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Rock M Roundtable: Let’s focus on the positives!

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It’s been a stressful week without football, so let’s focus on all the positive developments of the 2020 season!

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In case you didn’t already realize, we’re in the middle of Missouri’s second bye week of the 2020 season, so things were already going to be somewhat sad in Tiger nation.

Then Election Night/Week hit and the ensuing two days have plunged the country into confusion and anxiety. So in order to combat said feelings, let’s talk a little bit about our football team. Hey, they’re pretty good right? Better than we’d hoped especially!

We recruited a few members of our masthead to look on the bright side of life and put some positive spin on the first half of the season. Enjoy!

We don’t do report cards here at Rock M Nation, but it does seem appropriate to heap some praise on those who deserve it. So let’s start with units: What position group have you been most pleasantly surprised or pleased with in 2020 so far?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: If we’re focusing on the pleasant surprises on Mizzou’s roster, you have to point out the offensive line, specifically in pass protection. It’s a bad time to be stanning for this group considering the brutal showing they just put up against Florida, but they’ve been much, much better than I expected in the preseason. Missouri currently ranks near the top of the SEC in sacks allowed and the amount of yards lost from said sacks. In addition, the Tigers are tops in the SEC in interceptions, only having thrown one on the season. You give Connor Bazelak a lot of credit for that, but he likely would’ve chucked a few more if he was constantly being harassed in the backfield. I expected the line to be a disaster just a few months ago, and so far they’ve been passable-to-good for much of the first half of the year.

Nate Edwards, Football Editor: It would be too easy to say the one-man quarterback position so I’ll go safety. Joshuah Bledsoe, Tyree Gillespie, and Martez Manuel are three of the top six tacklers on the team right now and three of the top four in defensive snaps played. They’ve combined for 40.5 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 8 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and 11 run stuffs. They’re always on the field and always in a position to make a play. They’re the best friends a young secondary could ask for and have been just as effective at laying the wood in the run game. We knew Bledsoe and Gillespie were going to be good, but I’ve still ben impressed by the three safety tandem.

Aaron Dryden, Staff Football Writer: If I had to choose one position group that has scored higher than I thought, it would probably be none other than Harrison Mevis, the Thiccer. He’s 8 of 10 on field goals with a long of 52 yards, and one of the two misses was from 56 yards. Oh, and 11 for 11 on extra points.

He’s been as steady as you can expect a freshman kicker can be. He has made kicks from both hashes and made one to ice the game in the win against Kentucky.

With age considered, his trajectory leads you to believe that he could become a weapon for Mizzou the next few years.

Eli Drinkwitz has received a lot of praise for exceeding expectations in the first half of his debut season as the Tiger head coach. What has been the most surprising element of his coaching?

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

Josh Matejka: I figured the offense would be improved and Drinkwitz would instill a lot of energy into the roster, but I’ve been pretty floored by Drinkwitz’s game-planning ability — or at least, his ability to coordinate a staff that game-plans. The Tigers had no shot against Alabama, and executed poorly enough that no plan would’ve beat Tennessee or Florida. But the Tigers saw what LSU was giving them and took it, running up 45 on the reigning champs. And just two weeks later, Drink changed tactics completely, grinding Kentucky into a bloody pulp, a 180-degree turn in style. We’ve seen in the SEC how new coaches have been hesitant to change their ways to adapt to a new school and roster — Drinkwitz, on the other hand, has been adaptable, and has found success for it.

Nate Edwards: I’ve been most surprised that he’s been an effective offensive coordinator while running this program. Gifted coordinators are hot-ticket items for head coaching gigs, but just because you can run one side of a team super well doesn’t necessarily translate to program building. In addition, all too often a gifted coordinator has had trouble trying to run his side of the ball while managing all other head coaching responsibilities or has issues with another OC trying to run his scheme. So far, Drinkwitz has handled the, “chief of state,” roles incredibly well, run recruiting and culture building with aplomb, and generally been a solid war-time general while calling plays on the field. He hasn’t been perfect, mind you, but is always up front about taking blame and typically gets into good grooves as far as play calling and sequencing. It was my biggest worry going into this season when he said he’d be his own coordinator but he’s demonstrated an excellent ability to handle all those responsibilities.

Aaron Dryden: I’ve been most impressed with how he’s hit the ground running overall. Making the leap from the Sun Belt to the SEC isn’t easy as is, but leading your team through a national health crisis obviously complicates things. To his credit, he and his players have been stringent on their protocols, and have managed covid related issues well compared to many other schools this year. He has been accessible to the media, and transparent with his teams covid cases, unlike others in the conference. *cough* everybody else in the SEC *cough*

There a bunch of reasons to be impressed with the on field product, but I think him being a quality CEO of this program during what is a confusing, and stressful time is just as important, if not more so.

We do a weekly MV3, and the names on those ballots have been pretty consistent. So let’s mix it up a bit. If you had to pick an Most Improved Player, who would it be and why?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Matejka: I want to say Jalen Knox on offense, but I wonder if he’s just been misused in his first few years and didn’t already have this sort of talent. So I’m going to stick with my OL theme and say Larry Borom. The tackle has already been shouted out by Pro Football Focus multiple times, and could quietly be playing himself into draft consideration after the year. Maybe the best thing you can say about him is this — when he wasn’t able to play against Florida, it was noticeable. Borom has been the rock that’s holding the line together this year, and he deserves some praise.

On defense, I’ll say Joshuah Bledsoe. Tyree Gillespie was the draftnick’s pick between the Tigers two upperclassmen safeties, but Bledsoe has been the one with the penchant for timely plays in 2020. He’s also second on the team in passes defended and fifth in total tackles. And his pass breakup against LSU is automatically in the Mizzou Photos Hall of Fame, so I’d say it’s been a pretty good senior year so far.

Nate Edwards: On offense, I don’t know how you say anyone but Jalen Knox. Knox was lost in the Dooley scheme, playing an outside receiver position that he was clearly not comfortable in. Playing out of the slot and being the main motion man on Drinkwitz’ pre-snap movement has awoken his natural talent, putting him in space and letting him move freely. It’s been night and day and I love it.

On defense... is it cheating to say Trajan Jeffcoat? From not playing at all last year to leading the team in sacks is a pretty huge improvement. I’m not sure where this defense would be without him but I’m glad I don’t have to think about it.

Aaron Dryden: No question in my mind, Trajan Jeffcoat. He was a late addition at what was the biggest concern coming into the year, but he has been the best defensive lineman on this roster. He has been solid against the run, and been a really nice source of pressure. He’s already got three sacks this season which not only leads the team through five games, but has one less than all of the defensive ends all of 2019. He’s been impressive.

It seems safe to say most fans would’ve taken a 2-3 start to the season, especially with the way the schedule has been shuffled. Looking at the back nine five of the season, what sort of finish would get you even more excited about the future?

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Matejka: I think four wins is good and anything plus is great. But most importantly, I’d like to see continued improvement from the offense. Of the five games so far, the Tigers have really only had one explosive performance, and that was against a defense so bad, I fear someone may eventually poison Bo Pelini’s gumbo. They executed well against Kentucky, but have collectively struggled to get going against Tennessee and Florida (Alabama doesn’t count, let’s be real.) The back half of the schedule features dates against at least two porous defenses and one juicy match up with a former head coach. I’d like to see the Tigers put up some big numbers in those games, and only then I’ll be completely sated.

Nate Edwards: Before the season started I said I would be happy with two wins. Missouri has met that so anything else they get is a cherry on top... although they really need to beat Vanderbilt (possibly the worst team in the country right now). If they pull off a win over Arkansas and Mississippi State I’d be even happier than I am now. I’d be pleasantly surprised with 4 wins, but a 5-5 record in the weirdest season of all time with a first-year head coach is plenty of reason for long term optimism.

Aaron Dryden: I think I’d be happy if we continue to see the development of Connor Bazelak. Having a quarterback in the SEC is so incredibly important, and getting Bazelak through this season in one piece and also having him continue to develop chemistry with his receivers would go a long way for the program as a whole. That Bazelak development trajectory is the real treat for fans, not the games that they’ll win over the rest of this year. Those are obviously nice, and we will definitely take them, but this is more about the long game for Missouri. Get better, stay healthy, win a few more games even, but we are building to bigger things.