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Five changes Eli Drinkwitz made that built Missouri into a top 25 team

Larry Smith, Gary Pinkel and Barry Odom couldn’t get the Tigers into the top 25 in their first season at Missouri. Here’s how Drinkwitz was able to do so.

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

College football is all about stories. The first woman to take the field for a power five game. The revamped program in Myrtle Beach taking the country by storm. The former walk-on wide receiver from Alabama who built Clemson into a national powerhouse. A former 2-star recruit who committed on signing day and turned himself into a future first round draft pick.

We watch for the laundry. We fall in love with the sport because of its stories. Missouri has suddenly become one of those stories this season.

Eli Drinkwitz wasn’t supposed to be able to do this. The Tigers win total was set at 2.5. The “goal” for the season was to get to three or four wins. The quarterback position was unsettled. The offensive line was in flux. The head coach was a relative unknown.

It didn’t matter. In his first year on campus, Drinkwitz has built the Tigers into a respectable football team. On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff committee recognized Missouri’s progress by ranking the team inside the top 25. It was certainly a bit of a surprise, but we’ll take it! Much like Andy Dufresne, Missouri fans have crawled through a pile of you know what to get to where we are today. It’s been a long road, but the hope finally seems to be paying off.

How did we get here? We’ve talked for months about the intangible changes Drinkwitz has made within the program, stemming from the culture he’s instilling to the toughness the team shows on game days.

Let’s take a look into the top five tangible changes Drinkwitz has made to get Missouri to where we are today, a top 25 team in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.

1) Drinkwitz found his quarterback

Sometimes football isn’t so hard to figure out. If you don’t have a quarterback, everything inside of the building is focused on finding someone who can become the quarterback. That’s the case at every level from high school to the NFL.

The Tigers didn’t have a clear quarterback leading into the season. The plan was to go with former TCU starter Shawn Robinson. That lasted all of one game before Connor Bazelak stole the job. His breakout performance against Tennessee earned him the job, and the Tigers never looked back.

Bazelak’s numbers aren’t going to blow you away. He’s thrown a touchdown pass in two individual games. He threw four touchdowns against LSU, one against South Carolina and zero in his six other games combined.

But that doesn’t mean he’s been ineffective. Quite the opposite.

Bazelak is fifth in the SEC among qualified quarterbacks in completion percentage (69.4%) and yards per attempt (7.8). He’s sixth in passer rating (139.4) and fourth in passing yards per game (250.3). The only power five freshman quarterbacks in the last 20 years with a better completion percentage (min. 250 attempts) than Bazelak are USC’s Kedon Slovis (71.9%) and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford (69.5%). That’s decent company.

Drinkwitz found his quarterback. The touchdown numbers will come eventually. His efficiency is a heck of a starting point. The Tigers wouldn’t be ranked in the top 25 without Bazelak’s impressive performance this season.

2) Drinkwitz knew he needed to improve the pass catchers

One of the first critiques Drinkwitz made publicly about the roster was that he knew it needed an upgrade at receiver. He immediately went to work. He identified two of the best receivers available in the transfer portal, and he convinced them to come to Missouri.

Damon Hazelton’s season has been, umm, uneven. His playing time has decreased sharply in recent weeks. But he’s still found a way to be productive. Hazelton is second on the team with 322 receiving yards. He had his most productive game of the season last week against Arkansas, finishing with five receptions for 98 yards. Without Hazelton, they likely don’t win that football game.

The same could be said about Keke Chism. After a slow start, Chism has 22 catches for 305 yards over the last four weeks. It shouldn’t come as a significant surprise that the Tigers are 3-1 in those four games.

Missouri’s wide receivers have combined this season for 1,700 receiving yards. Chism and Hazelton have combined for more than 40 percent of that overall receiving production. Who knows where this offense would be without those two.

3) Drinkwitz hired Marcus Johnson as his offensive line coach

Missouri’s offensive line went from a huge strength in 2018 to a massive weak link in 2019. What happened? I’m not sure we’ll ever know. The players were mostly the same. But the play as a whole regressed. And then almost the entire unit departed. The only starters who returned for the 2020 season are Case Cook and Larry Borom. Both are good players, but returning two of five starters with very little known commodities at the other three spots was a massive concern coming into the season.

Then the opt-outs began. And COVID-19 hit the unit hard. Disaster seemed imminent. But the offensive line held steady.

Some of that is thanks to key additions late in the process. Graduate transfer Michael Maetti has been solid as can be. Drinkwtiz added Junior College transfer Zeke Powell in July and he quickly became a quality starter at left tackle. Xavier Delgado and Luke Griffin have developed into solid players, and Griffin was named to Pro Football Focus’ college football offensive line of the week for his performance against Arkansas.

The unit deserves a ton of credit for its performance this season. As does their position coach, Marcus Johnson.

Johnson was named one of the finalists this week for the Broyles Award, handed out annually to the top college football assistant coach in the country. Johnson has done yeomen’s work in getting this Missouri offensive line up to snuff.

4) Drinkwitz landed a commitment from Ennis Rakestraw

The first real sign that things were about to change under Drinkwitz were the moment Rakestraw decided to commit to Missouri instead of taking a scholarship to play football at the University of Alabama. That’s not something you see everyday. It’s rare for any team to win a recruiting battle against the Tide, much less Missouri.

Rakestraw has certainly had his freshman moments this year, but he’s a legitimate starting caliber cornerback on an SEC team as a true freshman. That’s incredibly rare. Rakestraw is one of those players who comes in right away and changes the level of the defense in the here and now while also giving fans a ton of reason for hope in the future.

Rakestraw’s commitment was the first sign of what was to come in recruiting for Drinkwitz, and it also ended up paying off big dividends right away on the football field.

5) Drinkwitz fixed the special teams

You know what helps to coach special? Having a coach specifically dedicated to special teams. I know, it’s a wild concept. But it’s something that seemed foreign for years at Missouri. Drinkwitz added Erik Link to his staff, and his one responsibility is to coach the special teams.

I’m not here to tell you the Tigers’ special teams have been perfect this season, but they’ve been pretty darn good. Harrison Mevis (aka The Thiccer) has been a revelation. Grant McKinnis has been a really solid punter and a nice graduate transfer addition who sounds like he’s sticking around for another year.

Special teams don’t get a lot of love, but they’ll get a heck of a lot of criticism if they perform poorly. The Tigers had plenty of rough games on special teams in recent years. Drinkwitz has done a good job of putting those concerns to rest.