in recruiting Texas: The Tigers won't be playing there often.

In moving from the Big 12 to the SEC beginning next season, the Tigers go from a conference that has four schools in Texas to a conference that has one. Their exposure will drop in the area.

There is also a concern that parents won't want to send their children to Missouri knowing they won't be able to watch them play in Texas. They'll have to travel to Columbia, or Baton Rouge, La., or Gainesville, Fla., to see them play in person.

The concern is real, too. Highly touted running back Jonathan Williams of Allen, Texas, reneged on his verbal commitment to Missouri just days after the announcement.

He isn't the only one wavering

"I think the move was good for Missouri, but I might have to reconsider my commitment since I've always wanted to play in the Big 12," Missouri recruit Donald Hopkins of Lago Vista, Texas, told the Sporting News. "I want to stay close to my family and friends."

Pinkel and his staff aren't discussing anything SEC-related until after the end of the regular season, but the high school coaches feel confident saying that Missouri will still have a foothold in Texas, even as part of the SEC.

"I think if Missouri was successful recruiting here in the Big 12, why wouldn't they be successful going to the SEC?" Van Meter said. "What kid doesn't want to play in the best conference in the country? It'll be great for their recruiting."

Instead of playing in Texas regularly, the Tigers will have exposure in Florida and Georgia, playing against the Gators and Bulldogs annually. Georgia was fourth on the Sports Illustrated list, sending 481 players to BCS-conference schools between 2004 and 2008.

Perhaps Pinkel and his staff will turn their efforts east. In the end, there is no way of knowing, but chances are what happens to Missouri recruiting will depend a lot more on Missouri's win-loss totals than what league it plays in.

The Marlin Trio

Once Missouri offered a scholarship to Alexander, others came calling. A guy no one has heard of getting an offer from a Big 12 school raises eyebrows.

But Alexander stayed loyal to his commitment and went on to be an All-American at Missouri. Now, he plays for the St. Louis Rams.

Jeremy Sanders never really panned out. After committing to Baylor, he failed to qualify academically and went to junior college for two years. When he arrived in Waco, Texas, he couldn't find a position, with stints at quarterback, running back and finally linebacker. He recorded just seven tackles in his senior season.

Coryell Judie was also on that Marlin team. After his own two-year stop at junior college because of academics, Judie now plays at Texas A&M. According to Scouts, Inc., he is currently the eighth-ranked cornerback for the 2012 draft. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he will join Alexander in the NFL next season.

In the end, Sanders — the guy Dave Steckel came for — wasn't even Marlin's best product.

Now, framed pictures of Alexander, Judie and Sanders hang on Marlin's weight room wall, there to inspire current players to achieve their own greatness.

They also serve as a reminder of why the stars next to a player's name don't really matter, why it's worth it for coaches to stop in a place like Marlin, and how Missouri has found its recruiting niche.


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