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New offense, new role could remake Mizzou's Knox

By Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri wide receiver Jalen Knox (9) makes a long reception in front of South Carolina Gamecocks defensive back Keisean Nixon in a 2018 game. Knox hopes to revert to his 2018 form after a down season for Mizzou last year.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri's new wide receivers have attracted all the attention this offseason, but a returning wideout might be the most pivotal piece in the Tigers' new passing game.

You can describe him as a newcomer, too.

Jalen Knox, back for his third year in the program, is not the player he's been the last two seasons. That's by design.

"I feel like J-Knox is going to blow back up this year," wideout Maurice Massey said after a recent practice. "With the offense we have now it puts everyone in the place they need to be and uses them the right way."

If you interpreted that as a knock on the former offensive staff, your instincts were probably right.

Strictly an outside receiver in 2018 and 2019, Knox has found a new role in Elijah Drinkwitz's offense – a role that's new to Mizzou but not to Knox.

As a high schooler in Mansfield, Texas, Knox played slot receiver. He played running back. He played quarterback. The one constant was the football – always in his hands.

When Knox was a freshman at Mizzou in 2018, the coaching staff loved his mix of maturity and ability and entrusted him with a prominent role. But they moved him to outside receiver, a position that was foreign to the 6-foot playmaker. He'd have to outmuscle cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage then beat them with speed to find openings along the sideline. With senior Drew Lock at quarterback, Knox showed promise as a freshman, catching 27 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns. But without a competent downfield passing game last year, Knox was barely visible. His receptions plunged to 19 for 307 yards, just one touchdown.

The struggles shook Knox's confidence, he said.

"It was definitely a step back," he said. "It made me re-evaluate how I see myself as a football player. In high school, I always had the ball in my hands, but last year forced me to be a team player and change my outlook on football."

With Derek Dooley calling plays and quarterback Kelly Bryant in and out of the lineup with multiple injuries, Knox never found his footing last fall. After catching nine passes through the first three games, he had no more than one reception in seven of the final nine games. His only touchdown came on a 6-yard toss against Troy. He caught only one pass on third down – down from eight as a freshman.

The staff rarely gave him chances to make big plays on short passes in open space: Nine of his 31 targets, almost a third, came on go routes and post patterns down the field, according to SECStatCat.com. The offense hardly ever put Knox in position to make plays in the middle of the field, throwing him just two bubble screens all season, just two slants, just two digs.

Barry Odom's staff and teammates routinely praised Knox's speed and raw skills in the open field – "He's got a lot of physical traits that a lot of people don't have," receiver Barrett Banister said Tuesday -- but Knox became a footnote in the game plan. In the team's 852 plays from scrimmage, not once did MU hand Knox the ball on a running play, a jet sweep or a reverse, to capitalize on his speed.

The electric high school playmaker was inexplicably unplugged.

"I just leaned on my teammates and had to remember that I am still a good player," Knox said. "Things like that happen. It just comes with playing football. You have to try not to get down too much."

Those days are over. Drinkwitz shopped the graduate transfer market to add two huge outside targets in KeKe Chism (6-4) and Damon Hazelton Jr. (6-3), to go along with promising second-year wideouts CJay Boone and Maurice Massey, both 6-3. All that length outside has afforded Drinkwitz to shift Knox inside to capitalize on mismatches against slower defenders.

"I just see myself as a guy who can do everything," Knox said. "I come from a background of playing a lot of positions. I feel like this offense allows me to be an athlete and move to different positions and do different things. Whatever Drink schemes up and whatever he thinks I should be doing, I just go do it."

"Wherever you put him he's gonna make plays," wideout Dominic Gicinto added. "He's just really dynamic. He's got speed. He can get in and out of cuts. He can catch the ball. He's going to be everywhere this year."

With practices closed to reporters, Drinkwitz has been careful not to disclose too much about his offense through the first week of preseason camp. But he's not keeping his plans for Knox completely undercover.

"He's got incredible speed, good hands (and) he really wants to be good," Drinkwitz said after Tuesday's practice. "We've got to do a better job offensively of getting him the ball in space. We're gonna have to be creative in finding ways for him to touch it."

Earlier this summer Drinkwitz even suggested Knox might return to his days as an option quarterback in certain packages.

"I definitely could," Knox said, "if I needed to."