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Many jobs up for grabs in Drinkwitz's first Mizzou camp

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Blue Springs High School graduate Daniel Parker Jr. (82) should get significant playing time at tight end for Mizzou if he is fully healed from an eye infection that nearly cost him his vision in the offseason.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – After just three spring practices, an unprecedented five-month offseason pause and a newly extended runway to the start of the regular season, coach Eliah Drinkwitz doesn't need to settle on Missouri's starting lineup for nearly eight weeks. That's helpful because other than a few established veterans the competition is wide open on Drinkwitz's roster.

Even though the Southeastern Conference delayed the start of the regular season until Sept. 26 – barring any decisions made by the SEC between now and then – NCAA rules allow the Tigers to hold their first preseason practice on Monday. Mizzou returns 12 players who started at least six games for the Tigers last season, plus three transfers who were offensive starters at other Power 5 programs.

That leaves plenty of spots for competition. Here are 10 position battles worth watching this preseason:

1. Quarterback: Drinkwitz has to settle on a starter plus a top backup among his four scholarship candidates: Shawn Robinson, a junior transfer and former starter at Texas Christian University; junior Taylor Powell, a spot starter last year; redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak, who's coming off reconstructive ACL surgery; and freshman Brady Cook, from Chaminade Prep. Robinson is easily the most experienced, having started eight games at TCU from 2017-18. He was a proven winner in high school – he led DeSoto High to a Texas Class 6A championship in 2016 – and has Power 5 chops as a sophomore starter in the Big 12.

Bazelak is worth watching. A wishbone quarterback in high school, the Ohio native has some familiarity with Drinkwitz, who recruited him when he coached at North Carolina State. Bazelak showed glimpses as a competent pocket passer in last year's finale at Arkansas before the injury ended his first career start. Four-star East St. Louis QB Tyler Macon is committed to join the competition in 2021, but until then, Robinson is the safe bet to capture the job.

2. Wide receiver: The Tigers have revamped their receiver corps with youth and experience. Transfers Damon Hazelton Jr. (Virginia Tech) and Keke Chism (Angelo State) are tall, physical targets that fit the mold of SEC outside receivers. The staff has been impressed with returning juniors Jalen Knox and Barrett Bannister. All four freshmen might not crack the rotation, but a couple could find roles and contribute – including Jay Maclin from Kirkwood High, younger cousin of former Mizzou All-American Jeremy Maclin. The Tigers redshirted both St. Louis natives last year, and C.J. Boone and Maurice Massey could find their way on the field with strong camps. Mizzou's 2020 quarterback will have weapons around him.

“I'm extremely excited about Hazelton and Keke Chism," receivers coach Bush Hamdan said. "Both were extremely well coached. They're guys that have been through it and provide a lot of leadership in that way. From there, we feel we've been able to build a lot of good depth. We really do. There's six or seven guys who are coming on strong. I've really been impressed with how much their bodies have changed and how they look out there running. We're going to be able to create a lot of competition at that position."

3. Safety: Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters settled on a 4-2-5 base defense last year that uses three safeties, two traditional high safeties and a third safety who plays closer to the line of scrimmage in a hybrid position that blends the roles of a traditional strongside linebacker and nickelback. You can count on seniors Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie to resume their roles. The third job is up for grabs.

Last year, seniors Ronnell Perkins and Khalil Oliver split snaps at the hybrid position. The leading contenders to take over are sophomores Stacy Brown and Martez Manuel and redshirt freshman Jalani Williams. Walters wants all three starters capable of playing all three positions."We're just trying to figure out who's the next-best safety outside of Josh and Tyree," Walters said. "We're going to play the top three guys. That's the beauty of our style of defense. You're not pigeonholed into one position. Those three can be interchangeable."

4. Offensive line: The Tigers have no shortage of candidates for starting roles but only three players with heavy starting experience: newly added Michael Maietti, a three-year starting center at Rutgers, junior Case Cook and junior Larry Borom. Cook can play any of the three interior spots, while Borom split time at guard and tackle last year. Hyrin White and Bobby Lawrence figure to get long looks at tackle, while a deep list of options will push for time at guard. Even with an extra three weeks to prepare for the season, developing continuity along the front five will be crucial in camp.

5. Kicker/punter: Mizzou has newcomers to handle both roles but won't hand over the jobs without competition in camp. Freshman kicker Harrison Mevis earned a scholarship as one of the nation's top high school prospects. He enrolled in January to get an early start with the program. At punter, Mizzou landed Kentucky graduate transfer Grant McKinniss, who can also handle kickoffs. He will get competition from Blue Springs graduate Josh Dodge. The roster includes four other walk-on kicking specialists to put heat on the two scholarship frontrunners.

6. Inside linebacker: One of MU's two inside linebacker jobs belongs to Nick Bolton. He took over as the weakside linebacker last season and played the position as well as anyone in the SEC. Now he's an All-American candidate and a rising 2021 NFL draft prospect. But he can't patrol the middle of the field by himself. Devin Nicholson played alongside Bolton at middle linebacker down the stretch last fall but he'll have to emerge from a crowded pack of contenders at one of the fiercest position battles on the team. Jamal Brooks, a senior, should be a factor. Junior Aubrey Miller is back after suffering a knee injury in last year's opener. Cameron Wilkins, Chad Bailey and Jamie Pettway will push for time, too.

7. Tight end: Blue Springs High School graduate Daniel Parker Jr. played significant snaps last year but is recovering from multiple offseason eye surgeries after an infection nearly cost him his vision. If fully recovered, he's clearly the most accomplished contender for playing time. Others will have to contribute. Senior Brendan Scales finally could earn some playing time after an injury limited his chances last year. Niko Hea had a strong 2019 camp and got on the field as a freshman. Mizzou might not need prolific receivers at the tight end position. But in Drinkwitz's zone running scheme, he'll need some extra blockers along the line or in the backfield.

8. Cornerback: Senior Adam Sparks and junior Jarvis Ware have logged plenty of game experience, but the Tigers will take a close look at younger contenders, including prized freshman Ennis Rakestraw Jr., who's impressed the staff in walk-through workouts that began last month.

9. Return specialists: New special teams coordinator Erik Link should have a long list of candidates to return punts and kickoffs, from veterans such as running back Tyler Badie and wideout Knox and rookies like Rakestraw and running back Elijah Young. Blue Springs graduate Cade Musser, a redshirt sophomore, also handled four punt returns last season.

10. Defensive tackle: The Tigers have a glut of veterans along the front four but only one entrenched starter at tackle. That's Kobie Whiteside, whose 6 1/2 sacks are tied for the most among returning SEC players. Seniors Akial Byers and Markell Utsey will get snaps alongside him, but the Tigers also could groom their two promising second-year tackles, Isaiah McGuire and Darius Robinson.