Better or worse? Previewing Mizzou’s offense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 4th in a series previewing every SEC East team’s offense. Next: South Carolina.
It’s out with the old and in with the new for Mizzou in 2020. Former coach Barry Odom is now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas, and former Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz will enter his first year with the Tigers.
There are also plenty of spots to fill on offense, as QB Kelly Bryant, TE Albert Okwuegbunam and a handful of key offensive linemen are gone. So, that begs the question — will this offensive unit be better or worse this season than it was in 2019?
The lack of spring practices due to COVID-19 makes a lot of this guesswork, but what the heck, I’ll give it my best shot.
Let’s take a look at a number of categories and decide whether the Mizzou offense will improve from last year’s effort, when the Tigers finished No. 10 in the SEC in total offense, averaging 374 yards per game, and No. 10 in scoring offense, putting up 25.3 points per contest.
I was super excited when the Tigers landed Clemson graduate transfer Kelly Bryant last year and thought he played pretty well. However, he didn’t live up to his full potential as he dealt with injuries and inconsistency all year long. Derek Dooley’s offense, which was at times stagnant, didn’t do KB any favors, either.
This year, there are a lot of unknowns with the passing attack. Entering the summer, TCU transfer Shawn Robinson and rising sophomore Connor Bazelak are expected to battle it out for the starting quarterback job. Bazelak is returning from a torn ACL, though, so Robinson might have the edge.
Then, there’s a completely new offensive system under first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz. The Tigers will be hurt by not having spring practices and not having a chance to sort out their QB battle ahead of time, but there is the potential for this offense to surprise people.
Robinson was a 4-star dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2017 and Bazelak was a 4-star pro-style prospect in the 2019 class. Both have talent, so it’ll be interesting to see what direction Drinkwitz wants to go this fall.
At tight end, junior Daniel Parker Jr. will likely step into the starting spot. However, he dealt with a serious eye infection this spring, so we’ll see if he’s ready to go for Week 1. If not, the Tigers don’t have much depth at the position.
In the receiving corps, junior Jalen Knox returns as the guy with the most experience, but he had a down year in 2019, recording only 19 catches for 307 yards and 1 touchdown. The Tigers will need him to be much better this fall. Barrett Banister stepped up toward the end of the 2019 campaign, and he figures to slide into the starting lineup this fall.
Two newcomers will be key to the Tigers’ success through the air — graduate transfer WR Damon Hazelton from Virginia Tech and 4-star 2020 signee Javian Hester, who was the highest-rated player in Mizzou’s incoming freshman class. They’ll both get plenty of reps this year. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing some plays like this from Hazelton:
Hendon Hooker to Damon Hazelton for the Hokies TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/SzDW6Fxo44
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) December 31, 2019
Quincy Patterson to Damon Hazelton for the TOUCHDOWN on 4th down in Double OT. Were heading to Triple OT in Blacksburg. pic.twitter.com/pkQcVBh1Gk
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) October 19, 2019
Even with the question marks, I really don’t think the passing game can be worse than it was in 2019, when the Tigers averaged 222.6 yards per game through the air.
In terms of the guys who will be carrying the ball, this year will feature the same main running backs as last year — Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie. Yes, 2019 was a down year for both, but this is one of the most underrated running back duos in the SEC.
Rountree is a powerful between-the-tackles runner who can also make defenders miss in space, while Badie is the definition of “shifty” — a guy who loves lining up in the slot, getting the ball in the open field and making would-be tacklers look silly.
Both Rountree and Badie should benefit from being out of Dooley’s offense this fall. Dooley was touted as having a “pro-style” offense, but more often than not, that just meant “predictable.”
Drinkwitz loves having talented runners to give the ball to, as well. Last year, his Appalachian State offense ranked No. 16 in the FBS, putting up 231.4 yards per game on the ground. That bodes well for Rountree and Badie.
I’ll also talk about the offensive line in this section. Case Cook and Larry Borom step in as starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively, but they aren’t inexperienced. They were top backups last year and are both redshirt juniors. Fellow redshirt junior Hyrin White figures to move from right tackle to left tackle. The presumed center is redshirt freshman Luke Griffin, and he’s probably the biggest question mark. As long as he can hold up, the Tigers should have a line capable of getting some push up front.
In 2019, the kicking game was a one-man show, with senior Tucker McCann handling both the place-kicking and punting duties. That experiment wasn’t exactly a huge success. The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind to describe it. McCann made only 16-of-22 field-goal attempts, missed 2 extra points and ranked 7th in the SEC in average yards per punt.
This year, things might be even more difficult. The only returning punter is redshirt sophomore Josh Dodge. The problem? He was also there last year, and couldn’t beat out McCann for a job he’d never done at the college level before. That is certainly concerning.
The place-kicker competition should be a bit tighter. Incoming freshman Harrison Mevis was the No. 8 overall kicker in the 2020 class. He’ll compete with redshirt junior Sean Koetting, redshirt freshman Aaron Rodriguez and redshirt freshman Logan Brock. It’s anyone’s guess who wins that job. The important thing will be making extra points.
Then, there’s Kentucky graduate transfer Grant McKinniss, who throws a new wrench into this whole situation. McKinniss has experience kicking and punting, and he’ll be immediately eligible for the Tigers this fall. Will he win either job? Both jobs? This will certainly be an interesting wrinkle as teams are able to get back on the field ahead of the season.
As much as I just called McCann’s 2019 performance into question, he was at least average at both kicking and punting. I’m worried the Tigers are going to take a step back in that department this fall.
There was a lot of doom and gloom surrounding Mizzou after the 2019 season (some of it coming from me). But the fact is the Tigers would have been in a bowl game with a 6-6 record if not for a ridiculous punishment from the NCAA. Hopefully, this administration has learned that there is nothing to be gained from cooperating with the NCAA moving forward.
I was excited for the Eliah Drinkwitz era when he was first hired, especially after the reported first 3 candidates were Jeff Monken, Blake Anderson and Skip Holtz. However, after Mississippi State hired Mike Leach and Ole Miss hired Lane Kiffin, I was less excited about Mizzou’s hire. But every move Drinkwitz has made since landing the job (other than his infamous “Sun Belt champions” slip) has been the right one. I’m back in on Drink! I’m way more excited for the 2020 season than I was this time last year, so I’m willing to give him (and the players who are stepping into starting roles) a chance to prove himself.
The schedule lines up for success, with anything other than a 4-0 nonconference record looking like a failure. Then, some winnable SEC home games loom large. Eight wins isn’t an unrealistic expectation for Drinkwitz in his first year.
To me, if you were to look at the 2019 and 2020 seasons as glasses of water, they’d have similar levels. Call me a homer or an idiot if you must, but I prefer the term “optimist.” The glass is half full entering the Drinkwitz era, and hope reigns in mid-Missouri.