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November 27, 2013
Changing of the guard
There are stories inside of Missouri's run to an SEC East title. But at the heart, the binding that holds the book of the 2013 season together, are two groups of players.
They arrived in Columbia in back-to-back seasons. One came with plenty of fanfare, still the highest-rated class from Missouri in the Rivals.com era. The other came without the same notoriety, and the off-the-field issues were more notable than anything on the field for the first four years after signing.
They're now the backbone of a 10-1 team, ranked fifth in the nation, with aspirations bigger and grander than simply a bowl game.
Missouri's 2008 season didn't go as planned. A pre-season No. 4-ranking turned into a 9-3 regular season, a last-second loss to rival Kansas, a Big 12 Championship blow-out at the hands of Oklahoma and an Alamo Bowl victory over Northwestern.
Following that season, Gary Pinkel's class signed 25 players. At the top of that group was Sheldon Richardson, the nation's fourth-ranked player who wouldn't arrive on campus until two seasons later. There was one four-star recruit, junior college linebacker Josh Tatum who wouldn't see much playing time before a back injury ended his career.
The class itself ranked 40th in the nation. It would have ranked 12th in the current 14-team SEC; it ranked eighth in the then-12 team Big 12. Nine of the 25 didn't exhaust their eligibility at Missouri, a mixture of dismissals, injuries and transfers.
All that remains from that 2009 class are nine players, six of which are starters. All nine will step onto Faurot Field on Saturday for the final times as players. Defensive end Brayden Burnett (5.7 three-star) and Jaleel Clark (5.6 three-star) turned into serviceable back-ups, each having their best season this year. The same, too, can be said about defensive tackle Marvin Foster (5.4 two-star), but a torn biceps ended his season a few weeks ago.
Those six starters, though, were the least hyped of that entire group. Left tackle Justin Britt, receiver L'Damian Washington, defensive end Michael Sam, linebacker Donovan Bonner and safety Matt White were all two-star recruits.
Throw in walk-on cornerback Randy Ponder and left guard Max Copeland into this group as well, although neither were part of the 2009 signing class.
The highest rated 2009 recruit that's a Missouri starter? Linebacker Andrew Wilson, the team's leading tackler three years running, was a 5.5 three-star.
It's a class that makes the recruiting websites look silly. Those eight starters have taken this team from a 5-7 cellar-dweller into a team that is a legitimate threat in the national title picture.
Each player has his own legacy in Columbia, but as a whole, the group shows that, sometimes, singular player identification and development can trump all projections. Missouri has a history with turning these "diamonds in the rough" into stars, as Sean Weatherspoon and Danario Alexander have shown.
But, never in Pinkel's tenure at Missouri have the Tigers fielded so many two-star starters with so much success.
The 2010 class knew they were good. It wasn't just the swagger and bravado of high-school seniors entering college.
The rankings told them so.
Missouri signed seven four-star recruits in 2010, following an 8-5 season. That's still a high mark for the Tigers in the Rivals era. There were no two-stars in the class, which ranked 21st overall. It was fourth in the Big 12; it would have been ninth in the current 14-team SEC.
There weren't many misses in the class. Two of the four-stars were dismissed or transferred. Three-star linebacker Jared Parham transferred. But the remaining 20 signees either have or are on pace to exhaust their eligibility at Missouri.
The majority of this class still has a year left to continue its college career. But, on Saturday, four 2010 recruits will play their final game in Columbia. Quarterback James Franklin, receiver Marcus Lucas, tight end Eric Waters and cornerback E.J. Gaines are all seniors, having played all four years since signing.
Franklin and Lucas were two of the highest-rated players in the class, both being four stars, members of the Rivals top 250 players in the class. Gaines was a 5.7 three-star, who was bumped up in the rankings after a strong senior year.
Waters was a 5.6 three-star. Of the 11 players from the 2010 class who are current starters on this year's team, he was the lowest rated.
It's a class that makes the recruiting websites look smart.
Beyond numbers and values assigned in front of a player's name, Gary Pinkel said this group of seniors will be remembered because of their leadership.
"They were handed (something) a little bit different," Pinkel said. "Brad Smith and some of those guys, Chase Daniel, those type people, who got Mizzou starting winning, their winning ways and consistency of winning and trying to go to a higher level.
"All of a sudden, these guys were thrown, got into a car wreck. We didn't got to a bowl game. We didn't have a winning season. What's going on around here?"
Pinkel remembers a conversation he had with the group of seniors from the 2009 and 2010 signing classes. He met with them in January, the first time since the 5-7 season ended.
In basic terms, he talked about what their legacy would be.
"It's your responsibility, it's our responsibility, to get Mizzou back to their winning ways," Pinkel said. "That's the call. That's what you got."
So the seniors went about picking up the pieces from that car crash. There was a sense of urgency. Marcus Lucas said before his freshman year as part of that highly-touted class, his classmates knew they "had the guys to take it to the next level, to do something that hadn't been down around here before."
That year, Missouri won ten games, with a handful of freshmen players. By his own description, Lucas said "the next two years were mediocre, average." After last season, Lucas said they realized that there was no time left.
"The mentality changed," Lucas said. "We just have to think 'Championships.' A lot of times, when we're thinking about bowl games, it was just about making it to (one). When you set your standards just for a bowl game or something like that, if that's the ceiling...
"But if you set your ceiling for a national championship, you never know what's going to happen. When you're actually going for it. That's really what's changed. We've got the same guys. The biggest thing was our mentality, how we approach every game, every practice."
There are deeper stories about the group of seniors from Missouri's 2013 team, about overcoming personal obstacles and maturing. With one game remaining in a regular season that few thought was possible, there's one story that shows how a change in thinking, a change in mentality, set the stage for a rebound year and then some.
During SEC Media Days, L'Damian Washington told reporters -- a few times -- that he predicted 11 wins this season for Missouri. It drew laughter and eye-rolls, which were warranted after the struggles of 2012.
The story of how that prediction came to be may be the most enlightening preamble to what could be the best season ever in Columbia.
In the meeting room for Missouri's receivers, Washington said there's a schedule that hangs on the wall, above his chair. One day during spring practice, the receivers watched film in that room.
"Guys, watch this," Washington said to his teammates.
He took a marker and went down the schedule, stopping at every game.
Win. Win. Win.
"I went down there and I marked it," Washington said. "Some of the other receivers were like, 'What?'"
In Hoover, Ala., Washington said 11 wins. Even he wouldn't go all-in in public.
"Every team falters," Washington said. "You learn from your mistakes and you build from it. I was just kind of leaving room for error."
On that day a few months before, after a spring practice, there weren't 11 wins marked on the schedule. There were 14, including the SEC Championship game and the national title.
"I saw those guys working and I knew what we had to do," Washington said. "I knew, as a captain -- if I could go to SEC Media Days and say, 'Eleven wins' without a smile on my face? A couple of guys in the locker room would be like, 'If he believes, then I believe.' I think it trickles down.
"That was just my mentality. Let me say eleven wins. Why not? Why not Mizzou?"
It was the mentality of this senior class, which will play its final home game on Saturday. A mixture of overlooked recruits and high school stars, the 2013 seniors went about constructing the quickest rebuilding effort in Missouri's history.
There's still more on the table.