ST. LOUIS -- At a recent Missouri football camp, 2013 offensive linemen Harneet Gill (St. Charles, Mo./Francis Howell) and Alec Abeln (St. Louis/University) and 2014 offensive tackle Andy Bauer (St. Louis/De Smet) held an impromptu meeting of the minds. The conversation rotated from football to music to where lunch would be that day.
Minutes later, athletes Chase Abbington (St. Peters, Mo./Fort Zumwalt South) and Aarion Penton (St. Louis/Christian Brothers College) joined the conversation. To the average spectator, it looked like five high school athletes simply holding guy talk. To the staunch Missouri fan, it was the future of SEC football and the ultimate sign of Show Me State unification.
All five players -- all hailing from greater St. Louis -- have verbally committed to play for Missouri. Of Missouri's 14 commits -- 13 in the 2013 class and Bauer -- the first nine were from the home state. Six of the 14 are from the St. Louis metropolitan area. In comparison, only five of the Tigers' 20 recruits from the 2012 class were from Missouri.
In preparing for their first year of play in the SEC, the Tigers are sending a direct message early. Take care of home. Make a statement with the athletes down the street. Win with local players and attract more of the local fans. Most importantly, silence the critics with the hometown heroes.
"Over the past years, I've seen Mizzou try to get recruits from Texas and other states," Penton said. "I think it's good they're looking at the athletes in Missouri and trying to keep them in Missouri. A lot of people don't know about us. A lot of us have the heart and love to compete, and I think the SEC will be surprised when they see us."
Philosophy: Know your players
Missouri offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator David Yost said the staff has done its part in recruiting the best athletes available. From an in-state perspective, the St. Louis and Kansas City areas traditionally have been the strongest. With six 2013 commits from St. Louis and four from the Kansas City metropolitan area, that tradition holds true.
Yost said the staff's recruiting philosophy for in-state players involves knowing them better than any other staff, and having that connection is key to recruiting coast to coast. Had the Tigers not had that kind of connection, they may not have signed the nation's top-ranked receiver in the 2012 class in Dorial Green-Beckham (Springfield, Mo./Hillcrest).
"If Dorial Green-Beckham lives in California, we're probably not in the hunt for him," Yost said. "Since he was in Missouri, we always felt we had a shot for him. We know we're not going be able to sign whole classes from Missouri, and we've never had 25 kids from Missouri, but if we can get half the class from the state and have talented players, we feel can put together a great class."
So far, Missouri's 2013 class has done that. Of the 13 commitments, 11 are three-star athletes or better. The Tigers' highest-ranked prospects -- Missouri residents Abbington, running back Anthony Sherrils (Kansas City, Mo./Hogan Prep) and linebacker Nick Ramirez (Lee's Summit, Mo./Lee's Summit West) -- are four-star players.
The 2012 class had four players who were considered four-star or better. Green-Beckham was a five-star receiver. Four-star Evan Boehm (Lee's Summit, Mo./Lee's Summit West) was the nation's No. 2 offensive guard. Fellow four-star Donavin Newsom (St. Louis/Parkway North) was the No. 12 inside linebacker.
"Because we're the only Division I school in state," Yost said, "we want to be the first ones to make an evaluation about them. We're the home school, and we've got to make a decision first."
The extended family
Abeln and Gill both said the camaraderie already established with in-state players was a primary reason why they committed to Missouri. They are two players who have known each other since elementary school.
"We all played little league football here," Gill said. "Knowing we all grew up in the same type of atmosphere and that we're all going into this together is pretty cool. We've built a family here."
"When you walk on campus," Abeln added, "you see kids you played in high school with. You see kids you played against. It's cool to be able to play with guys you remember from grade school, and it's cool to say you'll be teammates with them in the SEC."
Most of the players have seen their future college teammates either on the football field or in other sports, such as track and field, basketball and wrestling. With the help of YouTube and Hudl, the 2013 commits are going into their senior seasons of high school excited about their fellow commits.
Abbington said he's seen nearly all the commits, and nobody has disappointed.
"Every play with Nick Ramirez is a knockout," he said. "Trent Hosick (Kansas City, Mo./Staley) may not be the tallest quarterback, but he wins games and gets the job done. Aarion Penton is a shutdown corner who plays hard and plays fast. All that, that's what you've got to have.
"When you look at all these guys, your expectations are set so high. We're going to play in the SEC, where the teams are bigger and better. We feel like we can play against the biggest and the best."
Penton said Missouri was an obvious choice for him. Along with the school being close to home and him knowing quite a few players, he actually was born on the campus.
Playing in the SEC happens to serve as a major bonus for all the players.
"I looked at the draft, and a lot of players from the SEC go to the league," Penton said. "If you go there and put in hard work, you can take it to the next level."
Said Bauer: "To compete in the SEC, that's a goal of ours. We're not looking to go .500 when we get there. We're looking to be the best, and you've got to recruit kids who have that mentality."
To be the best, you have to beat the best
Around this time next year, two things will be established. Missouri will have finished its first full SEC athletics season, and fans will have built a positive or negative vibe around the Tigers.
For Yost, it's all about building a brand. Being able to line up and compete with some of the nation's top athletes is the goal -- and it's a mission the team valiantly chooses to accept.
"We've played good football against some of the best SEC teams in the past," Yost said. "I think we can show a lot of people that we belong. In no way is that cocky, and we don't think we're going to go in and dominate a league like the SEC, but it's a challenge all the players and coaches are ready for.
"At Missouri, we have great football and great tradition. The guys are excited they get the chance to earn more respect in a great conference."
All eyes will be on the Tigers when the season starts Sept. 1 against Southeastern Louisiana, but premature judgment may be passed Sept. 8, when Missouri hosts Georgia in its first SEC matchup. The Tigers have Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee on their SEC schedule, as well as a Nov. 24 showdown in College Station, Texas, against Texas A&M.
Success against those teams will keep the naysayers silent. Blowout losses, however, could serve as proof of what the players are hearing -- the same chatter they're trying to squelch.
"A lot of the kids down South, they probably think us Missouri kids can't go," Gill said. "I just want to prove them wrong."
"Everybody's doubting us," Abbington added, "but a lot of people are hoping we do have a big season. With this upcoming season, it's going to tell a lot. The way we see it, everybody's beatable. I think we can establish something in the next couple of years. We've just got to work as a family and as one. That's what all the great teams do."