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'It’s a new world': Mizzou’s Casey Woods on recruiting during a pandemic

Kevin Graeler
kgraeler@columbiatribune.com
Casey Woods, Missouri tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, communicates with players during a spring practice earlier this year. Before coaching the Tigers in a game, Woods is navigating an offseason like no other.

Casey Woods is entering his first season as the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator for Missouri football.

Before coaching the Tigers in a game, Woods is navigating an offseason like no other.

Woods met with local media this week during a Zoom call and discussed his relationship with new MU head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, recruiting during a pandemic and the limited evaluation time coaches have had with their players so far in 2020.

The following conversation has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you detail when you first met coach Drinkwitz and how your relationship with him has evolved into what it is today?

Woods: “I was a GA (graduate assistant) at Auburn in 2009. And I was a GA there with a guy named Rhett Lashlee, who's the offensive coordinator now at Miami (Fla.), and a guy named Chris Martin, who actually coaches high school football over in the St. Louis area now. But Chris had left to take a Division III coordinator job, and we hired Eli to take his spot as the offensive line GA for our team there at Auburn. He came in and obviously, as you know him, he's an instantly likable guy, incredibly intelligent and did a great job relating to the players. He sneaks up on you a little bit. He's kind of unassuming, but then you realize, man, how dedicated he is to his craft, how dedicated he is to his players, how dedicated he is to his family. And we hit it off instantly. I was so impressed by how smart he was and how he invested himself and everything that had gone on. ... Anytime that you're down there, we called it the engine room back in the day, right? That's where all the work gets done that nobody sees. So we were back there just pushing through the smoke and the sweat. Anytime you do that, then you have a chance to grow together. Fortunately, we were both able to get our first college full-time jobs together. That was at Arkansas State in 2012 with coach (Gus) Malzahn, and we both owe coach Malzahn credit for stepping up and giving us that first opportunity. … When (Drinkwitz) called me about this (Missouri) job and offered it to me, he couldn’t finish offering me the job before I accepted it. In fact, I told a funny story, I said, ‘You better mean it, because I'm gonna be there Friday and I ain’t leaving.’”

Q: Due to the coronavirus guidelines, what types of things are you and other coaches able to see in workouts now that can help with your evaluation going into the fall?

Woods: “Well, there's actually very little that we can participate in right now. ... Honestly right now, our No. 1 concern is the health and safety of our team. Part of that certainly is avoiding the virus. And we know that we want to make sure that we protect our team from that. But the second part of that is these guys have been off and haven't been in a training environment for three and a half months. So we want to make sure that we're putting them in a position where if we just come in and start working out like they've been working out three and a half months, then we're going to have injuries, so a large portion of this volunteer time until the NCAA brings us back is not so much about evaluation. It's more about maintenance, it's more about preparing their body for the grind that's going to come, and this is obviously a unique situation. … They've done a great job of opening a setting where (strength and conditioning) coach (Zac) Woodfin can guide that a little bit and we can get guys back where they need to be.”

Q: During your time as recruiting coordinator at UAB when the program was reestablished in 2017, did you learn any lessons when you were building that roster that can translate to recruiting during the COVID era?

Woods: “Yes absolutely. Experience is everything. I think the unique experiences that we had at UAB — and I'm incredibly proud of the time we were there — that was a place that my first day on the job, we had zero scholarship players and then we went on in three years to win 29 games and two championships. The lessons that were learned there, some are more broad, like creativity, and making sure, well, when I first got there, we didn't have a facility and we didn't have even ... we had nothing. We had no players. We had to sell the vision and be creative about how we sold that vision. And we had to tap into the parts that you could sell. ... We were able to creatively from there build on to the things that later translated to football. So from a broader sense, I think, making sure that you were creative, making sure that you were on the front end of this thing and always, you gotta continue to push the envelope in everything that you do. There's a lot of great ideas that exist out there, and you gotta make sure that you utilize the ones that are applicable to you. Certainly when you come in, I think that there's the scholarship numbers adjusting and things like that, my experience in roster management will help us just from a standpoint of knowing how to utilize the things that we do. There's a lot of great things here at Missouri. … There's a little bit of an element of (the program) hasn't reached its full potential yet, which I think people are excited about. I think that's what coach Drinkwitz sees and I think one of his strongest traits is getting everybody to pull in the same direction.”

Q: How have you and the program dealt with the NCAA recruiting dead period and working virtually during your first recruiting cycle of this new regime?

Woods: “That's been an enormous challenge. And I think maybe that piggybacks on the previous question as well. We had to be creative and forward thinking as fast as we could. … We had to find a way to get out and still treat the recruiting period like we had to do and we had to find a way to sell things. … I think one of the biggest challenges is one of the tenets of our program, of our recruiting philosophy, is get ‘em on campus. Get ‘em on campus because there’s such fabulous things to sell here and there's so many things that we can get done. So we had to immediately refigure that train of thought. How do you present somebody an opportunity to be on campus when you can't be on campus? Our entire building rose to the occasion on that. That goes from our IT guy that had to pump so much more to make sure that our WiFi never let down ... to our equipment manager who comes in and six times a day maybe gives a tour of the locker room virtually. Everybody came in and did a great job buying into what it is that we wanted to get accomplished. And I think that they all saw the goals that were out there in front of us.

“I don't even know the exact math, but I think there's three times more commitments this year at this time than have ever been at this time. And so that leads to some speculation. Maybe there'll be more decommitments, and some of that is attributed certainly to uncertainty, I think, on the prospects’ part because they don't know if their spot’s going to be available or not. But I also think that we have more of a concentrated effort to show these guys what we have. Without traveling and driving in a car eight hours a day and visiting eight schools and then telling them, ‘Hey man, you gotta get to campus’ ... these guys now are more educated than the previous classes that are committed, if that makes sense. These guys know more about their program because we have been able to singularly focus on more specific players in these environments so they’re more comfortable committing. It’s a new world a little bit.”

Q: How much evaluation have you been able to do with your tight ends with the limited practice time so far?

Woods: “We watched every game obviously from last year. And so Daniel (Parker Jr.) stands out as a guy that he’s got ability and he’s got toughness and he's got football smarts. That part of it was pretty easy early on. Now obviously, there was a ton of uncertainty headed into spring (with Parker undergoing treatments for an eye infection). We had to take a proactive approach to evaluating the guys that we had to evaluate, which were the other six tight ends that we've got here. We had a long training period prior to spring practice starting where you could see fundamental athletic movement, you could see competitiveness, you could see both athletic ability and also maybe intangible stuff. You have an opportunity to build relationships with those guys and start understanding where they're coming from, and that’s why we all coach to a degree. Then those three spring practices. Since then, there's not been a lot of evaluation time, but no one that’s playing is having an opportunity to evaluate during that time, either. You can see when guys show back up on campus, you know who's really been committed to their craft and the ones that maybe aren't mature enough to handle that yet.”

Missouri assistant coach Casey Woods walks during a spring practice earlier this year.