Five Takeaways from Missouri’s Fall Camp

Five Takeaways from Missouri’s Fall Camp

When the Missouri Tigers football team walked off the field after a 24-14 win against the Arkansas Razorbacks, an offseason of uncertainty loomed. By that point, players knew their sixth win –– normally the benchmark for a postseason bowl game –– meant nothing due to NCAA sanctions. After being ranked as high as 22nd in the AP Top 25 poll, MU won just one of its final six games and finished fifth in the SEC East.

297 days later and gone is head coach Barry Odom. 37-year-old Eliah Drinkwitz took the reins of the Tigers program in December.

In a normal season, Drinkwitz would have had spring practices, summer workouts and fall camp to implement his new pro-tempo offense. But, as we all know, this isn't a normal season. Instead of practicing 29 times in 25 days, the Tigers had to settle for 25 practices in 42 days. The standard 12-game schedule became a 10-game one while 6th-ranked Louisiana State and 2nd-ranked Alabama replaced Central Arkansas and Eastern Michigan.

This is the new reality. The Southeastern Conference will play football this fall and it kicks off this Saturday at Faurot Field against the Crimson Tide. Despite the poor hand that Drinkwitz and the Tigers have been dealt, nobody is about to make any excuses.

“They’re gonna tee it up on the 26th and everybody in Missouri is going to expect that we’re prepared,” Drikwitz said. “So, we’re going to get ready.”

Dealing with COVID

Outside of football, the biggest question for MU each week revolves around the results of their COVID tests, which are done every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

At the beginning of September, Drinkwitz reported four positive cases. As of last Wednesday, he told reporters at least 12 players will miss the Alabama game due to “COVID related situations.” That number could continue to climb by the time he speaks to the media again on Tuesday.

Per recent SEC guidelines, teams will need to field 53 scholarship players, which includes seven offensive lineman (including one center), one quarterback and four defensive lineman. A program could technically play without reaching all of the requirements, but in most situations the game would be postponed or declared a no contest.

In addition to COVID absences, receiver Maurice Massey and defensive tackle Chris Daniels chose to opt-out of the season. Drinkwitz doesn't foresee either player reversing course.

The ACC and Big 12 have already had to postpone or cancel games just two weeks into their season, so it would be no surprise if similar circumstances come up in the SEC at some point.

“Whether [players] got it or whether they are contact traced, out is out,” Drinkwitz said last Wednesday. “They can’t be around us so there’s no reason to get into the numbers game and hype. We’re down 12 guys, so it is what it is.”

Promising defensive options

Linebacker Nick Bolton made plenty of highlight-worthy plays in a breakout 2019 season, but no highlight may have circulated the internet more than his goal line tackle against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Coming from the other side of the field, Bolton made up ground in a hurry and stonewalled Jauan Jennings as he reached for the end zone. Plays like the one he made against Jennings are why Bolton was voted to the preseason All-SEC first team earlier last week.

Bolton will be back this season and leads a defense that ranked 15th in the country last year per “Sports-Reference.” Defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside (27 tackles, 6.5 sacks) also returns and will wreak havoc on opposing offenses while the safety duo of Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe projects to take another step forward in the secondary.

One player that coaches and players are excited about is true sophomore Martez Manuel, who started all 12 games as a freshman.

“Martez, he brings a lot of energy and effort,” sophomore defensive lineman Darius Robinson said. “He knows what he’s doing, he’s very energized, you always know that Martez is going to play hard for his teammates and hard for Mizzou.”

With the new pro-tempo offense, the defense will be on the field a lot this season. Drinkwitz has generally been positive about the defense in past media availabilities, but we’ll learn a lot more about the unit over the opening weeks of the season.

What’s going on at quarterback?

Drinkwitz took over a program with a lot of questions last winter, but none may be bigger than who will run his offense this season.

Throughout fall camp Drinkwitz hasn't been shy about letting reporters know he won’t tip his hand. While he’s been asked some variation of the same question at each press conference, he refuses to take the bait.

Does Drinkwitz go with redshirt junior Shawn Robinson who transferred to MU from TCU prior to the 2019 season? He had to sit out last year, but put up 1,518 yards and 12 touchdowns in his 12 games at TCU. Redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak is another option. He played in three games during 2019 and finished with 144 passing yards (71.4 completion percentage), but ruptured his ACL in the season finale against the Razorbacks.

What we do know for sure is that it won’t be redshirt junior Taylor Powell who entered the transfer portal a week ago. Last year the Tigers relied on Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant to lead the offense. This season, Drinkwitz has two options who already have experience within the MU program. In an opening game against a team like Alabama, every minute advantage matters, and that means keeping the starting QB decision close to the vest until the 26th.

“Shawn does a nice job of understanding what we’re trying to do and plays within the framework of who he is as a quarterback,” Drinkwitz said. “Throws the ball well, runs the ball well.”

That's about as far as he would elaborate.

Uncertainty on the offensive line

The Tigers running back tandem of Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie put together multiple 200-yard rushing games to start 2019 before running into the wall that is the SEC East. After a 38-27 win over Ole Miss, the Tigers ground game didn’t eclipse the 200 yard mark again and went three consecutive games with fewer than 100 rushing yards. And while the Tigers’ division is home to some of the best defenses in the country, MU struggled in part due to its offensive line.

It’s a young unit –– 14 of 19 lineman are underclassmen –– that has already been ravaged by injuries and absences throughout fall camp. The starters from left to right project to be Bobby Lawrence, Xavier Delgado, Mike Maietti, Case Cook and Larry Borom, but that could easily change by Saturday’s opener.

Drinkwitz said that the right side of the line is its strength while the left has posed more questions. The new head coach is trying to build continuity in the run up to the season, but it’s proven to be a difficult task.

“We’re already down a little bit on the offensive line, just total number of bodies and injuries,” Drinkwitz said. “Those guys are having to get quite a bit of extra work, but you gotta make do.”

A pair of grad transfers bolster the receiving corps

With just under nine minutes remaining in last season’s game against Arkansas and MU leading by a field goal, quarterback Taylor Powell dropped back and fired a pin-point pass to wide receiver Jonathan Nance in the left corner of the end zone for the game-sealing touchdown.

That play occured in the team’s final game of 2019 and is notable because it was the only touchdown an MU receiver hauled in during conference play last season.

Nance led the receiving corps with 458 yards through the air, but no receiver surpassed 500 yards a season ago. Jalen Knox, who will be returning this season, finished with 307 receiving yards in 2019.

Drinkwitz and his staff are high on this year's group of pass catchers, and it starts with the two graduate transfers brought in. Keke Chism –– a 6-foot-4 red zone target –– caught 16 touchdowns and put up over 2,221 total yards in his time at Angelo State (Texas). Damon Hazelton Jr, brought in from Virginia Tech, was named an All-ACC honorable mention last season after leading the Hokies with eight touchdowns in 2019. Both newcomers have garnered plenty of praise throughout fall camp.

“We have multiple receivers, we have a lot of guys that have been playing really well during fall camp,” Drinkwitz said. “We feel good about that position, that’s why we went and got two grad transfers.”

A season ago it was actually Badie that led the Tigers in receptions, catching 32 balls out of the backfield for 356 yards and five touchdowns. While his contributions are a nice boost for the Tigers, having a running back lead the team in receiving yards is certainly not ideal. But when he is called upon, Badie is more than happy to complement Hazelton, Chism and Knox in the passing game.

“I just like to provide a burst, [bring] just a different dynamic than what people associate an SEC running back with,” Badie said. “I like to be different. Just showing every side of me in the run game and in the pass game. Doing everything that I can to show what I can do on Saturday’s is big for me.”

Edited by Maia Bond | jsoble@themaneater.com

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