Wingo continues to help lead 2021 recruiting charge
A common refrain among high school football players, especially those who wind up signing for a local college, is that they grew up dreaming of playing for the state school. De Smet defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo wasn’t one of those players. For the first two-and-a-half years of his high school career, Wingo said, he planned to leave the state and play football “somewhere far away from Missouri.”
Fast forward about six months, and not only is Wingo committed to the home-state Tigers, he has played an important role in shaping one of the best Missouri recruiting classes in recent memory. Back in January, Wingo became the team’s first committed player in the 2021 cycle, sparking recruiting momentum under Eliah Drinkwitz that has continued to accelerate. In the six months since, he’s become a vocal recruiter of other St. Louis-area players, imploring them to stay in-state to play their college ball.
“It’s not weird, I would say,” Wingo said of his transformation. “I wanted to go far, but once I took the visit, I explained to everybody, you gotta just get up there and you’re going to see what I’m talking about.”
Had you asked him last fall, Wingo would have scoffed both at the notion of committing to Missouri and the idea of pulling the trigger so early in the recruiting cycle. Not only did he want to travel to play college football, the Tigers’ previous coaching staff under head coach Barry Odom hadn’t offered Wingo a scholarship. Even after Drinkwitz extended an offer on Jan. 7, Wingo planned to take his time making a decision. He scheduled a string of unofficial visits — first, Missouri on the weekend of Jan. 18, then Purdue the following weekend and Arkansas the weekend after that.
That plan began to change during his visit to Columbia. Wingo fell in love with the football facilities, the culture and the “family atmosphere” he felt from the coaching staff. Drinkwitz could tell he was impressed and tried to get him to commit before leaving town, Wingo said. He told Drinkwitz he needed to wait at least couple weeks, to take his previously-scheduled visits first. But during the two-hour return trip to St. Louis, he realized there was no point.
“I just knew that was the place I wanted to be,” he said.
On the evening he returned home, Wingo texted Drinkwitz. “Get the edit ready,” he said, “I’m ready to commit.” The following morning, Drinkwitz called Wingo to ask if he was sure of his decision. Wingo said he was, so Drinkwitz put him on speaker phone and Wingo announced his commitment to the rest of the staff. Wingo could hear their celebratory yelling through the phone.
“It made me feel like I made the right decision, because it didn’t feel like they just wanted me, they made me feel needed there,” Wingo said of the staff’s reaction.
In the months since, other stories have emerged of Drinkwitz and his staff showing excitement about a new commitment — most notably when class of 2020 cornerback Ennis Rakestraw chose Missouri over Texas and Alabama on National Signing Day and Drinkwitz’s reaction went viral. But Wingo’s commitment will always hold special significance to the staff. He became the first player who hadn’t initially committed to Missouri under Odom to pledge himself to the new staff.
His commitment also served as a sign of things to come. Since the moment he took the Missouri job, Drinkwitz has talked at length about the importance of landing in-state players, especially from the St. Louis area. With the 2021 class now about two-thirds full, Drinkwitz has delivered on those words. Including Wingo, seven of the Tigers’ 16 commitments have come from either the state of Missouri or just across the border in East St. Louis, Illinois. Five have come from the greater St. Louis area. Those players form the backbone of a class currently ranked 20th in the Rivals team rankings. Since Rivals began its rankings in 2002, the Tigers have never finished better than No. 21.
Wingo said he knew right away that, if Drinkwitz could convert him from wanting to leave the state in just one visit, he could get other St. Louis-area players on board.
“The last few years, there was a disconnect,” He said. “All the in-state kids were going out of state. … (The new staff) make it a priority to get the in-state kids and all the kids from St. Louis. That’s what I like about the staff. They want to win with the guys that’s here.”
Wingo embraced the idea of helping the staff recruit in St. Louis. He probably he had the most influence on running back Taj Butts, his teammate at De Smet, who committed to Missouri without taking a visit. He also reached out to East St. Louis quarterback Tyler Macon and Lutheran North defensive end Travion Ford. Once those two jumped on board, he said, they became vocal recruiters as well, and his job became easy.
“With me committing, I felt like I could get some more kids on board from the state,” Wingo said, “and honestly once everybody took their visit up there, they knew it was the place, too.”
Wingo has continued to hear from a few other schools since committing to Missouri. Kansas State contacts him from time to time, he said, and West Virginia has been in frequent communication. He might take an official visit to Morgantown in the fall, in part because his former high school teammate Lanell Carr will be a freshman for the Mountaineers this season. However, he said he remains committed to Missouri, and he hopes to continue to lead the charge for in-state players to stay home — not just in the 2021 cycle, but future classes as well.
“We know if we can get a lot of in-state guys in this class, it’ll just drizzle on down to the next class and it’ll be cool to go to Mizzou again, basically,” Wingo said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, let the in-state guys know come play for your home state, put on for your home state.”