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Eli Drinkwitz Q&A: Mizzou still building program from infancy stage

By Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said he is still trying to build his program after roller-coaster first season at the Tigers' helm.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — For the first time as a college head coach, Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz has the luxury of a full offseason to settle into his job. After a promising 5-5 debut season that was sideswiped by COVID-19, Drinkwitz is fully immersed in the process of building his program.

He just signed a top-25 recruiting class with half the newcomers already on campus. Spring practices begin later this month. He's shaken up his defensive staff with the hiring of coordinator Steve Wilks. More support staff additions are coming soon. He's hustling to raise money for a new indoor practice facility. Oh, and the team hasn't had a positive COVID case since the bowl game was canceled two months ago. Things are certainly trending up.

This week, Drinkwitz sat down for an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to look back on 2020 and ahead to 2021. The following has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: This is the first full offseason you've had at one school as a head coach. What does that extra time allow you to get accomplished that you haven't done in the past?

A: I think the biggest thing is it's allowed me to just focus on where I've got to improve. And then how do I push the direction of the team? How do I continue to push the staff and our entire organization to improve? In what areas do we fall short? In what areas are we doing really good? And how do we keep pushing? That's the biggest thing that I've been able to do.

Q: Spring practices are coming up at the end of the month. Where are your priorities internally right now?

A: For the team it's really work ethic and camaraderie. Then for the staff, it's camaraderie and recruiting. Every day we're attentive to coaching our players in the schemes that we have, but there's a camaraderie that has to develop amongst our staff and with our players that we're really pushing. Then we've got to recruit. We've got to continue to recruit at a high level. There's a lot of really good players right now within a 300-mile radius that we have to hone in on.

Q: The way the recruiting rules are set up with the NCAA dead period in place for a while, have you found your lane to work through the limitations or are you still evolving on how to recruit in 2021? (On Wednesday the NCAA extended the recruiting dead period through May 31.)

A: You're always evolving and trying to find new ways. But this is going to be more challenging than last year, because in the 2021 class, all the kids in state had been on our campus and had come on an unofficial visit. This year, you're going in blind. They've never been on your campus. You've probably never seen them face to face. And if you had it was over two years ago. So, 16-year-olds are maturing to 18-year-olds. That's a wide range. This is going to be extremely challenging. I hope the NCAA in consultation with the SEC and us as coaches we can come up with some sort of way to be able to get to know these kids and meet these kids or that transfer portal is going to blow up here in two years.

Q: When you look back at the season, how do you grade the job you and your staff did? Do you have to grade on a COVID curve?

A: Time and tide wait for no man, right? So there's no COVID curve. There are results. At times the results were good. At times the results were not where they needed to be. I think we showed a lot of toughness, a lot of grit, a lot of ability to adapt. But we're constantly trying to improve, trying to be better. I was disappointed with the way the season ended. The last six quarters of football weren't as good as the first eight and a half games. There's a lot of excuses on why, but we've got to improve our grit and our toughness and find a way to finish. But goodness gracious, to overcome everything we had to overcome — no spring practices, not even getting an offseason with our guys — and to go into this league and still finish sixth, I'll take that result. Now the question is how do we go from sixth to first?

Q: When you look at how the offense performed are there areas that you were really pleased with?

A: We had one game-ending drive we were able to go down and score (against Arkansas.) That's always impressive. So very pleased with that. Pleased with the maturity and growth of our quarterback (Connor Bazelak). Obviously we've got to continue to improve there. I thought that we were efficient running the ball in the games that we won. But I've spent the last four weeks self-scouting. So the things in my mind right now are all things that we've got to improve on, which is short yardage, third downs, red zone touchdown efficiency. We were one of the best scoring teams in the red zone, and that had a lot to do with (kicker) Harrison Mevis. But we've got to score touchdowns in the red zone. That can be the difference in a couple of our games there.

Q: You look at Connor's numbers and they're really good in a lot of areas except for throwing only seven touchdown passes. There were circumstances at play there, but why do think the offense fell short in that area?

A: Typically, it was my play-calling in the red area. I didn't give those guys a lot of opportunities to throw the football. I was probably too conservative. We had a really good running back (Larry Rountree III) and you get in those areas you want to get away with points, so you want to hand the ball off to him. And I didn't do a good enough job of trusting Connor. It was hard because we didn't get enough red-zone live reps in the spring, so you were just going based off of your scout team looks. That was me. I've got to do a better job of giving him an opportunity. That was really one specific area that I thought Connor and myself can both improve on, our red zone, whether execution or play-calling.

Q: Going into an offseason, how different is the feel when you have an established starter at quarterback?

A: I think it gives you a comfort level to know that's not what you're looking for in your team (this offseason). You can focus on other areas. When you're having to find your quarterback, that's everything. You're not worried about your install. You're not talking about red zone. You're just worried about finding your quarterback. Now we know we have a quarterback who's very capable. So now how do we improve that offense? How do we build around his strengths? How do we find what other players do well and put those guys in those positions so that we can be successful? How do we focus on how you need to be able to take chances? In games like Mississippi State, you don't have to risk it or you don't have to force the ball in places.

Q: When the season ended, and there was no bowl game, in your mind, were you thinking about defensive staff changes? Or did that happen on its own? (Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left for the same position at Illinois, while Drinkwitz fired defensive line coach Brick Haley.)

A: Both. I think the opportunity for growth was there. Everything was on the table with the way that we finished the year. In this program, we're never going to stay stagnant. We're always going to push, push, push, until we win the SEC East. So as soon as this season finished, as soon as that bowl game (was canceled), it was immediately for me, OK, we have areas that have to improve in order for us to close the gap on the upper echelon teams. How do we do that? Change is a part of this profession. It's a part of growth. It was an opportunity for us to improve. We wish those guys well. But it's an opportunity now for us to really improve. I had the opportunity to take my time, really focus on what I wanted without the pressure of having to sign a recruiting class, without the pressure of having to get 25 hires done in the next 36 hours. I'm really, really pleased.

Q: Steve Wilks has a lot of experience, obviously. When you were looking for somebody for that role, was there one core quality you needed to have? Was it someone who's been a coordinator at the highest level?

A: I had a list of things. Obviously the first thing was a person of character. But then the second phrase that kept hitting me was a leader of men and motivator of players. I really wanted somebody who could lead the staff and lead that side of the ball, hold people accountable, set a standard and then motivate the players to play at a high level. Really, when you're around Steve and his presence, that's what you know you're getting.

Q: Did you feel like that the scheme on the field needed a lot of fixing?

A: We needed to adjust. We needed to eliminate explosive plays, specifically in the pass game. We needed to be more multiple in our coverages. We had to affect the passer. We were giving up way too many explosive plays in the run game. For me, it's both. It's execution and it's scheme. It's what you're asking your guys to do. If it's not successful, then how do you adjust it?

Q: When you look at this roster right now, do you see clear strengths of what this team can be?

A: I think we've got to see what the spring is going to look like before we find out. Because we made some, in my opinion, key additions and we've got to see some key growth. I thought we saw some consistency in players last year, but I want to see if they improve. And if they improve the way I think they can or people come on the way I think they can come on then I'm really excited.

Q: Do you have enough playmakers around Connor? Is that still an unknown?

A: That's the question. We know Tyler Badie is a playmaker. The challenge for us offensively is how do we utilize that without (just saying) he's in the backfield and going out for a pass? How do we utilize Keke Chism to create one-on-ones? But how does he demonstrate that he's a dominant receiver? Where does Mookie Cooper and Dominic Lovett fit in? Where does Elijah Young fit in? He's a guy who's got incredible speed and toughness when he runs the football. Jalen Knox and Tauskie Dove and Micah Wilson? We've got guys, but who is going to step to the forefront and really assert themselves? That's the question.

Q: You had a running back last year you could give the ball to 25 times a game. I don't know if you have that now. Is it more of a committee approach this year?

A: I think it's more of running back by committee and we're going to have to figure that out.

Q: When you look at where you still have roster room to add and you look in that transfer portal, I know you've got a list in mind of what you need, but now does that process work?

A: Best available. We're looking for the best players that can come in and help us compete for the SEC East. Whether that's an offensive lineman, or a D-lineman, a DB, a wideout, it's somebody who's going to add competition to the team. When we bring him in we know we're getting a great player. We're not afraid of competition here. Nobody should be. There are no sacred cows. There's only competition. That's our core value.

Q: How much of an unknown element is what's available in the portal? A year ago this time you had no idea some guys would be available who turned out to be starters?

A: I don't worry about it. I just focus on what we can control right now. You can't get caught up in it. You can't sit there and say as a staff, 'Well, it's OK. We'll find a guy in the portal.' Because you're not sure you can. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Our job is to make the very best team with what we have right now. We're still going through some transition. There's still going to be guys (on the roster) who still don't quite feel like they fit us. That's part of it. That's good. We'll make it work.

Q: Around the time the bowls were announced you mentioned Iowa State as a program that can be a model for you here. Iowa State's trajectory didn't happen overnight. What is the potential for this program here? And what stage of that process are you in now?

A: Infancy stage. I think anytime you take over a program that's treading water, there's no quick fixes. You can't just focus on plugging the holes. We've got to figure out how to rethink and rephrase the question. That's been my challenge to everybody, to the players, to the coaches, to the administration: Commitment is not a one-time act. It's every year you have to recommit yourself to being the very best that you can be. That's what we have to do. And whether that's players, coaches, recruiting, everybody, we're still in the infancy stages of establishing a culture and a mindset of who we are and what we want to be. I'm hoping that flywheel is moving a little bit faster this year, but it's not up to speed yet.

Q: Do you have a feel for what the perception of Mizzou football is outside of the bubble here in Columbia?

A: I know what the public perception is. The rest of the SEC doesn't care if Mizzou makes its place in the SEC. We have to establish who we want to be in this league. The perception is that we're probably just happy to be there. To me, that's the challenge.

Q: And you have to change that mindset here first?

A: Everywhere. Nobody cares if we're relevant in the SEC. They don't. In fact they would prefer if we weren't relevant because it makes it easier for them. The league office wants us to be relevant, but no other coach wants us to be relevant. We have to establish that. We have to make our place. We have to set our standard.

Q: Similar question, but what are you learning about that perception in St. Louis? It's a place that can be very hot or cold on Mizzou.

A: We're hot right now. But we've got to produce. We have to follow through. There's been a lot of promises to St. Louis. We've got to follow through. In the same sense, St. Louis has to follow through to Mizzou. But also remember, this isn't the University of St. Louis. This is the University of Missouri. And just as relevant as St. Louis is Kansas City and rural Missouri. They have to be the same to me. St. Louis doesn't have a monopoly of great players. They have great players. But there are other really good players in the state. We've got to recruit them all. I love St. Louis. It's a huge priority for me. I think it can be a huge part of our success. The reason why we will be successful is because of our recruitment of St. Louis. But it's not mutually exclusive. It's got to be inclusive. It's got to be St. Louis, Kansas City and rural Missouri.

There's obviously a natural void because the pro team left. So let's go fill that void. Let's go fill the passion of the St. Louis fan base. Let's get those people to The Zou. We've got great connections. Demetrius Johnson has been phenomenal. The high school coaches have really welcomed us. We're building inroads there with companies for life after football with our men. I'm excited about what we're building.