Missouri opens its third spring practice under coach Eli Drinkwitz on Friday. The Tigers are 11-12 over Drinkwitz’s first two seasons, including a 6-7 mark with an appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl last year. Missouri returns 14 starters off last season’s team but face key question marks at quarterback, running back and on defense. Drinkwitz also had some turnover on his staff, including at defensive coordinator where Blake Baker and D.J. Smith replaced Steve Wilks. Most early picks for 2022 have Missouri picked sixth in the SEC East, so this is a critical offseason to solve some personnel concerns and close the gap to the rest of the division.
Considering not all rosters are settled and newcomers in place on campus, it’s hard to gain too much from spring practice. However, every team has storylines and things to watch as the path to the ’22 season officially gets underway. Here’s a look at what’s on tap for Missouri this spring:
5 Storylines to Watch During Missouri’s Spring Practices
1. The Quarterback Battle
Connor Bazelak started 11 of Missouri’s 13 games last year but opted to transfer to Indiana. The Tigers are slated to have an open competition this spring, as Brady Cook and Tyler Macon will handle the bulk of the snaps until talented freshman Sam Horn arrives in the summer. Cook started the Armed Forces Bowl against Army and completed 27 of 34 throws for 238 yards and a touchdown and added 53 yards and a score on the ground. Macon started versus Georgia and completed six of 13 throws for 74 yards but attempted only four other passes the rest of the year. A transfer addition later this offseason can’t be ruled out.
2. Replacing Tyler Badie
Badie paced Missouri’s ground game with 1,604 yards and led the SEC with an average of 161.6 all-purpose yards a contest. The Louisiana native handled the bulk of the ground game for the Tigers, with no other rusher having more than 37 carries (Elijah Young). This spring is all about replacing Badie’s production, as Young, Michael Cox and Stanford transfer Nathaniel Peat are likely to headline the competition. Will a leader for carries emerge this spring?
3. Developing Playmakers in the Passing Game
In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, Missouri heads into spring practice needing to bolster and solidify its big-play ability in the receiving corps. The Tigers had 58 plays (conference-only games) of 10-plus yards in the passing game last year (ranked No. 13 in the SEC), and two out of the team’s top three targets have departed Columbia. Tauskie Dove (38 catches) returns, with JJ Hester (12), Chance Luper (21) and Mookie Cooper (17) rounding out the next wave of contributors. Although a solid group of receivers is back, all eyes this spring will be on the development of freshmen Luther Burden (No. 3 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite) and Mekhi Miller. Building depth and options at tight end are a priority after the departure of Daniel Parker, Messiah Swinson and Niko Hea.
4. Improvement on Defense
Missouri’s defense struggled mightily in 2021. In SEC-only matchups, the Tigers surrendered 6.7 yards per play and 36 points a game. Also, this unit ranked last in the SEC against the run (227.6 ypg in conference play) and gave up 19 plays of 40-plus yards. Missouri’s defense played better down the stretch, but big-time question marks still remain about this group. With Steve Wilks opting to return to coach in the NFL, Drinkwitz promoted Blake Baker and D.J. Smith to handle the play-calling duties on defense. Baker is expected to call plays, and the Texas native has previous experience in that role from stints at Louisiana Tech and Miami.
Eight starters are back for Baker, including ends Trajan Jeffcoat and Isaiah McGuire, safety Martez Manuel and cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine. How far can this defense improve this spring?
5. How Will the Transfers Fit on Defense?
Overall improvement is needed on defense, but help is on the way in the form of transfers. Drinkwitz and the defensive staff mined the portal for assistance, as seven newcomers could push for snaps in ’22. Jayden Jernigan and Ian Mathews join the defensive line, while Charles Hicks, Ty’Ron Hopper and Tyrone Hopper will push for time at linebacker. Dreyden Norwood and Joseph Charleston join the secondary to round out the transfer haul on the defensive side. Even if none of the additions are high-impact newcomers, all will add to the depth and talent on a defense that needs to make big strides this fall.
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