Pregame Notebook: True freshmen set to play key roles as Missouri takes on Alabama

The Tigers come in thin at offensive line, ready to showcase their new receiving core against the Crimson Tide’s.

When freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw chose Missouri over an offer from Alabama this spring, he did not expect to line up across from one of the Crimson Tide’s first-round talent receivers in anticipation of the first snap of his college football career.

It appears, however, that is exactly what’s going to happen. Rakestraw, who had an excellent fall camp, is listed as a starter on Missouri’s depth chart.

“Oh, I love his confidence, and at cornerback you’ve got to have great confidence,” junior corner Jarvis Ware, who will start opposite Rakestraw, said. “He’s an excellent off man player, his technique is excellent, he’s got really good hands and he’s gonna be physical with you.”

Ware, who became a full-time starter in 2019, continued to heap praise on Rakestraw. The pairing will likely be the only corners on the field for most of the game, as Missouri’s base 4-2-5 defense involves three safeties (Tyree Gillespie, Martez Manuel and Joshua Bledsoe). The Tigers hope that Ware and Rakestraw will be a plug-and-play duo for the next two years.

“He backed up his own talk on the field,” Ware said. “Sometimes guys will be talking all the talk, but then when it comes time to go to the field, they ain’t backing it up. But with Ennis, he talked the talk, but he also walked the walk.”

Rakestraw will be thrown directly into the fire, where he’ll have to run step for step with DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, two of the top receivers in the country. Tigers defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said that Smith was the best wideout in a receiver room that included two of the top 14 picks in the 2020 NFL draft, and Waddle burst onto the national stage with four total touchdowns in last year’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.

“They’ve got explosive speed, they’ve got yard after catch [ability], they run detailed routes,” coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “I think their wide receivers coach does a really good job of making sure those guys understand spacing and releases. We’ll find out Saturday how they match up.”

“I just think we gotta go in and play our game and we’ll be straight” Ware said. “Just gotta go in and do our job, and we’ll be fine.”

Rakestraw is one of three true freshmen listed as starters, with the other two on special teams: Harrison Mevis will kick, and Kris Abrams-Draine will return punts. Elijah Young, who Drinkwitz has discussed as a contributor in addition to incumbents Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie, is also expected to see meaningful reps right away.

“Hopefully we can get him in there and get him a couple reps,” Drinkwitz said about Young. “He’s a guy that really impressed us early in camp with his vision and toughness running the football, and for him it’s all gonna be about ball security. One of the things that really stands out about [Alabama] is their ability to force turnovers.”

As for Abrams-Draine, Missouri’s coaching staff is excited to see what the freshman from Mobile, Ala. can do with the ball in his hands.

“After the signing period, I’ll go back through and I’ll watch their highlight tapes again and their game tapes and look at who’s the most dynamic, who has explosive ability, who has playmaking ability,” special teams coordinator Erik Link said. “And [Abrams-Draine] was certainly one guy who has that.”

Offensive line depth is a problem

In the past two days, Drinkwitz and an MU spokesperson have announced that offensive linemen Thalen Robinson and Jack Buford have opted out of the season, while incumbent and presumed starting left tackle Hyrin White underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.

Four of the starting spots are set: Michael Maietti, Case Cook and Larry Borom have been entrenched center, right guard and right tackle for a while, and Xavier Delgado has established himself at left guard. A competition between Bobby Lawrence and Zeke Powell remains at left tackle — blindside protection for Shawn Robinson or Connor Bazelak.

“As with anything, we’re at the mercy of each test each time we take it, but as of right now I think we feel pretty good about where the offensive line is and what we’re trying to do moving forward,” Drinkwitz said.

Behind the starting five, the Tigers are thin in terms of depth at each position, so they can’t afford to sustain more injuries or opt-outs than they already have.

“We really are bought into this next-man-up mentality,” Borom said. “We don’t want to see any drop-off, just because anything can happen in the blink of an eye this year. It’s a crazy year, anything can happen.”

New receiving corps looks to match Alabama’s

While the attention from a national standpoint is on Waddle and Smith — and rightfully so — this game will be an opportunity for Missouri to showcase their revamped receiver room. Damon Hazelton will make his Tigers debut and Keke Chism will make his Division I debut. They’ll be met at the line of scrimmage by Patrick Surtain II, who some believe is the best corner in the nation, and a rising star in Josh Jobe.

“I feel like I’m pretty confident,” Chism said. “I know that i’m preparing myself for this moment. It’s one of the things I hang my hat on, wanting to go up against the best, and it’s no secret that these guys are one of the best.”

Chism, who transferred to Missouri from D-II Angelo State, will start alongside Hazelton and Jalen Knox, about whom the new coaching staff has raved throughout camp as someone who could bounce back from a less productive sophomore year.

“The biggest difference is just the different personnel group — just having a lot of weapons,” Chism said. “I’ve been able to get into some different looks and utilize a lot of guys’ talents and their unique ability. We’ve got a lot of playmakers, so just being able to spread the ball around and make plays.”

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