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What does Drew Lock need to do to take the next step?

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Let’s go ahead and take a way too early look at Mizzou’s position groups.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

National Signing Day has come and gone, and it’s time to turn our focus to the 2017 season. Spring practices have begun throughout the country, and the Black and Gold Spring Game is just a few weeks away on April 15. Many things can and undoubtedly will change in the coming months, but content gods demand content.

Today we’re going to look at the quarterback position.

When Drew Lock committed to Missouri, there was immediately talk about his potential to play as a freshman and in the NFL. Trent Dilfer told Dave Matter, “Drew Lock is an NFL prospect the day he steps on campus.”

That pro potential helped to push Lock into the backup QB position behind Maty Mauk as a true freshman. Since then, three quarterbacks — Mauk, Eddie Printz and Marvin Zanders — have transferred as Lock’s ascendency was made clear.

Drew Lock will be the starter for as long as he’s at Missouri. Of that, there can be no doubt.

But a disappointing freshman campaign was followed by a sophomore year that hardly quieted doubters. Despite throwing for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions — and despite massive overall improvement from the Missouri offense — Lock completed only 54% of his passes.

According to the statistical projection analysis David Morrison did last year, Lock’s stats put him most in line with former Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, who added nearly 1,000 yards and a 5% improvement in a junior campaign that resulted in him being a first overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Just last week Morrison took a look at what it would take for Lock to follow Stafford and declare for the NFL as a Junior; read the article to get a full analysis of his conclusions, but the summary was: be more efficient, perform against better competition and win more games.

That sounds like common sense, but it crystallizes what Lock needs to improve to make the leap and become an asset for the Tiger’s offense. In 2016, Mizzou saw too many stalled drives highlighted by interceptions or throws forced by not reading the entire field (Georgia) and looked quite a bit worst against the best defenses (see Florida and LSU) and finally his win/loss record (6-14) as a starter.

We know Josh Heupel’s system is predicated on getting the ball out fast, avoiding sacks, explosive plays and an emphasis on up-tempo, half-field reads. Opponents have figured out what Mizzou likes to do in the passing game. In order for the Tigers to improve on offense, we must learn if there’s another level to Heupel’s system or if it’s a concession to his quarterback’s limitations.

Back when Lock committed, Danny Heitert of STC Grid Reports described him to David Morrison, then at the Columbia Daily Tribune, thusly:

“Three-quarter arm slot throwing motion is fluid, on time, and accurate. Already good footwork reinforces efficient re-set and delivery. Deceptive eyes bait secondaries into slow breaks. Graceful running style incorporates just enough burst that speed does not constitute a problem.”

The same scout broke down Lock’s struggles to St. Louis’ 590 The Fan last November,

“I think Heupel cannot run some of the things on offense…that’s going to hurt Lock. I don’t think because of the QBs on their roster, I don’t think he can run and expose Lock on options, bootlegs, designed QB runs, because he’ll put him at risk. Those are the type of things that would kill man to man coverage and give receivers more room to get open.”

What stands out is Lock hasn’t demonstrated that footwork in either his delivery or in the run-game. We know Heupel reworked Lock’s footwork to improve his downfield accuracy, but bad habits still manifested in several games and resulted in plain bad throws. We know he can be explosive, but can he be efficient?

We know he can be a threat running the ball, but he was hurt on that long run against BYU in 2015, and only twice in 2016 was he used effectively in the ground game. If there is concern about his durability, that should come as no surprise. College defenders are certainly not getting smaller or less athletic. But can Heupel’s system be effective if the triggerman isn’t truly a dual-threat?

Lock might not see much action during the spring game on April 15 if coaches feel confident in his development and look to avoid injury. Jack Lowary seems relegated to the ‘break in-case of emergency’ role, which means we could get an extended look at intriguing redshirt freshman Micah Wilson.

Wilson has a live arm, and his mobility means that with several years under Heupel’s tutelage, he could step right up to the plate when Lock leaves. Wilson can attack the field vertically like Heupel wants but may not have the same accuracy to fit passes into the tight windows Lock can.

Wilson didn’t arrive with the same pedigree and hype that Lock did, perhaps in part because he was committed to Boise State until switching to the Tigers just before national signing day. Mizzou pulled the same trick with quarterback prospect Taylor Powell in this past recruiting cycle. The 2018 prospect they seem highest on is a dual-threat who seems to fit Heupel’s preferred mold, but is currently only a three star.

I think it’s fair to assume the coaching staff under Barry Odom may be more fluid than under Pinkel. If you subscribe to the theory that Heupel will leave when Lock leaves, you’ll want to pay close attention to how Micah Wilson is handled.

Missouri had success under Gary Pinkel in large part because they had quarterback consistency, identifying and developing under-the-radar talent like Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and James Franklin. They also recruited blue-chip talent like Blaine Gabbert when it was within reach.

Barry Odom and Josh Heupel inherited their blue-chip QB and could still go on to have great success with him at the helm, but the likelihood is they’ll need to make their bones the same way Pinkel, David Yost, Dave Christensen, and company did: by “coaching ‘em up”.