COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz might have one advantage over his peers in the Southeastern Conference: He probably knows more about his team’s strengths and weaknesses than the other SEC coaches know about their respective rosters.
That’s the upside to holding your spring game on March 19 while the rest of the league waits for April. Most spring games across the SEC kick off this Saturday or next, but Drinkwitz wrapped up Mizzou practices last month, giving players more time to rehab injuries and coaches more time to prepare for the season and recruit for the future.
The Tigers begin preseason camp in nearly four months, and while they duck away from the spotlight until then, there’s more to get done.
“Part of the reason that we do it the way we do it (early) is you have an entire month of April … and a five-week training block to increase your strength, your speed, your agility, your fundamentals,” Drinkwitz said after the spring game. “Then you’re going to have that month of May, which is going to be on (the players). They’re going to get some time off at home before they have to come back and it’s going to be about their discipline and willpower to maintain what they’ve gained.”
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Culminating with the rare entertaining spring game that, unlike most glorified spring scrimmages, resembled an actual game, there was plenty to learn about Drinkwitz’s third team at Missouri. While his recruiting success could start to pay off this fall, critical questions remain. Here’s what the spring taught us about the 2022 Tigers.
1. Both QBs can move the chains
Brady Cook and Tyler Macon produced promising moments through the spring and in the final scrimmage. Drinkwitz won’t name a starter any time soon — more on that briefly — but the two underclassmen held their own, combining to lead their units to a combined nine touchdown drives in the spring game. They also turned the ball over three times, a red-zone interception for Cook and two picks for Macon, one returned for a touchdown. Cook was the more efficient passer of the two, completing 16 of 20 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns for a QB rating of 199.7 rating. Macon completed 16 of 23 for 233 yards and a touchdown for a 151.6 rating.
“I thought both of them had good things and bad things happen to them during the course of the game, and they had to respond both in their own way,” Drinkwitz said. “Both of them led drives to really have a chance to either take the lead or come back. I thought, obviously, Maco had the drive at the end of the first half. And then Brady took his team right down and scored with very little time left on the clock, which was extremely impressive. Tyler had to drive the chance to go for two to win the game. So that was good. Obviously, both of them had some mistakes that they’re gonna have to grow from and learn from. And that’s part of it, it’s better to make that mistake in a spring game than in the course of a game. But both have made mistakes that really put you behind the eight ball in trying to win a game. And so we got to learn from those and grow from those.”
2. Another QB in the mix?
And we’re not talking about four-star recruit Sam Horn, who arrives in June. The most intriguing quarterback at the spring game was former Georgia starter JT Daniels, whom Drinkwitz has recruited heavily since he entered the transfer portal in January. That’s a clear signal MU wants to upgrade the group with a more experienced contender. Daniels has also visited Oregon State and plans to visit West Virginia. Wherever he lands he’ll show up expecting to start.
3. Wideouts galore
The talent and depth at wide receiver was on full display in the spring game — and not just a certain five-star freshman. Dominic Lovett made plays all over the field and led all players with 109 receiving yards. Chance Luper, Tauskie Dove and Barrett Banister grabbed touchdowns on impressive plays. Lovett, a sophomore from East St. Louis, has moved from outside receiver to the slot and thrived as Macon’s primary target.
“I think we tried to move him around way too much (last year) and didn’t let him settle into just getting good at something and then growing his opportunities from there,” Drinkwitz said. “I think at the end of the day, I was too greedy.”
4. ‘TD Luther’ doesn’t disappoint
It might be impossible for freshman Luther Burden to fulfill the enormous expectations as the nation’s top-rated receiver recruit, but he looked the part in the spring. He earned his No. 3 jersey after just one practice then put on a show in the spring game, finishing with 81 yards and a touchdown catch as Cook’s No. 1 target.
5. Busy backfield
While Tyler Badie prepares for the NFL draft, Drinkwitz has stockpiled a fleet of backs to replace the SEC’s leading rusher. Stanford transfer Nate Peat showed off his speed on a long TD run, while walk-on Cody Schrader (Lutheran South/Truman State) powered his way to a spring game-best 68 rushing yards. Freshman Tavorus Jones will get a shot when he arrives on campus, but Drinkwitz will have multiple options if he plans on a committee approach.
6. Unproven at tight end
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows on offense. Hyrin White’s lower-leg injury could leave the Tigers without their best option at right tackle. There’s depth concerns at tight end after last year’s top three players left the program. Buffalo transfer Tyler Stephens brings some experience but an injury sidelined him in the camp. There wasn’t a single pass thrown to a tight end in the spring game.
7. New wrinkles on D
New defensive coordinator Blake Baker didn’t expect to have his system fully structured and installed by the spring game, but the basics took shape. He’ll stick with Mizzou’s base four-man front with two inside linebackers on the field in the base package and five defensive backs. The notable change comes at the nickel or star position, where Baker prefers a third safety on the field instead of a third cornerback. One thing’s for certain: Baker, an experienced FBS coordinator, won’t face a steep learning curve like predecessor Steve Wilks, who had spent the 15 years in the NFL prior to his one year at MU.
8. Safety surplus
Baker never had his full arsenal of playmakers available as several veterans recovered from injuries, including cornerbacks Ennis Ennis Rakestraw (knee) and Kris Abrams-Draine (shoulder) and safety Martez Manuel (elbow). But Baker had to like what he saw from redshirt freshman Daylan Carnell at the star position, who had two interceptions in the spring game, and safety Joseph Charleston, a transfer from Clemson who led the game with six tackles. Both could upgrade the athleticism on the back end.
9. Instant impact
Along with Charleston and Peat, other transfer additions have the chance to contribute immediately. Linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper (Florida), defensive tackle Jayden Jernigan (Oklahoma State), center Bence Polgar (Buffalo) and cornerback Dreyden Norwood (Texas A&M) all made strong first impressions and got work as starters
10. New year, new leaders
The Tigers need a new class of leaders to emerge and a few veterans stood out in the spring: Banister, offensive linemen Connor Wood and defensive linemen Isaiah McGuire and Darius Robinson, all of whom served as captains in the spring game. There’s no truth to the rumor that Banister, returning for his sixth season, will have his doctorate degree by season’s end.