COLUMBIA, Mo. – Approaching Year 2 of the Eliah Drinkwitz era of Mizzou football, the Tigers are looking to build on the success of his debut season. But, offseason movement will make the 2021 Tigers look quite different, creating new opportunities on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, redshirt sophomore Connor Bazelak figures to enter preseason camp atop the quarterback depth chart. The Co-2020 SEC Freshman of the Year overtook the starting job after the 35-12 loss to Tennessee, and he ended the year completing over 67% of his throws with 2,366 passing yards, seven passing touchdowns and six interceptions.
His backfield will no longer feature Larry Rountree III, a sixth-round selection by the Los Angeles Chargers in the NFL Draft. Rountree accounted for 1,072 scrimmage yards (972 rushing, 100 receiving) and 14 touchdowns in his senior year, and his departure leaves senior Tyler Badie as the most seasoned running back on the roster. An adept receiver, Badie offers versatility as a quick accelerator and bills to be one of the offense’s most productive assets.
Running backs coach Curtis Luper has his hands full with talent, though. Sophomore Elijah Young produced 78 yards on just ten carries in 2020; both are the most of any running back on the roster barring Badie. Young took first-team snaps in the inaugural Black and Gold spring game and will field some share of backfield touches.
Luper’s squad also features three athletic freshmen in walk-on redshirt Michael Cox (who is currently listed at a bruising 6’0”, 220 pounds), DeSmet grad Taj Butts and B.J. Harris, who hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s possible that any of these guys can earn a contributing role.
Bazelak will also have a ton of wide receiver talent in his arsenal. The only departing receiver with starter production was Damon Hazelton Jr., a new member of the Houston Texans. That leaves the current roster with twelve wideouts, including last year’s leading receiver, grad student Keke Chism, senior Jalen Knox, redshirt junior Tauskie Dove and redshirt senior Barrett Bannister. Those four amounted to about half of the Tigers’ 2020 receiving output, and they all figure to contend for the top spots on the depth chart.
One newcomer that could make a significant splash is freshman Mookie Cooper, a St. Louis native who announced his commitment to Mizzou in early January after transferring from Ohio State. Cooper hasn’t seen in-game action since his junior year of high school (deemed ineligible to play his senior year after a transfer), but his elite athleticism and burst are sure to be utilized in the Drinkwitz offense.
He headlines a younger core of receivers, which includes sophomores Jay Maclin and Chance Luper as well as redshirt freshmen Javian Hester and Jaden Nash. The receiver room will likely prove to be crowded, but preseason competition may push some guys to new heights.
Bazelak will also have familiar faces (behinds, rather) in front of him. Four of the Tigers’ starting offensive linemen, senior left tackle Zeke Powell, redshirt junior left guard Xavier Delgado, graduate center Michael Maietti and senior right guard Case Cook, are all returning for another year at Faurot Field. The only exiting starter, right tackle Larry Borom, was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
Continuity on the offensive line should serve the Tigers well in 2021, especially considering the unit conceded the second-fewest sacks (16) in the SEC last season. Veteran presence will also positively impact development of future contributors, including the likes of redshirt junior Javon Foster and redshirt senior Hyrin White, two of the top candidates to fill the right tackle void.
Defensively, the Tigers shape up to be a starkly different unit under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Departing athletes combined for about 38% of Missouri’s total tackles in 2020, the most notable vacancy left by star linebacker Nick Bolton. Bolton led the team with 95 total tackles, and his performance earned him a second-round selection by the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL Draft.
In addition, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Tyree Gillespie and the New England Patriots’ Joshua Bledsoe manned the Tigers’ secondary last year, leaving the deep third of the defense in new hands. The defensive line also lost two key components by way of the transfer portal. Markell Utsey and CoMo native Tre Williams teamed up with their recruiter, former Missouri head coach and current Arkansas Razorbacks defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
Regardless, Wilks is set to have a lot of contributors at his disposal. Mizzou’s 2020 sack leader, redshirt junior and 2020 first team All-SEC selection Trajan Jeffcoat, stands out on a defensive line that will return graduates Kobie Whiteside and Akial Byers as well as junior Isaiah McGuire. Junior linebacker Devin Nicholson, who finished second in tackles last year, will take on an even bigger load to make up for Bolton’s absence. He takes the reins of a linebacker group that has some of the least Mizzou experience of every position group.
Junior strong safety Martez Manuel will become a leader among the Tigers defense. He showed flexibility as a secondary defender who fearlessly stepped up to make big second-level tackles; Manuel was second on the team in tackles for loss (seven), third in sacks (two and a half), tied for second in passes defended (five) and forced a fumble in the 2020 campaign.
The do-it-all safety isn’t the only demonstrator of flexibility in the Tigers’ secondary. Former starting quarterback redshirt senior Shawn Robinson cemented his new role as a defensive back with an interception against Mississippi State last season. He vies for snaps in 2021 amongst a competitive group that features the first starting Drinkwitz recruit, sophomore cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr., senior Jarvis Ware and redshirt sophomores Jalani Williams and Ishmael Burdine. Keep an eye on Kris Abrams-Draine, a member of Drinkwitz’ 2020 recruiting class brought on as a wide receiver who is currently listed as a defensive back.
Both 2020 all-freshman SEC kicker Harrison Mevis and graduate punter Grant McKinniss are in line to resume their special teams roles from 2020.
Missouri is fortunate to be returning a majority of last season’s starters, and the expectations for Coach Drinkwitz and the Tigers are bound to be high as they prepare to compete for the top spot in the SEC East.