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Missouri has a new position battle worth watching

Eli Drinkwitz said he wanted to add “touchdown-makers” at wide receiver, and now he has a surplus. The question will soon transition to who he plays and how often he plays them.

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

Eli Drinkwitz said during one of his first public appearances as Missouri’s head coach that, “we need a touchdown-maker.”

His staff went to work to find some. The Tigers added five wide receivers in Drinkwitz’s recruiting class. They added another two in graduate transfers Keke Chism and Damon Hazelton, Jr. The latter two were expected to come in and contribute immediately.

The first two weeks were uneven for Chism and Hazelton. Missouri quarterbacks were 9-for-16 for 100 yards when targeting Hazelton against Alabama and Tennessee. The Tigers were 3-for-6 for 40 yards when targeting Chism. Both graduate transfer receivers have a drop. They have combined for 140 yards on 22 targets. That’s less than seven yards per target. It left some fans wanting more.

And on Saturday, those fans got more.

The Tigers went into the game against LSU without Hazelton, Chism or Dominic Gicinto due to COVID-19 contact tracing. The Tigers’ primary receivers as a result were D’ionte Smith, Tauskie Dove, Jalen Knox and Barrett Banister. Knox played his usual role.

Smith, Dove and Bannister combined for 16 receptions on 17 targets for 189 yards and one touchdown in their expanded role against LSU. They did not have a drop. Connor Bazelak had a 94 percent completion percentage and threw for 11 yards per attempt when targeting that trio.

That’s the production Drinkwitz was looking for. It’s fair to wonder how this will play into the playing time against Florida Missouri’s next opponent as a result.

Chism was arguably the most hyped Missouri player of the offseason. He deserves an opportunity to make good on that preseason talk. But does he deserve the same playing time he saw before Dove and Smith played the way they did against LSU?

And what about Hazelton? He flashed signs of brilliance, but the production wasn’t always there in his two games of action.

There’s also the question of competition. Chism and Hazelton had to produce against Alabama and Tennessee. Smith, Dove and Bannister (and this is strange thing to type) had their production against an LSU defense that has now been destroyed by both Mississippi State and Missouri. What would Hazelton and Chism have done against that secondary?

I think Chism and Hazelton deserve their starting jobs back whenever the Tigers return to the field against whoever they play next. But I don’t think the snap counts should return to what they were in the first two weeks of the season.

Dove and Smith combined for 23 snaps against Alabama, and just six snaps against Tennessee. They both earned more playing time moving forward.

Smith was on the receiving end of my favorite Connor Bazelak throw of the day against LSU. The Tigers came out in an empty set with a jet sweep action toward the right side of the field. Smith sells the play-action off the line before getting into his route as the cornerback looks into the backfield. At that moment, Smith takes off into his route as if he’s going to run a fade. The corner turns his hips and starts running with him. The design is for this ball to be thrown back shoulder down the sideline. It was perfectly executed. Smith snags the back shoulder fade right in front of future first round pick Derek Stingley Jr.

Smith also showed an ability to read coverages and find the open space against zone defenses. He did exactly that on this 3rd & 3 to move the chains late in third quarter.

Smith wasn’t the only player to beat Stingley in coverage. Dove had a couple wins of his own, including this hitch on a 1st & long situation early in the fourth quarter. The catch and run set up a manageable second down.

The 2020 season is about finding reasons for optimism for both this season and beyond. Chism and Hazelton gave Missouri fans legitimate reason to be excited about the passing game this season. Smith and Dove could be the reason for optimism for 2021 and beyond.

Drinkwitz was looking for touchdown-makers. He’s found some. Now it’s his job to divvy up the reps. I fully expect Smith and Dove will get their fair share. They’ve earned it.