Mizzou's Drinkwitz embraces change in first full spring

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak, who was the Co-SEC Freshman of the Year, is expected to have a deep receiver corps in his second season as a full-time starter.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz wrapped up his first full session of spring football practices on Thursday and after a month of workouts shared one bit of fortuitous news: The Tigers suffered no major injuries practicing for games that are more than five months away.

"You always want to stay healthy and this is the healthiest spring ball I've ever been associated with," he said. "We only lost one person for an injury that kept him out an extended length of time, and nothing that will keep anybody out for the season."

It was a condensed spring for the Tigers, who conducted the full session over four weeks and now move into the next stage of the offseason.

But before tackling the next stage, let's revisit the five story lines posed at the start of spring practices and see how they unfolded over the last month.

1. New voice, new scheme on defense

In his first spring back on a college campus in 16 years, new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks introduced a new scheme, new position coaches and a new energy to a defense needing a makeover. A unit that stumbled down the stretch last season has taken to its new leader.

"When somebody walks in with 15 years of NFL coordinating experience and head-coaching experience and has different NFL players able to speak about it," Drinkwitz said, "there's a certain level of credibility that college kids are easily able to buy into."

Wilks, a longtime NFL assistant coach and coordinator and the Arizona Cardinals head coach in 2018, has installed new zone coverages he hopes can increase Mizzou's interception totals and rebuilt the defensive front from a three-man to four-man line in a one-gap scheme. Wilks has been especially pleased by a refurbished D-line that's deep with returning starters and key backups.

"Those guys are really what triggers everything for us," Wilks said, "being able to control the line of scrimmage, stop the run and then having an effect on the quarterback. They're doing a great job of allowing the back seven to make plays on the ball."

Two returning seniors who especially impressed the staff this spring were defensive tackle Akial Byers and defensive end Chris Turner.

"We challenged those guys that came back that this was a new year and a new team," he said. "So just like everybody else, there's always going to be competition. And don't assume because you're coming back that you're gracing us with your presence. I think people like Akial Byers and Chris Turner have really embodied that. They've really attacked this new opportunity for them to create value for themselves and their own abilities."

2. Encore for Bazelak

Connor Bazelak, the co-SEC freshman of the year in 2020, returns as MU's incumbent at quarterback, but once the calendar flipped to 2021 he went on a four-week deep dive into last year's game film alongside Drinkwitz. They came up with two areas that must improve this fall: red-zone production and the vertical passing game.

This spring, Mizzou relied less on the running game inside the 20-yard line and didn't hesitate to air the ball out more during live drills. Bazelak completed a deep ball down the sideline to Tauskie Dove in Saturday's spring game that highlighted MU's renewed emphasis on stretching the field.

"The challenge for us now is for those guys on their own (this summer), since we can't be out there with them with a football, for Connor to really continue to bang that chemistry with those wide receivers," Drinkwitz said. "But I think we're off to a good start. I think we'll see fruits of that labor. But there's still a long four-month process for that to develop."

3. Who's next?

The fact that only five 2020 Mizzou starters worked out for NFL scouts during Monday's pro scouting day underscored how experienced the Tigers will be this fall. Drinkwitz returns 24 of the 31 players who played at least 200 snaps on offense or defense last year, though leading candidates emerged as favorites to replace those five NFL hopefuls.

At safety, where MU replaces Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie, two new starters worked extensively with the first unit in Wilks' 4-2-5 scheme: Chris Shearin, who is coming off an opt-out year, and J.C. Carlies, a converted cornerback. Returning safety Martez Manuel is now the veteran leader of the secondary.

Nick Bolton, MU's two-time first-team All-SEC linebacker, could be a first-round NFL draft pick next month, but the Tigers are more concerned about his replacement. Chad Bailey got the bulk of the first-team work this spring.

The only departed offensive lineman is right tackle Larry Borom, and Hyrin White, a former starter who missed last year with a shoulder injury, should slide into the first unit.

At running back, MU could split the carries among a herd of options to replace Larry Rountree III's production, but Tyler Badie expects to be first in line.

"I think I've seen a level of intensity out of Tyler that I probably hadn't seen before and maybe a level of his concentration and understanding," Drinkwitz said. "It's his opportunity."

4. Welcome aboard

MU added a dozen scholarship newcomers for spring practices (seven freshmen and five transfers), several who emerged as contenders for major roles, including cornerback Jadarrius Perkins and defensive tackle Realus George Jr., both junior college transfers.

The most impactful on offense figures to be wide receivers Mookie Cooper (Trinity Catholic) and Dominic Lovett (East St. Louis), who could also serve roles in the return game.

5. Upgrade at receivers?

Cooper and Lovett add some much-needed electricity to the receiver room, while a full offseason for 2020 leading receiver Keke Chism should be beneficial for the graduate transfer. Jalen Knox, a returning senior, missed the spring while recovering from offseason surgery but adds another threat to the passing game.

Of the handful of seniors who chose to return for another year of eligibility, Drinkwitz believes Chism can really benefit from a full offseason working with Bazelak.

Once the team returns from spring break — MU's spring break runs Saturday through April 4 — players will undergo their usual weekly round of COVID testing and by the middle of April Drinkwitz expects players to be eligible for the COVID vaccine.