Diamonds in the rough: Mississippi State relies on developing lower-star prospects to build program success



Mike Villagrana

Mike Villagrana


Joe Moorhead

Joe Moorhead



Brett Hudson



Greg Eiland came to Mississippi State as a three-star offensive lineman from Philadelphia.  


The two in-state Southeastern Conference schools were providing most of the Power 5 conference attention; he had more offers from schools in smaller conferences, given he was ranked as the 58th-best offensive tackle in his senior class by 247 Sports Composite -- one of many services that ranks high school football prospects on a 5-star scale. 


In just his second year on campus, following a redshirt year, Eiland started four games. This season, he should start full-time.  


He is the stereotypical "diamond in the rough" MSU turned into a promising Southeastern Conference starter. 


Eiland is not alone. Starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was the same way, a three-star prospect with no other offers from major Division I schools. In his four years in the program -- last year, leading MSU to an eight-win regular season as the starting QB -- he became a finished product ready to mold to a specific cause. 


"His previous coaches did a good job with him," quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Andrew Breiner said. "He knew football. Now he just has to learn a scheme." 


This story is a common one in this program. The leadership has changed -- former coach Dan Mullen is now at Florida and first-year head coach Joe Moorhead is now at the helm. But Moorhead's plan is to keep the diamond in the rough examples coming. 




Philosophy out of necessity 


The diamond in the rough is a staple in MSU's recruiting history out of necessity.  


Mississippi is not one to produce an abundance of top-flight talent. Over the last 10 years, the state has produced 75 five- and four-star recruits according to 247 Sports and 70 according to (another prospect ranking system) Rivals; in that same span, Georgia produced 300, Alabama and Louisiana produced 112 each and Tennessee produced 77. 


That being the case, MSU is perfectly willing to mine the lower ranks in-state.  


MSU's Director of Recruiting Mike Villagrana told The Dispatch how MSU does it. 


"It's making sure that we're not just going off of stars and who's on 247 and Rivals; you can't just do that here. You can use it as a base, but we're starting a process of looking at 2021s and 2022s (sophomores and freshmen in high school this fall) and those guys aren't ranked," Villagrana said. "We're digging. We're looking at guys that aren't ranked so by the time they become ranked, we already know about those guys. 


"It's a culmination of that and the relationship with the high school coaches," he added. "With access to Hudl and games, we're able to cut those things up and look at every guy." 


Hudl is the film-sharing service that most high school football programs use, both to scout opponents and for highlights of their players. The players have come to use it for their own purposes, and Villagrana is perfectly fine with it. 


"I've got a handful of DMs (Twitter direct messages) of guys sending me their last game (highlights), which we want," he said. "We want these guys, the 2019s (high school seniors) and 2020s (juniors), the guys we think are OK and coming on the brink, we want to see how they develop. It's exciting to go back and look at those guys and see how they develop into someone we might offer." 


That last part is one of critical importance to Villagrana. The on-campus summer camp has become college football's most powerful recruiting tool: top prospects come to their campus for an in-person evaluation, in theory against other top prospects that could be better than their usual high school competition. 


MSU refuses to allow their evaluation process to stop there. 


"It's so unfair, especially to a linemen who developed a little bit later physically or coordination-wise ... to say, 'At our camp, he was no good, done with him,'" Villagrana said. "(If) he had some really good measurables and he had a decent skill-set, let's keep him in the tank. That ensures that we're going to continue to watch him. 


"That's a frustration with some recruits, where they go to camp, they don't get an offer and they never hear from that guy again," he added. 


Villagrana makes every effort to make sure that doesn't happen with MSU's lower-star targets. It helps that Moorhead talks to 35 recruits per day, according to Villagrana: "He's a machine when it comes to that." 




A 'well-oiled machine' 


Through this work, another Eiland might be found. 


As Villagrana looked over the grid that lists each prospect, he flipped it over to the back side, listing the players that have not received offers from MSU yet.  


He found one offensive linemen, in particular, who he's noticed has developed well since the summer. It was his reminder to make sure offensive line coach Marcus Johnson saw updated film of this player; maybe that prospect will get an offer soon. 


"When we get the entire department rolling on this, which is in motion, I think we're going to have a well-oiled machine," Villagrana said. 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson




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