We don't totally know what to expect from Eli Drinkwitz's offense, but we might know a couple things
Almost exactly 4 months ago, Eli Drinkwitz stood in front of a handful of media members and answered the elephant in the room. Sort of.
What’s the Mizzou offense going to look like in 2020?
“It’s way too early to tell,” Drinkwitz said. “We don’t have shoulder pads on. We’re playing the underwear Olympics right now.”
Less than a week later, Mizzou and everyone else’s spring practice was brought to a screeching halt. No spring game meant no glimpse into the first-year coach’s plans for 2020.
Three months after Drinkwitz’s non-answer about his offense, he admitted that the quarterback position is the biggest question mark on his team (he has a 5-way battle). He also added that he might roll out the Wildcat offense because of the limited practice time. Drinkwitz sounded more like someone trying to talk through a problem than a coach giving a quote about his team’s 2020 identity:
“Do you, because of the limited practice,” Drinkwitz suggested, “go more to a quarterback run game offense and in more of a quarterback run game?… Maybe Micah Wilson at quarterback some in Wildcat or Jalen Knox in Wildcat just to try to create an extra number because that’s the stuff that’s easier to do without excessive practice and execution or do you try to stick to what you’ve done in the past?
“I think for us that’s a question that the offensive staff has to answer. And we got to figure that out. I don’t think there’s an easy answer on that, because the passing game involves timing and execution.”
Well that’s … something?
All of that suggests that Drinkwitz, who was 1-and-done at Appalachian State after a 13-1 season, still doesn’t really know what to expect from his own offense at Mizzou. It probably doesn’t make much sense for any of us to pretend like we know exactly what to expect, either. We have a few clues at best.
It’s not like Drinkwitz has a distinct identity like Mike Leach, who was a founding father of the Air Raid offense. He’s also not Lane Kiffin, who we know is going to adapt his offense to his quarterback’s skill set while spreading teams out and trying to establish some sort of balance. Both of those new SEC coaches have been running offenses for the vast majority of the 21st century.
Drinkwitz, however, was coaching Boise State’s tight ends in 2014. We know that he’s a Gus Malzahn disciple who likes an up-tempo offense. We know that Drinkwitz had success when he brought Ryan Finley from Boise State to NC State (people forget that Finley was the 2018 first-team All-ACC quarterback and not Trevor Lawrence).
Oh, and we know that Drinkwitz might look like the mild-mannered academic coach, but he isn’t lacking passion:
— Mizzou Football (@MizzouFootball) February 5, 2020
If Drinkwitz doesn’t react like that to every Mizzou touchdown in 2020, I’ll be extremely disappointed.
How will Mizzou score those touchdowns?
If there’s anything to be taken from Drinkwitz’s stops at NC State and Appalachian State, it’s that he likes to build the offense around the skill set of his team. It’s Kiffin-like, to a certain extent.
As the offensive coordinator at NC State in 2018, Finley nearly threw the ball 500 times as a third-year starter. The following year as the head coach at Appalachian State, he had a back in Darrynton Evans who finished No. 11 in FBS with 255 carries (quarterback Zac Thomas also had 105 more pass attempts than he did in the previous year without Drinkwitz).
Drinkwitz’s “I build the offense around its strengths” mindset seems evident in that. Of course, it would help if he (or us) knew what Mizzou’s strengths were going to be in 2020.
Some might suggest that the backfield duo of Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie will be what the Tigers are built on. After all, they have more experience than Mizzou’s other skill-player positions, and perhaps with 3 starting offensive linemen back, that would be a place for a Malzahn protégé to build around. Then again, Mizzou ranked dead last in the SEC with 3.8 yards per carry last year. The ground game clearly wasn’t a strength.
What about the passing game?
Well, according to Drinkwitz, the quarterback battle is still 5-deep. That’s not good, though it’s not necessarily Mizzou’s fault. I say that’s not good because in fall camp, you don’t want to split first-team reps with 5 guys. Ideally, he’d have it narrowed down to 2-3, but it’s hard to separate players without anything more than voluntary workouts.
This quote from Drinkwitz during his mid-June media availability in mid-June suggests that this will be a true fall battle:
“So, (quarterback) to me is probably the biggest question mark on our football team right now and not a lot of answers for you on June, 17 … Not a lot of answers for you there and won’t have any until I get our hands on them and do things, which hopefully starts August 6, you know, being able to do some live stuff where I can see him actually compete for the job.”
Well that’s … nothing?
TCU transfer Shawn Robinson has been the presumed favorite to win the 2020 job essentially since he announced his commitment to Mizzou in Dec. 2018. After sitting the 2019 due to NCAA transfer rules, Robinson has an advantage to win the job based on his experience. He was TCU’s starter for half the season until he was benched in a rout against Kyler Murray’s Oklahoma squad, which was what led to the transfer decision.
Robinson has more than double the career pass attempts at the Power 5 level (231) than Connor Bazelak, Taylor Powell, true freshman Brady Cook and JUCO transfer Jack Samsel combined. Add in the familiarity with former TCU co-offensive coordinator and current Mizzou running backs coach Curtis Luper, who recruited Robinson to TCU back in 2017, and it would be natural to think that the former U.S. Army All-American will have first crack at the starting job.
Mizzou running backs coach Curtis Luper recruited QB Shawn Robinson to TCU. Now, both are with the Tigers, and Luper believes Robinson has a lot of potential next season.
“I think he has everything it takes to do well in this league.”
— Tyler Murry (@TylerJMurry) February 4, 2020
But even if that is the case and he wins the job out of camp, remember that Drinkwitz didn’t recruit Robinson. Nothing is guaranteed. Robinson’s last game as a starter involved getting benched for a poor showing against an Oklahoma defense who didn’t even rank in the top 100 (he also was playing at less than 100% after he dislocated his non-throwing shoulder 2 weeks earlier vs. Iowa State and had surgery shortly thereafter). He averaged 6.5 yards per attempt and was 1-4 vs. Power 5 competition during his time as the starter in 2018. Again, nothing is guaranteed.
It’s assumed that in this weird offseason, Cook will redshirt and that Bazelak and Powell will be the legitimate competition for Robinson throughout 2020. Neither Powell nor Bazelak, who is battling back from a torn ACL suffered in the 2019 regular-season finale, have the mobility of Robinson (5.4 yards per carry).
Then again, Finley wasn’t exactly “mobile.” Well, ACC Network said that Finley had “above-average mobility.”
I’d say Thomas had above-average mobility. He was at his best when throwing in the pocket and he was most effective as a runner on misdirection plays, not making people miss in the open field. Thomas wasn’t Malzahn quarterback prototype Nick Marshall, but he was certainly used as more of a true dual-threat out of the RPOs than Finley ever was.
Whatever the case, Mizzou’s starting quarterback will be different than what Drinkwitz has typically worked with. Robinson hasn’t shown he can drop the ball in a bucket downfield like Thomas or Finley, and Powell is less experienced than those 2 Drinkwitz quarterbacks.
(I’m doing my best to wipe away my impression of 2019 Powell having witnessed his lone college start at Georgia last year. To be fair, that was a cold November night and the Dawgs finished the year ranked No. 1 in scoring defense. I’ll give him a pass for getting shut out … and for preventing me from seeing a close game in my first trip to Athens.)
Besides quarterback play, Mizzou’s big question is simple. How effective will the offense be? Drinkwitz’s offenses finished in the top 40 in 4 of his 5 seasons as a coordinator/coach, with the lone non-top 40 season being his first year at NC State when that group finished No. 76 in scoring. Even that would be an improvement from Mizzou’s No. 93 ranking in Year 1 of the post-Drew Lock era.
It only took 1 year without Lock for Mizzou to overhaul its coaching staff. Drinkwitz has a chance to put his stamp on the Tigers offense.
Maybe the mystery surrounding Mizzou’s offensive identity this offseason will work in his favor. Or maybe we’ll still be searching for answers by midseason.
Eventually, though, it won’t be way too early to tell.