Way-too-early look at the 2022 Mizzou season
This wasn’t the 2021 season many Mizzou fans expected — and certainly not the bowl outcome they wanted. Watching the defense play early in the year was painful. Following a 5-5 record from 2020 with a 6-6 regular-season mark in 2021 was considered a disappointment by most fans and analysts. That was before they lost the Armed Forces Bowl to Army on a last-second field goal to finish 6-7.
But the future is bright in Columbia. Coach Eli Drinkwitz is bringing in a top-15 recruiting class, featuring 5-star WR Luther Burden and 4-star QB Sam Horn. He’s also adding to the roster through the transfer portal, most recently with Clemson transfer safety Joseph Charleston.
Star pass rusher Trajan Jeffcoat has also announced he’ll return, so there’s plenty to work with moving forward.
So, why don’t we take a quick look back at the 2021 season and then look ahead to what we should expect from the Tigers in 2022?
What worked in 2021
Two words: Tyler Badie. The star running back faced some question marks coming into the season. Could he carry a Larry Rountree III-like load? Could he run between the tackles in addition to doing the perimeter and receiving work he’d been known for?
The answer? A resounding yes. Badie not only replaced Rountree’s production, he set Mizzou’s single-season rushing record even before the bowl game against Army. He didn’t play in the bowl game, as Drinkwitz held him out to avoid injury as he prepares for the 2022 NFL Draft.
Badie finished with 1,604 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He added 330 yards and 4 touchdowns as a receiver.
He was the focal point for the offense, with defenses keying on him. It didn’t matter, as he still put up record numbers.
Kicker Harrison Mevis also deserves a mention. He was snubbed for the Lou Groza Award after making 20-of-22 field-goal attempts (90.9%) and all 40 of his extra points. He was the best kicker in America and you can’t convince me otherwise.
What didn’t work in 2021
We’ll get to QB Connor Bazelak’s regression in a second, but any discussion of what didn’t work for Mizzou has to start with the run defense. Or, rather, the lack of any discernible run defense for the first two-thirds of the regular season.
For most of the 2021 campaign, the Tigers had the No. 130 (AKA, the worst in the FBS) run defense. Why teams even attempted forward passes against Mizzou this year is baffling.
Entering the bowl game against Army, the Tiger run defense had “improved” to No. 124 in the country, allowing 229.3 yards per game on the ground. (At least they were still better than Kansas, as the Jayhawks were No. 129 in the FBS, giving up 249.8 rushing yards per game.) They held Army to 211 yards on 3.8 yards per carry.
That’s a testament to how the team improved in that aspect toward the end of the year. Once Al Davis was promoted to DL coach in early October, things got slightly better. That could have also been partly due to the players finally starting to get comfortable with first-year DC Steve Wilks’ system. Whatever the case, that improvement absolutely has to carry over into 2022 if the Tigers are going to finish better than 6-7.
Now, let’s discuss Bazelak. He wasn’t healthy for most of the second half of the season. He was barely able to move around in the pocket, let alone scramble outside it. Yet, Drinkwitz stuck steadfastly by him until the bitter end.
It seemed obvious to most watching the team (including me), that Bazelak was severely hampered. Could Brady Cook or Tyler Macon not have provided a better option? Cook played pretty well in the bowl game. He ran for a score and threw a go-ahead TD pass in the final minutes. Drinkwitz is paid millions per year to make those decisions, so perhaps he knows more than those of us outside the program (I’d certainly hope so).
But even early in the year, Bazelak didn’t take the step forward many were hoping he’d take in 2021. That provides some major concerns heading into 2022. So, without further ado, let’s dive into said QB situation …
The Tigers will have plenty of options in the QB room this spring. Bazelak returns and will try to prove he’s the right choice to remain the starter. He has plenty of talent when he’s healthy. The problem was he didn’t appear healthy for much of the 2021 campaign.
Cook, who started the bowl game and played well enough to win, also returns. As does Tyler Macon. Then you add Sam Horn to the mix.
I don’t expect all 4 to still be on the roster when Week 1 of the 2022 season rolls around. If you’re a top quarterback who doesn’t win the starting job, you usually move on. That’s just the way things go these days.
So, Drinkwitz had better nail the QB decision. I don’t think he’ll name a Week 1 starter this spring in order to keep some guys around for fall camp. I also don’t expect Horn to win the job as a true freshman, but if he has the talent, why not ensure that the future begins as soon as possible?
I know I’m supposed to make projections in this column, but I honestly have no idea who is going to win the starting job in 2022. There’s plenty of talent in the QB room, which is exciting. But any of those 4 could become the starter.
Along with Texas A&M (Max Johnson, Haynes King, Conner Weigman), Mizzou has one of the more intriguing quarterback battles heading into the spring season.
UPDATE: The dominoes have already started to fall, as Bazelak entered the transfer portal on Thursday:
— Connor Bazelak (@BazelakConnor) December 23, 2021
Cook, Horn and Macon should be an even more intriguing QB battle this offseason now.
Well, there’s Badie. Then there’s Badie. And don’t forget about Badie!
Oh, did I mention Badie won’t be back?
If we’re moving on from Badie (who won’t be back, unfortunately), center Michael Maietti is a big loss up front. Second-leading tackler Blaze Alldredge also won’t be back, as he has exhausted his eligibility. He went out in style Wednesday night, though, leading the Tigers with 14 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. CB Akayleb Evans is heading off to the 2022 NFL Draft as well. TE Daniel Parker Jr. is among a handful of players who entered the transfer portal.
So, the key losses will impact the team on both sides of the ball. But the good news is there are plenty of reinforcements on the way. (There’s no replacing a guy like Badie, though.)
This section starts with pass rusher Trajan Jeffcoat. His 2021 season didn’t go as expected after he was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2020. But, if the defense is better in Wilks’ second year running things, Jeffcoat should be freed up to do some more great things in 2022.
Most of the receiving corps should be back, and hopefully Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper will be healthy. Tauskie Dove remains a solid deep threat. Dominic Lovett made some impressive plays as a freshman in 2021.
So, whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have plenty of guys to throw to. Meanwhile, on defense, the secondary should return some contributors between Ennis Rakestraw Jr., Allie Green IV, Jaylon Carlies, Kris Abrams-Draine and potentially Martez Manuel.
Add Clemson transfer safety Joseph Charleston to the mix and that could be a strength of the defense in 2022.
Aside from losing Maietti, the Tigers should return potentially 4 starting offensive lineman. Losing Maietti hurts, but that’s a lot of continuity up front.
Yes, every Mizzou fan is pumped to have 5-star WR Luther Burden heading to Columbia. I am, too, but this class goes beyond just the elite receiver from East St. Louis.
The Tigers also got someone to throw him the ball throughout his career – 4-star QB Sam Horn. He also plans to pitch for the baseball team, but we’ll see how long that lasts if he’s the starting quarterback for an SEC football squad.
In addition to 5-star Burden and 4-star Horn, the Tigers also have 5 additional 4-star players coming in – RB Tavorus Jones, DL DJ Wesolak, DL Marquis Gracial, S Isaac Thompson and WR Ja’Marion Wayne.
That’s a nice mix – 4 blue-chip prospects on offense, 3 on defense. This Drinkwitz guy seems to know how to recruit, huh?
Even at Alabama and Georgia, not every blue-chip prospect works out. Those schools play a numbers game, though. They bring in so many 5-star and 4-star guys that it doesn’t matter if a few of them don’t pan out.
If Drinkwitz can continue to bring in 5-10 blue-chip guys per recruiting cycle, Mizzou will steadily improve. Mizzou has always been able to attract the occasional 5-star guy from Kansas City or St. Louis. But, if Drinkwitz can add depth behind those guys, watch out for the Tigers as a sleeping giant in the SEC East.
The future is bright in CoMo. Now, Drinkwitz just has to start turning these recruiting wins into more wins on the field.