Talent development remains key if Missouri is to win under Barry Odom

First-year Missouri coach Barry Odom will have to follow the lead of Gary Pinkel in terms of developing players once they get to campus. AP Photo/L.G. Patterson

As a former recruiting coordinator, Missouri coach Barry Odom would prefer to build a program in the fashion one might expect from someone who worked in that ultracompetitive environment. Win recruiting battles, sign the best prospects possible and construct a deep, talented team.

“I’m excited about having a chance to hopefully put together the best group we’ve ever had,” Mizzou’s first-year head coach said last week at ESPN headquarters, “and then after this year, we’ll try to do it again next year.”

But if Odom hopes to enjoy the long-term success that predecessor Gary Pinkel did, he and his staff must continue one of the most important traditions of the Pinkel regime. The Tigers must remain specialists in talent development, taking in underrated and unnoticed athletes and turning raw potential into top-end results.

That was the cornerstone of Pinkel’s success, helping him become Mizzou’s all-time wins leader (118), with five division titles and 10 bowl appearances in 15 seasons. This after Mizzou enjoyed just two winning records in the 17 seasons preceding Pinkel’s arrival.

Run down the list of Missouri’s top players over the last decade. Sure, there are a few elite prospects, such as Terry Beckner Jr., Blaine Gabbert and Sheldon Richardson, who picked the Tigers from a long list of suitors. But there are far more notable signees -- Charles Harris, Shane Ray, Jeremy Maclin, Aldon Smith, Michael Sam, James Franklin, Kony Ealy, Henry Josey and Kentrell Brothers, just to name a handful -- who were three-star prospects or worse as high schoolers and became standout players under Pinkel’s watch.

Finding diamonds in the rough is a necessity at Missouri, as the Tigers’ home state is not well traveled in recruiting circles. In the last four recruiting classes combined, the state of Missouri had just nine prospects earn ESPN 300 status. This year alone, the state of Florida had 48 ESPN 300 players and Georgia produced 31.

When you’re in the same division as programs with such depth of talent in their home states, you’d better get creative -- and Pinkel’s staff did that as well as any of its FBS competitors. There was no magic formula, Odom said, but one valuable evaluation tool was observing how the athletes fared and competed when they played in sports besides football.

“There’s obviously a couple different components with it,” Odom said. “No. 1, when we recruit athletes, identifying an athlete that we think we can do a great job of coaching and turning and training him to be a football player. Also the inner drive that the kid has on wanting to be great. A multisport athlete, to me, that’s a positive. That’s a great thing. To be able to see him on different avenues and in different venues on being successful and competing. Then, development once they get on campus, and strength and conditioning.”

A perfect success story as a result of these methods is Harris, an All-SEC defensive end last season who did not play football until his junior season of high school. A basketball standout in Kansas City, Harris unquestionably was a project, but Mizzou’s coaches liked the frame and focus that could one day help Harris become an SEC-level pass-rusher.

“Charles Harris wants to be the best defensive end Missouri’s ever had and that’s important to him, and if you watch him practice on Tuesday afternoon, it looks like it’s game day,” Odom said. “He’s got some inner drive that’s really important.”

Harris is part of a position group that has been especially successful in the arena of talent development. Under former defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, the Tigers regularly signed mid- and low-level prospects who went on to become stars. That tradition instilled a willingness with the Tigers’ defensive linemen to put in the work that would allow them to keep it up from year to year.

“At the defensive line specifically, that unit, that group, those guys that we have right now, they want to be better than last year’s group. And that group wanted to be better than the one before,” Odom said. “So there’s a carrying-the-torch a little bit in that they want to be the best. … And then they’ve received some pretty good coaching too.”

Without question. Pinkel and his staff won SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014 with rosters loaded with starters who were never considered blue-chippers. If Odom wins this fall, it will be done in similar fashion. Missouri’s recruiting class ranked 51st in ESPN’s 2016 team rankings, and the Tigers were the only SEC program that did not sign at least one ESPN 300 prospect.

That’s not necessarily a major issue -- Pinkel proved that -- but Odom’s ultimate success or failure at Mizzou likely will be determined by his ability to match Pinkel’s gift for turning leftovers into a gourmet meal.