The Missouri Tigers entered the 2019 season with lofty expectations despite a dark cloud hanging over the program in the form of NCAA sanctions and a possible bowl ban. Those expectations began to wane after an embarrassing loss at Wyoming in the season opener. However, hope was soon restored by a five-game win-streak that had the Tigers sitting pretty at 5-1. Unfortunately, injuries and an anemic offense (among other issues) would ultimately take their toll, as Mizzou would go just 1-5 down the stretch to finish the season at 6-6. Worse yet, the bowl ban was upheld, marking the end of the Barry Odom era at Missouri.
Mizzou football is now set to embark on a new era under the direction of Eli Drinkwitz, who led Appalachian State to a 13-1 record and a Sun Belt championship in his lone season at the helm for the Mountaineers in 2019. The Drinkwitz era officially kicks off tomorrow in Columbia with the first of 15 spring practice sessions, concluding with the annual Black and Gold Game on April 11. With that, comes a renewed sense of optimism. However, there seem to be more questions than answers for the Tigers heading into this critical spring camp. The hope is that the next few weeks will go a long way in addressing those questions, as well as providing some insight into the future direction of the program under its new head coach.
5 Storylines to Watch During Missouri's Spring Practice
1. Eli Drinkwitz and his new offense
It will be a very busy spring for Drinkwitz, who will pull double duty as offensive coordinator for the Tigers. In addition to Drinkwitz’s head coaching responsibilities, he will be charged with installing a brand-new offense, employing a new playbook, and identifying the players that best fit his new scheme. Mizzou’s offensive players will be in for a serious challenge as well. They will be tasked with learning and processing that new offense/playbook in short order. And the learning curve could be steep as they acclimate to the coaching styles of an entirely new offensive staff.
The big question is — What will Missouri’s new offense look like? During his introductory press conference, Drinkwitz provided this description — “It’s going to be fun to watch. Our style on offense is a pro-tempo style. We’re going to base out of the no-huddle. We’re going to be quarterback driven. We’re going to be able to have a dominant downhill run game; a vertical passing game and we’re going to execute well under pressure.”
While at Appalachian State, Drinkwitz employed multiple looks in his offense. He also utilized a run-heavy approach that averaged 43 rushes per game, compared to 26.5 pass attempts per contest. That seems likely to carry over at Missouri, where the strength of the Tigers’ offense this season looks to lie in the run game with the return of standouts Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie. Time will tell, and we should learn more about Drinkwitz's vision for this offense as spring progresses.
2. The quarterback competition
It’s been a very long time since Missouri last entered spring football without a clear-cut starter already in place at quarterback. But that is the case this spring. The real competition won’t heat up until later this summer when redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak (recovering from a torn ACL) and four-star true freshman Brady Cook (not yet on campus) enter the mix. That leaves a pair of redshirt juniors in Shawn Robinson and Taylor Powell to battle it out this spring.
Robinson, who transferred to Mizzou from TCU last season, looks to be the early favorite. The former high school All-American is the most experienced signal-caller on the team, and he brings a dual-threat component to the table that the other contenders lack. Robinson also could get a leg up in the competition this spring with a familiar face in former TCU co-offensive coordinator Curtis Luper joining the Missouri staff as an offensive assistant.
Taylor Powell, who served as the primary backup for both Drew Lock and Kelly Bryant over the last two seasons, will be Robinson’s biggest threat this spring. The previous coaching staff seemed to be high on Powell, and he did show flashes in the season finale against Arkansas last fall. That said, Powell also struggled mightily against Georgia last season in his lone career start and was replaced by a more effective Bazelak late in that contest. It will be interesting to see if Robinson or Powell can firmly establish themselves as the starter before Bazelak and Cook enter the competition this summer.
3. Continuity on defense
Eli Drinkwitz was wise to retain three members of the defensive coaching staff from the previous regime, including defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, to ensure at least some continuity and familiarity on that side of the football. Missouri appears to be in good shape on defense in terms of key players returning as well. Make no mistake, it will be a tall order finding replacements for defensive standouts Cale Garrett, Jordan Elliott, DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes this spring, but the cupboard is far from bare.
In fact, Missouri will kick off spring practice with key contributors back at every level from last year’s defense that ranked 14th nationally. Nick Bolton returns as one of the top linebackers in the nation after a breakout 2019 campaign in which he led the Tigers in tackles 107 (7.5 for a loss), adding two interceptions and eight pass breakouts. Kobie Whiteside returns at defensive tackle after accumulating a team-best 7.5 sacks last fall. And Joshuah Bledsoe will be back in his familiar safety role in the Mizzou secondary this spring after a team-leading ten pass breakups in 2019. Unlike the offense, it should be a fairly smooth transition for the Missouri defense this spring.
4. Who will step up at wide receiver/tight end?
Albert Okwuegbunam, Johnathon Johnson, Jonathan Nance, and Kam Scott have all moved on, leaving some big voids to fill in pass-catching roles for the Tigers. So, who will step up to fill those spots this spring?
Virginia Tech grad transfer Damon Hazelton Jr. enters his first spring in Columbia as the most polished and experienced receiver on the Mizzou roster after hauling in 82 passes for 1,329 yards and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons with the Hokies. Junior wideout Jalen Knox is the early frontrunner to start opposite of Hazelton. However, Knox will have plenty of competition with redshirt freshman Maurice Massey, redshirt sophomore Tauskie Dove, and converted quarterback Micah Wilson all looking to stake their claim for playing time.
Perhaps the most intriguing competition this spring will be at the slot position. Former walk-on Barrett Banister should get first crack after filling in for Johnathon Johnson with some success in that role last season. But Dominic Gicinto, who battled injury most of last fall, may have more upside and will be looking to re-establish himself ahead of Banister in the pecking order. Speedster Khmari Thompson and early enrollee Jay Maclin could factor heavily into the competition as well.
As far as tight end, it’s unclear how Eli Drinkwitz intends to utilize that position. But one thing is certain, no one is going to be able to replace the dynamic talents of Albert Okwuegbunam. Junior Daniel Parker is the most likely candidate to lock down the No. 1 tight end spot this spring. While Parker is a better blocker than he is a pass-catcher, he did display some ability as a receiver while filling in for the oft-injured Okwuegbunam over the last two seasons, earning Freshman All-SEC accolades in 2018. The competition for reps behind Parker should be intense with Brandon Scales, Niko Hea, Messiah Swinson, and Logan Christopherson all vying to impress new tight ends coach Casey Woods and carve out bigger roles for themselves in 2020.
5. Help wanted along the offensive line
Missouri’s offensive line wasn’t exactly spectacular last season. And with multi-year starters Trystan Colon-Castillo, Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms, and Yasir Durant no longer on the roster, it could be tough sledding once again for the Tigers’ O-line. The hope is that the players returning from last season’s suspect offensive line take a big step forward in 2020.
One thing is for sure, playing time should be up for grabs across the board with new offensive line coach Marcus Johnson starting with a clean slate. That being said, there are a few prospective favorites heading into spring practice. Juniors Larry Borom and Case Cook should have a leg up in the competition after starting all 12 games for Mizzou last season. Borom should once again feature prominently at left tackle or left guard, while Cook can play both guard spots and center. Meanwhile, Hyrin White looks to be a top contender at right tackle after making a couple of starts there last fall.
Junior Angel Matute and redshirt sophomores Bobby Lawrence, Javon Foster, and Mike Ruth also look to make a strong push for playing time this spring, along with a host of other prospective candidates. The position battles along the offensive line should be among Missouri’s most compelling this spring.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of @MizzouFootball)