Eli Drinkwitz is laying the foundation for what should be a sustainable winner. These are the five things Mizzou could do in 2021 to prove the program has taken the next step.
I recently purchased my first house. It was completely overwhelming. The process of finding the right house in the right neighborhood with the right features was exhausting, but that was only the start of it.
The real work came after move-in. Projects galore. First it needed to be furnished. Then there were upgrades that needed to be made. A new sink, new vanity, new light fixtures. Did I mention a fence to install?
So many projects, so little time.
But not everything needed to be done at once. Some projects were put on the backburner. The yard? Yeah, that’s a lost cause for this year. We’ll get to that in 2022. The unfinished basement? Maybe 2023 or later. There are only so many things you can do when you first move in.
Eli Drinkwitz is in a similar spot with his football team. Year one was all about building a foundation. He was trying to show the players and the fans what it will mean to play for or watch Drink’s Tigers. There was so little time to implement the foundation that much of what we saw offensively was his spin on the previous regime’s offense.
Much like moving into a new house, Drinkwitz had to figure out what to prioritize. Instead of a new vanity a fence installation, he’s trying to figure out which positions he can upgrade or which schemes he can implement.
The foundation is strong, and year two is about taking that next step in Drink’s building plan. Here are the five things we could see on the football field in 2021 to indicate to Mizzou fans everywhere that the team is heading in a positive direction under Drinkwitz’s leadership.
1) Connor Bazelak needs to build on what we saw in year one as a starter
Drinkwitz has stated multiple times his offense is “quarterback-driven,” but last season Bazelak was asked not to lose the game far more often than he was asked to go out and win it.
This year, that can and should change.
The Tigers were able to lean heavily last season on Larry Rountree III as a legitimate bell-cow running back. He led the SEC with nearly 21 carries per game and his 14 rushing touchdowns were third in the league. Having such a consistent threat in the running game allowed Drinkwitz to play it safe with his redshirt freshman quarterback, keeping him out of harms way.
This was especially true in the red zone where the Tigers were as heavy a run team as anyone in the conference. Drinkwitz has stated publicly multiple times that he was comfortable handing the ball off to Rountree once Mizzou reached the red zone, especially with such a young player as the team’s signal-caller.
Bazelak had a full offseason now as the team’s established starter. He’s seen what it takes to be successful at this level. The expectations are going to be bumped up a bit, and he has every opportunity to meet those expectations. The explosive plays and red zone production left a bit to be desired in year one. His ability to take that to the next level in year two as a starter will be the key to unlocking Drinkwitz’s offense for 2021 and beyond.
2) The rebuilt wide receiver corps starts to create more explosive plays
Stating Missouri’s wide receiver corps was in flux last season is putting it mildly. The two most productive receivers were grad transfers. The third leading receiver decided to transfer after the year because he was passed on the depth chart. The fourth leading receiver came into the season with two career receptions.
The Tigers didn’t have a single former four or five star recruit at the receiver position catch a pass a season ago.
That all changes in 2021.
The Tigers added former 4-star athlete Mookie Cooper and four star wide receiver Dominic Lovett since the end of last season. Both are expected to start this season, and both are at their best in the open field with the ball in their hand. There’s your quick-fix for the Tigers’ lack of explosive plays a year ago.
It’ll be fun to see what Keke Chism is able to do in his second year in the system, but the real reason for hope and excitement in the passing game comes from Cooper, Lovett, Tauskie Dove and the possibility of JJ Hester or Chance Luper becoming a significant contributor.
3) The defensive line provides consistent pressure
Quick trivia for you: Can you name the last time Missouri finished a season ranked among the top five in the SEC in sacks per game?
If you said 2015, you would be correct. It’s been five full seasons since Missouri was even a top five team in the conference in pass rush productivity. This is a team that made its name on “D-Line Zou.”
Missouri probably won’t finish this season in the top five in sacks, but it should be better than its ninth place finish from a year ago.
Trajan Jeffcoat is a budding superstar. Kobie Whiteside should return to form after a full offseason of good health. Akial Byers is as consistent as they come. Darius Robinson, Isaiah McGuire and Mekhi Wingo provide hope for upside this year, and the arrivals of three blue chip talents along the defensive line in the 2021 and 2022 recruiting classes give you every reason to be optimistic about the long-term plan at the position.
4) Steve Wilks’ 4-2-5 scheme doesn’t look out of place in the college game
Wilks is likely to be a bigger topic of conversation nationally than it has been locally. Nationally, I have to imagine there are some who are more than a little skeptical about a defensive coordinator whose last season in college football was more than 15 years ago. It’s a fair critique, but NFL offenses have stolen so much from the college game over the last three to five years that the transition isn’t what it once was.
That said, Wilks’ transition is crucial to Missouri’s success.
A year ago the Los Angeles Rams fired Wade Phillips. He’s considered to be one of the best defensive coordinators of this generation. So why did they fire him? They wanted to find their defensive version of Sean McVay. For McVay, the man for the job was Brandon Staley. The transition couldn’t have gone any better. Staley built the Rams into the best defense in the league, and he parlayed that success into an NFL head coaching opportunity a year later.
Much like the Rams, the Tigers had a perfectly fine defensive coordinator in Ryan Walters, but Drinkwitz wanted more than fine. He wants that side of the ball to have an advantage, and he clearly believes Wilks gives them that. Here’s to hoping he’s right.
5) Mizzou finishes with a winning record, and wins a game nobody expected
If there was one game last season that convinced even the biggest Drinkwitz skeptics to jump on the Mizzou bandwagon, it was the win against LSU. No, LSU wasn’t what we thought it would be, but that didn’t matter. The Tigers were able to beat the defending champs. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted such a win before the season.
That’s the kind of victory Missouri didn’t have much of early in the Barry Odom era, and it’s the kind of game that can keep this positive momentum going into 2022.
It seems there are three games this season which could serve as the “statement win” for the Tigers this season: vs. Texas A&M, at Georgia or vs. Florida. All three would likely serve as wins against a top 25 opponent, and serve as yet another reminder of what Drinkwitz is capable of accomplishing in his tenure at Missouri.
The Tigers are in good hands with Drink at the helm. A record of 7-5 or 8-4 with a signature victory and with reasons for optimism in the passing game and along the defensive line would serve as one heck of a foundation for what the program can be in 2022 and 2023 when things get really intriguing for the long-term future of the program.
It all starts on Saturday afternoon with a matinee game against Central Michigan. Buckle in, Tigers fans. It’s going to be another fun ride.