Why Connor Bazelak's Year 2 development is an under-the-radar SEC storyline worth your interest
Eli Drinkwitz called the quarterback performance in Mizzou’s earlier-than-you-realized spring game/scrimmage “blah.”
That’s right. “Blah.”
As in, it wasn’t good enough to warrant serious praise, but it also wasn’t alarming to the point where it prompted the Mizzou coach to say something like “we have some serious issues at the quarterback position.”
In some ways, “blah” could probably describe the Tigers’ passing game in Year 1 of the Drinkwitz era. It lacked the home-run play ability, which explains why Connor Bazelak had a 6-game stretch with 1 touchdown pass. It was a middling No. 60 in FBS in team passing efficiency and it was No. 95 in passing yards per completion.
Then again, some of that was to be expected. Drinkwitz brought in his pro-tempo style system and Bazelak didn’t have a normal offseason because of COVID and the fact that he was rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in the 2019 regular-season finale against Arkansas. On top of that, Larry Rountree bounced back in a major way and became the main source of offense in 2020.
Even with an often “blah” passing game, Mizzou still surpassed expectations by going 5-5, and Bazelak finished No. 5 in the SEC in passing yards despite the fact that he only started 8 games. He flashed the ability of being much more than a “blah” Power 5 starting quarterback.
Really good placement by Bazelak. pic.twitter.com/qfpXtGuC3t
— Nikki Chavanelle (@NikkiChavanelle) December 5, 2020
“Blah” isn’t worthy of conference-wide attention. But Bazelak’s development isn’t a “blah” storyline by any means.
For Drinkwitz, it’s massive. History tells us Year 2 with the offensive-minded head coach is often extremely pivotal. Think of Year 2 with Urban Meyer at Florida. Chris Leak turned into a star, Meyer developed the Tim Tebow package and the rest was history. Or on the flip side, think of Year 2 with Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. While I still disagreed with firing Moorhead so quickly, he’s still MSU’s head coach if his offense doesn’t take another step back in Year 2.
That’s not my way of saying Drinkwitz is on anyone’s hot seat because he’s not. But for someone who came into this conference as sort of the less-recognizable coach on the rise, this year with Bazelak feels pivotal in a variety of ways.
There’s the obvious recruiting angle of this. Bazelak is the proof of concept for Drinkwitz.
Technically, Bazelak wasn’t a Drinkwitz era recruit because he obviously committed to the previous regime in hopes of following in the footsteps of Drew Lock. But Drinkwitz recruited Bazelak when he was at NC State, where there was a need to replace NFL-bound Ryan Finley. It was Finley who followed Drinkwitz from Boise State to NC State, where he got to develop in Drinkwitz’s offense. Under Drinkwitz’s tutelage, Finley actually beat out a freshman Trevor Lawrence for first-team All-ACC. That was in Finley’s 4th year in Drinkwitz’s system (1 at Boise State, 3 at NC State).
Bazelak, at 6-3, 220 pounds, is entering Year 2 in the Drinkwitz system. It’s his first normal year with Drinkwitz, though. Bazelak has a long way to go in order to follow in Finley’s footsteps of becoming an all-conference selection and an NFL quarterback, but obviously, the sooner the better he enters that discussion. At least it would be for the 38-year-old Drinkwitz, who would have a unique recruiting pitch to those next-tier 4-star quarterbacks like Bazelak once was.
It’s one thing for an offensive-minded coach to show up at the right time before a draft-eligible guy has a big year. It’s another for a 30-something offensive-minded head coach to be able to say he developed multiple all-conference, NFL quarterbacks pretty much from the start of their college careers.
Actually, Drinkwitz is already making the right pitch that he knows how to develop quarterback talent. Early enrollee Tyler Macon was an Elite 11 selection after an extremely prolific high school career. Mizzou verbal pledge Sam Horn is the No. 9 quarterback recruit in the 2022 class, and the Georgia native picked the Tigers over offers from Florida and Florida State.
(Nobody is really talking about the fact that Drinkwitz went down to Georgia and plucked a top-100 overall recruit as his quarterback of the future, which is probably because Georgia already has 5-star Gunner Stockton committed to its 2022 class.)
The ball is already rolling for Drinkwitz. Bazelak can get it moving even quicker if he posts an All-SEC year, which probably shouldn’t be ruled out.
Yes, Drinkwitz has been clear that the Tigers have to do a better job of stretching the field. A couple of hand-plucked transfers could help with that. Keke Chism, who emerged for Mizzou down the stretch at the end of last year after transferring from Division II Angelo State (Texas), is a big part of that. So is Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper, who has been earning rave reviews from Drinkwitz throughout spring camp.
Still, this comes down to Bazelak making that next step. He wasn’t the guy who was ready to rally the troops back from a significant deficit. Drinkwitz said that’s when he started forcing the action. But could he play in shootouts? Absolutely. Go ask LSU and Arkansas about that.
Ladies and gentleman, Connor Bazelak- your new hero of the SEC:
• 29/34 👨🔬
• 406 yds 💨
• 4 TDs 🏈
• 0 INTs 🤚
• 85.3 completion percentage 🔥
— Sidelines – SEC (@SidelinesSEC) October 10, 2020
Bazelak’s windows won’t be that big in 2021. That throw was against an LSU passing defense that ranked dead last in FBS. That performance prompted Aaron Murray to say that Bazelak was the most gifted quarterback in the SEC. LSU made plenty of quarterbacks look like the most gifted quarterback in the SEC. Bo Pelini’s defense essentially gave SEC defensive coordinators everywhere the blueprint for how not to defend opposing passing games.
The problem for Bazelak, of course, was that he had more touchdown passes that day against LSU (4) than he did the entire rest of the season (3) in the next 7 games. Teams got a bit more of a book on Bazelak. They forced him to make tougher reads against zone coverage and when Mizzou got into the red zone, it was the Rountree show. Well, Rountree is gone now. So too should be those common Year 1 characteristics for Bazelak.
Bazelak is entering a no-excuse season. That probably is at the root of Drinkwitz’s not-so-politically correct response to his spring game performance (and just the fact that Drinkwitz doesn’t like to sugarcoat it for anyone).
Mizzou doesn’t take the next step in the SEC East hierarchy if Bazelak is “blah” in 2021. If he builds off his 67% completion percentage with that ability to avoid costly mistakes — 1 interception per 54 pass attempts and 1 sack taken per 27 pass attempts was solid — then buckle up. That could mean we’re about to see Mizzou return to being the pesky team who threatens to break up the top of the SEC East.
There are only 4 teams in the SEC that return their starting quarterback and offensive coordinator. Mizzou is one of them (Georgia, MSU and Ole Miss are the others). Now seems like as good a time as ever to take advantage of that for Drinkwitz and Bazelak.
Two of the quarterbacks in that situation — Matt Corral and JT Daniels — figure to dominate the first-team All-SEC discussion in the preseason, and deservedly so. They looked the part more consistently in their first seasons in new offenses in 2020. And Bazelak won’t get the “potential is through the roof” distinction that next-in-command SEC guys like Emory Jones, Bryce Young and Haynes King figure to earn throughout the offseason.
Bazelak is going to fly under the radar this year. Then again, it’s Mizzou. The day the program doesn’t fly under the radar will be a strange one.
But no matter how much preseason attention he gets, Bazelak has an all-important opportunity to soar past “blah” in 2021.