In Eliah Drinkwitz's first season as Missouri head coach, his Tigers beat LSU, knocked off Arkansas for the fifth straight time and finished 5–5 despite much lower projections and a brutal schedule. All this, plus Mizzou's best recruiting class in quite a while, provided obvious reasons for optimism.
The pessimist, however, could note that Mizzou's five losses came by an average of 24 points, and while three of those losses were to top-10 teams, they also lost by 23 to Tennessee and 19 to Mississippi State. There is still plenty of room for growth in Columbia.
Previewing Missouri's Offense for 2021
It behooves any new coach to get his quarterback situation figured out as quickly as possible. For Drinkwitz, it took about five quarters. Connor Bazelak replaced Shawn Robinson early in the Tigers' second game and never looked back, completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,366 yards.
In his first start, against LSU, Bazelak threw for 406 yards and four scores in a 45–41 win. He threw only three TDs the rest of the season — a product of Drinkwitz's quick-passing philosophy and a lack of playmakers in the receiving corps — but he also threw only six interceptions (three in the last game).
Bazelak was able to lean on running back Larry Rountree III in 2020, but with Rountree off to the pros, Bazelak will now likely turn to Tyler Badie. The 200-pound senior is a three-year contributor, an old-school third-down type of back who combined 242 rushing yards with 333 receiving yards last season. He is a great check-down option, and sophomore Elijah Young could be ready for a good number of carries as well.
The receiver position is intriguing but unproven from a consistency standpoint. Former Division II star Keke Chism leads the way after catching 35 passes last fall, and quite a few others have shown flashes of high-end play. Tauskie Dove had 83 yards and a touchdown against LSU, and former walk-on Barrett Banister is a safe pair of hands. Ohio State transfer and former blue-chipper Mookie Cooper could make an instant impact, either in the slot or out wide. At tight end, juniors Niko Hea and Messiah Swinson and seniors Daniel Parker Jr. and Logan Christopherson have all seen the field quite a bit.
Only two offensive linemen played in all 10 games, and the best player, tackle Larry Borom, missed two. Borom is off to the pros, but almost everyone else in the rotation returns, including two reliable veterans in center Michael Maietti and guard Case Cook, neither of whom missed a game. Both could be all-conference candidates, but without Borom, the tackle position appears less settled.
Previewing Missouri's Defense for 2021
Drinkwitz made the most important hire of his tenure this offseason, bringing in former NFL head coach Steve Wilks to run the defense.
Mizzou saw depth issues and general fatigue set in late in the season. In the last three games, the Tigers allowed 49.3 points per game and 7.3 yards per play.
Wilks and new line coach Jethro Franklin could benefit from simply having everyone available up front — tackle and one-time all-conference candidate Kobie Whiteside missed five games. With Whiteside, junior Darius Robinson and seniors Akial Byers all returning, it seems that depth could be solid in the middle. And the Tigers also boast a proven pass rusher. Trajan Jeffcoat left the team midway through 2019 but made a surprising return last fall and recorded six sacks and seven QB hurries.
Mizzou lost one of the nation's best linebackers when Nick Bolton declared for the draft, but Drinkwitz might have brought in another via the transfer portal: former Rice star Blaze Alldredge, who recorded 21.5 tackles for a loss in 2019, second in the nation. The rest of the linebacking corps consists of solid if unspectacular veterans.
A young set of Tigers cornerbacks got tested in 2020, playing lots of man coverage and only sometimes pulling it off. But sophomores Ennis Rakestraw Jr., Ishmael Burdine and Jaylon Carlies are battle-tested, and with top corner Jarvis Ware returning from injury, a 2020 weakness could become a 2021 strength.
At safety, a strength might become a weakness. Junior strong safety Martez Manuel returns, but Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie are off to the pros, and there's a decent chance that converted quarterback Shawn Robinson, who saw the field quite a bit in the season finale against Mississippi State, will start in the back of the defense.
Previewing Missouri's Specialists for 2021
Mizzou didn't get much out of its return game in 2020. That could change with the addition of Cooper, but at the very least, punter Grant McKinniss (43 yards per kick), placekicker Harrison Mevis (17-for-20 on FGs) and kickoffs specialist Sean Koetting (85 percent touchback rate) give the Tigers one of the best sets of legs in the SEC.
The Tigers do have difference-makers to replace at running back, linebacker and safety, but Drinkwitz's second Mizzou squad is both more experienced and more familiar with the culture he's trying to build. That should be enough for Mizzou to make a solid run at a bowl bid, at the least.
National Ranking: 34
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(Connor Bazelak photo by Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics)