Year two of the Eliah Drinkwitz era in Missouri football is upon the horizon, and it’s shaping up to be much less chaotic than the first.
Before Drinkwitz coached a game with the Tigers after being poached by Appalachian State in December 2019, COVID-19 struck and gave him a weird welcome to Southeastern Conference football. His Tigers went 5-5 and qualified for a bowl while playing a SEC-only schedule, but they didn’t play that postseason game because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.
Now with a staff that’s entirely his own, his first full recruiting class and a quarterback, redshirt sophomore Connor Bazelak, who has a year under center to his credit, 2021 can be the year Drinkwitz makes the program his own. Preseason camp is where that process begins.
As the Tigers begin practice Friday for the Sept. 4 season opener against Central Michigan, how Missouri looks in certain areas early on may tell how its season will go.
Will Connor Bazelak become an elite SEC quarterback?
Missouri’s quarterback situation went through some growing pains early last year.
Bazelak lost the starting job to Shawn Robinson, but got it to himself after a Week 1 loss to eventual national champions Alabama. The Ohioan didn’t lose the spot from there, finishing around the middle of the pack in most SEC passing categories (fifth in passing yards and completions) while winning the league’s co-freshman of the year award.
In year two, Bazelak is the unequivocal starter while Robinson changed positions entirely to safety late last season. Bazelak completed 67.3% of his passes in 2020 — fourth nationally among freshmen — but only had seven touchdowns through the air.
Additions to the receiving corps could certainly help. Ohio State transfer and former top-100 recruit Mookie Cooper along with four-star freshman Dominic Lovett bolster a unit that had no player eclipse either more than 500 yards or two touchdowns receiving last season.
As Drinkwitz remains the offense’s primary playcaller (he doesn’t have an offensive coordinator on his staff), how often he decides to unleash the passing attack could influence Bazelak’s numbers. The aim from the staff, meanwhile, is just to continue to work with Bazelak on what he does well.
“(We’re) not necessarily thinking, ‘It’s year two, I’ve got to do this next-level stuff,’” quarterbacks and wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan said Wednesday. “Staying consistent I think is a huge part of his game, and we’re excited to watch him.”
What about the new-look and experienced secondary?
Tulsa isn’t the usual program to poach for elite defensive talent, but Missouri’s strategy of raiding the Golden Hurricane’s secondary — both in players and personnel — has the potential to pay dividends.
Tulsa held opponents to 189.6 passing yards per game last season (18th best in the country) even while facing four ranked teams (Oklahoma State, UCF, SMU, Cincinnati) and a SEC school led by coach Mike Leach’s air raid system (Mississippi State).
The coach of that Tulsa secondary, Aaron Franklin, was picked away by Drinkwitz for the same role at MU in the offseason. Then in the summer, Tulsa defensive backs Allie Green IV (a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist) and Akayleb Evans (a three-year starter) transferred to the Tigers within days of each other, pairing with returners along the likes of junior Martez Manuel and sophomore Ennis Rakestraw.
The transfer pledges boosted a Tigers’ secondary that had three players transfer out of the program by the end of spring practices, including two-year starter Jarvis Ware. How quickly they adapt to an evolving defensive style, in which new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks plans to run more zone coverage, will be the biggest factor.
“Being able to get those guys … it was a blessing,” Franklin said of the transfers. “Those guys dominate guys at every level. I’ve watched those guys dominate guys in the SEC, I’ve watched those guys dominate in the Big 12. Whatever the conference, I’ve always thought that they were two of the best in the country. The level doesn’t matter to me.”
Tyler Badie is bigger but can the O-line back him up?
Senior running back Tyler Badie has often been Mr. Versatile throughout his career in Columbia, fielding punts and catching passes while also being a dependable tailback, often behind the likes of Damarea Crockett at first, then Larry Rountree III.
With Rountree gone, selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Charges, it’s Badie’s time to be the bell-cow back. In preparation for what’s sure to be an increased workload, running backs coach Curtis Luper said Wednesday that Badie had gained 10 to 12 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Don’t expect that to mean he’ll suddenly become a power back, Luper says.
“He watched Larry,” Luper said of Badie. “He kind of yielded to Larry at times, and said, ‘Hey, I want Larry to do well.’ … I think the next step for him is to be an all-SEC running back, and I think that’s the goal. He’s just going to be himself. He’s not gonna try to be anything he’s not. He’s not going to be Larry Rountree, he’s going to be Tyler Badie.”
But for Badie to be the most effective version of himself, that probably means using his speed to burst to the outside through the offensive tackles. That’s a slight problem as the Tigers’ tackle positions are low on certainty with Larry Borom having been drafted to the NFL.
The interior of the line is solid, with center Mike Maietti entering his fifth year as a college starter between Missouri and Rutgers. But returners Hyrin White, Zeke Powell, Bobby Lawrence, Javon Foster, freshman Connor Tollison and Montana State transfer Connor Wood are all in an open competition for the tackle spots. White is likely a favorite for the right, having been ruled out all of last year with a shoulder injury. The left side is much more wide open.
“It should be a competitive environment throughout training camp,” offensive line coach Marcus Johnson said. “Those guys know me, I believe in cross-training guys. Even though they may start out at a position (it) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily where they’re going to finish. … I’m excited and fired up and anxious to watch these guys.”
Can Steve Wilks’ defense create more takeaways?
College football is in the age of the “turnover prop,” an often-creative and humorous gimmick that teams will grant to players who create takeaways in games. Missouri’s version of the trend was the “turnover robe,” a sleek black and gold boxing robe that made its debut when Jarvis Ware scored on a pick-6 against Florida.
Too bad the Tigers didn’t get to break it out often.
Missouri ranked tied for 91st nationally with just nine turnovers created last season, a mark that was second-to-last in the SEC only behind league basement-dwellers Vanderbilt. Under previous defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who left to take the same position at Illinois, man coverage was the name of the game. Under Wilks, previously a NFL head coach with the Arizona Cardinals, expect the Tigers to roll with more zone coverage.
With the Tigers’ units playing against each other in spring ball, Wilks said that the defense created 38 turnovers while getting adjusted to the new scheme, which Wilks and Drinkwitz have both remarked that they’re interested in a 4-2-5 base formation with three cornerbacks. Camp practices open to the media will likely reveal more glimpses about what’s to come.
“Guys are understanding how to play with their No. 1 weapon, which is their eyes,” Wilks said. “... We’re going to mix it up a lot. It’s all depending on who we’re playing based off the scheme. We want to incorporate that particular week, but we’re not going to sit back. We’re going to be aggressive in what we’re doing and trying to set the tone on the defensive side of the ball.”
How does Missouri replace Nick Bolton at linebacker?
One of the elite linebackers in college football last season, Nick Bolton was a menace in the defensive backfield for Missouri, earning his second first-team all-SEC nod, a Butkus Award finalist nomination and second-round pick by the Chiefs in the NFL Draft.
It also leaves a big hole in his spot behind. Rice transfer and two-time all-Conference USA selection Blaze Alldredge will likely pick up most of the slack, though in Wilks’ two-linebacker system it won’t be like Bolton’s exact responsibility as a middle man.
Expect Alldredge to start alongside Devin Nicholson, who started every game with Bolton last season, with Chad Bailey and Cameron Wilkins — both of which have dealt with injury problems in the past — backing up for depth. Jamie Pettway and Will Norris are other returners that could get into the fold, while Drinkwitz recruited two true freshmen in the position in Dameon Wilson and Zachary Lovett.
Much like the secondary, a shift to a mix of zone and man coverage is an adjustment from last year for the unit, putting responsibility on the linebackers to make quick decisions on the fly and be aware of their surroundings with one less player in their position on the field.
“It’s the best players who’ll play,” linebackers coach D.J. Smith said. “It’s just about getting the entire group ready because at the end of the day, we’re gonna need everybody. It’s not just about filling the void with one guy, Nick Bolton, it’s about coming together as a group like we did last year.”