Missouri football head coach Eliah Drinkwitz took the stage at Day 4 of the SEC Media Days, and his infectious charisma that has swept through his program was on full display.
His opening statement, beginning with a Paul Finebaum shout-out for his new contract with the SEC Network and a timely “horns down” joke, touched on the successes that the 2020 season brought and what his hopes for his team are for this year and beyond.
“[I’m] excited about the opportunity to be here today and share with you about the energy of the Mizzou football program and what we’re trying to build in the SEC moving forward,” said Drinkwitz. “You know, I really felt like last year, we exceeded the expectations of many of the people in the room, but also many of the people within the state about what we could accomplish in such a challenging season.”
Drinkwitz addressed Mizzou’s five conference wins last year and the five players drafted into the National Football League, giving the program “positive momentum to go into the offseason.” Success on the recruiting trail has been a continuation of that, but Drinkwitz made it clear that the goals for his team are higher ahead of the upcoming season.
“We didn’t meet the standard of what we want to be moving forward,” said Drinkwitz, “and so we are continually chasing that ‘close the gap’ mentality, how do we close the gap amongst the upper-echelon teams of the SEC, and it’s going to be a process. It’s not something that just happens overnight.”
He noted the eight returning offensive starters, eight returning defensive starters and four returning specialists, and he stressed the importance of winning the battle at both sides of the line of scrimmage to win in the SEC. Drinkwitz specifically mentioned All-SEC defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat and transfer portal additions Akayleb Evans, Allie Green and Blaze Alldredge as key contributors on the defensive side of the ball, leading a new scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Offensively, starting quarterback and SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Connor Bazelak, wide receivers Mookie Cooper, Keke Chism and Tauskie Dove, as well as running back Tyler Badie all came up in Drinkwitz’s rundown.
Drinkwitz described his defensive additions as parts of the puzzle of a defense that looks to improve upon its performance that tailed off toward the end of last season. Drinkwitz’s defensive representative, defensive end Akial Byers, was chosen because of what he’s demonstrated in preparation for this year’s campaign.
“Akial Byers is a young man that is a leader on the defensive side of the ball with a lot of game reps, a lot of experience,” said Drinkwitz. “[He] has really invested himself into this season, into our football team, and it’s a true honor for him to be here today.”
Byers spoke with enthusiasm about his surrounding unit, noting the capabilities of his new teammates in Evans, Green and Alldredge as well as the work that returning athletes are putting in this offseason.
“They’re older guys with more experience, so we don’t have a young defense,” said Byers. “I believe we have improved tremendously in areas where we lacked at the past couple years, especially on the D-line. We’ve been busting our tail every week, week by week, day by day, just to improve, to be the best D-line front in the country, and I believe that our defense is going to take off and lead Mizzou to a championship.”
Drinkwitz wasn’t alone in his praise of Wilks, as Byers detailed how the new defensive coordinator has already facilitated growth among his guys.
“It’s crazy learning from him, you know, a man with so much knowledge,” said Byers. “With him being, prior, in the league, he comes to work every day, he’s basically explained to us how the league is, and if you want to play at that level, you have to do things a certain way, and the right way, so he instills that in our head day by day. I continue to learn new things from him every day in the meeting room. Steve Wilks is a great person, great man, great coach and everything.”
Missouri’s offensive representative, offensive lineman Case Cook, echoed Drinkwitz’s sentiment of necessary improvement going into 2021.
“At the end of the day last year, we went 5-5, so we’re an average team,” he said. “I think we’re going to come in this year with a chip on our shoulder, man, we’ve got something to prove. We’re here to make the state of Missouri proud, all the way from the top to the bottom… so, let’s do this thing, I’m excited, I’m ready to get to the season… I think the work we’ve put in is going to pay off.”
Cook complimented Bazelak’s “winning mindset,” offensive line coach Marcus Johnson’s “tips and tricks and techniques,” and the surge that Drinkwitz has brought to recruitment.
“He’s done an unbelievable job turning this thing into NewZou, as we call it now,” said Cook. “Just changing the mindset, changing the script on everything. We’re here to win games. We’re not known as a powerhouse of the SEC right now, but that’s where we’re going to get to. He’s done an unbelievable job, we have an energy that surrounds the program that’s really unreal, I haven’t seen anything like it before. So, I’m excited for year two to see how that builds, and then when I’m gone, see how we left the program and see how it builds after I’m done playing here.”
Drinkwitz also spoke with local media ahead of his official media appearance. One of the biggest talking points throughout coach’s interviews has been vaccination rates, as the SEC previously set an 85% team threshold for general immunity from consequences of the conference’s COVID-19 policies. He stressed the importance of getting the vaccine, bringing up his siblings’ various roles within the healthcare system.
“We are doing everything we can to gain a competitive advantage and endorse getting the vaccine, because that’s what we need to do in order to take care of our neighbor,” said Drinkwitz. “I don’t believe it’s a personal choice. It is a personal choice, but it has consequences, just like any action you have has consequences.”
Missouri’s Media Days appearance comes behind the Tigers’ three college football awards watch list honorees. Trajan Jeffcoat was named to the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player in the nation. Connor Bazelak was named to the Davey O’Brien Award (best quarterback) watch list, and Tyler Badie was named to the Doak Walker Award (best running back) watch list.