Observations from the MATC: Tigers honor legend, Cooper impresses early

Missouri football began spring camp Friday afternoon.

When walking toward the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex’s outdoor turf field for Missouri football’s first practice of spring camp, the first thing you notice is the number 40.

Each coach wore a black long-sleeve t-shirt with that number in bright yellow, below the name “Stevenson.” And if you got a good look at the players, particularly the defensive newcomers in numberless white jerseys, you could see that their undershirts said 40, too.

The Tigers donned the number 40 in honor of the late Norris Stevenson, the first Black man to receive a football scholarship from Missouri.

“As our celebration of Black History Month, which is our history here at Mizzou, we wanted to honor Norris and his family and honor the contributions that he was,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said.

With any luck, Drinkwitz began his first full spring camp with Friday’s practice after last year’s spring season was shut down by the thing that shut everything else down.

First impressions of Mookie Cooper: “Mookie is fast.”

That’s a quote from Drinkwitz, and it’s accurate. As a newcomer, Cooper didn’t wear a number — one of Drinkwitz’s policies for all freshmen and transfers — but it was easy to tell who he was.

He was the guy running faster than everyone else and making it look easy.

“He does a lot of good things,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s got a great smile. He’s got great work ethic and energy. I think it means a lot to him; he wants to be successful. He wants to put in the time and effort to be a good football player, but we got a long ways to go.”

Cooper and fellow freshman Dominic Lovett, a four-star recruit who Drinkwitz flipped from Arizona State, look to inject new life into a crowded receiver room.

“Both of those guys are lightning quick,” graduate student receiver Keke Chism said. “They got great speed, running good routes. Just putting those reps in and getting used to the system and coming in can be useful for those guys.”

The freshman transfer from Ohio State spent time in practice working with almost every group of receivers on the team. He played alongside starters like Chism and Barrett Banister, as well as third-stringers like D’ionte “Boo” Smith and Javian “J.J.” Hester.

“Each day is another day to improve,” Drinkwitz said. “We’re gonna have good days and bad days as he’s learning the offense. I don’t try to put much into any one practice or any one day, but you just keep stacking good days, and he stacked a good day today.”

Martez Manuel looks to lead the defense

Manuel called former Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton as soon as he declared for the NFL Draft last December. He let Bolton know that he taught him how to “be a baller,” and he made it clear how much influence Bolton had on him.

In return, Bolton issued a challenge.

“Hey, this team is gonna need a leader next year’” Bolton said. “It’s your decision if you’re gonna step up and take that role.”

Manuel, who put together an impressive 2020 season in his own right, embraced that responsibility. He’s even started to reach out to some of the younger players on the defense about paying Bolton’s mentorship forward.

“I was telling some young guys today if they had any questions about the playbook to come to me,” Manuel said. “Because if I don’t know the answer, then we’re really in trouble.”

Manuel said this despite knowing full well that he’s spent exactly as much time learning the current playbook as everyone else on the team, given that Missouri just switched defensive coordinators.

He also spent some time at Friday’s practice playing a different position.

When opposing offenses put more than one tight end on the field last year, Manuel often slid down to the line of scrimmage and essentially played outside linebacker. Missouri practiced on air Friday, but when that personnel package came out, Manuel stayed at safety while Chris Shearin moved down to the box.

Over the offseason, Manuel also spent time talking with MJ Anderson, his friend who plays defensive line at Minnesota. Anderson played the 2019 season with Antoine Winfield Jr, who famously flashed Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill a “peace” sign after breaking up a pass to seal February’s Super Bowl for the Buccaneers.

“He told me that Antoine really played every practice like it was a game,” Manuel said. “That was something that really hit me. It really spoke to me and said, ‘What can I do? What do I do on game day that I’m not doing on practice days?’ So I felt like when I heard that, that really inspired me to elevate my game to the next level.”

Other notes

Shawn Robinson lost nine pounds in February alone to aid his transition from quarterback to safety.

Steve Wilks, Missouri’s new defensive coordinator, was arguably the most energetic coach on the field. Returning cornerback Ennis Rakestraw said that he learned something new within five minutes of meeting Wilks, which he said speaks to the coach’s character.

Injury updates: Slot receiver Jalen Knox and tight end Niko Hea will miss spring camp with respective surgeries, though both should be back for the summer. Cornerback Jarvis Ware is out for the time being due to recovery from ACL surgery. Returning first-team All-SEC edge rusher Trajan Jeffcoat is day-to-day.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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