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Spring football brings a litany of questions for a transitioning Mizzou Football program

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Quarterback competition, defensive inexperience... Eli Drinkwitz will have a lot to work on in his first official practices as the Tigers’ head coach.

Missouri v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

If you’re looking for some intriguing football this spring, we’ve got just the place for you!

The NCAA’s hottest spring football camp is Mizzou.

Located in the navel of Missouri (and the United States itself!), spring football camp in Columbia is an exciting mix of gleeful, optimistic fans constantly fighting with hardened cynics! And this camp has everything: QB competitions, a worrying lack of defensive line production... A MYSTERIOUS CURSE HANGING OVER EVERYTHING!

Sounds exciting, right? After a year of college athletics that has been truly and utterly abysmal — less so for the actual results, more so for the difference between expectations and reality — it’s nice to have some low-stakes stuff to talk about.

Spring football is a perfect example. You have a rough idea of who your team is, but there’s enough uncertainty that you can build up some confidence going into the summer. There aren’t any games on the line, but there is a spring game where everyone gets to pick and choose the parts they feel really great about, while leaving the other stuff to summer ball. Who cares if there’s some rust — you have at least 3 months to knock it off!

As spring ball kicks off for Missouri this weekend, we’ve got our eyes on everything. We gathered the football crew to clue you in on what we’re keeping an eye on over the next few weeks.

It’s been one hell of an offseason, folks. Missouri has a new coach, new faces and, seemingly, a brand new identity. On a scale of 1-10, how optimistic were you about Mizzou Football at the beginning of the offseason, and where do you stand now as spring football kicks off?

Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: I think this depends on what you’re specifically asking about. If you’re talking about my optimism for the 2020 season, it probably started around a five at the end of the season and is sitting somewhere around a six today.

If you’re asking from a big picture standpoint, that’s where the change has taken place for me. Last season was such a disappointment. It was difficult for me to come to grips with the fact that Barry Odom failed to hit any sort of ceiling in a season that set up perfectly to do exactly that. So when the season came to an end and we started to look toward what a future looked like with Odom as the head coach, it was hard for me to imagine the program reaching the heights it had in the past.

Drinkwitz has restored some of that hope and belief. It could ultimately prove to be false hope. But it exists. If I started the offseason with a four or five for my long-term hope, I’m around a seven or eight after learning more about what Drinkwitz brings to the table.

Nate Edwards, Football Editor: At the end of the Arkansas game my optimism for the program as a whole was probably at a 6; I was confident that Odom was the right choice long term and understood that the 2020 and 2021 seasons would probably be low-win, rebuilding-type years for a run at 2022. Now that Odom is gone and Drinkwitz is in, I’m... at a 6, and understand that both the 2020 and 2021 season will probably be low-win, rebuilding-type years for a run at 2022. The only thing that changed for me is an unknown quantity in how Coach Drinkwitz will run the program and how successful he will be, but that unknown does not move my optimism up or down.

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Eli Drinkwitz has injected a lot of energy into the Missouri program this offseason. How will he keep it going this spring?
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Bussen, Staff Football Analyst: I was very confident last season, but the bad losses ground me down pretty good. Let’s say my optimism sagged to around a 3 or 4 by season’s end. While Coach Drinkwitz brings a refreshing energy to the job, I’m not particularly enthused about the roster he’ll be leading in 2020.

Mark me at hesitant 6 for the moment. If Drink starts pulling in some important recruits, especially from St. Louis, my excitement about the future will swell.

Coach Drinkwitz was hired for a lot of reasons, but his reputation as an offensive mind was certainly near the top of the list. Last year’s Missouri team was a major disappointment on offense, but there are some intriguing pieces available for next year. What will you be watching closely on that side of the ball?

Brandon Kiley: Is everything an acceptable answer? Because that side of the ball is full of question marks. What happens with the quarterback competition? How are the running backs being utilized? What’s the plan with the tight ends? Who among the wide receivers steps up? Who will become the new starters along the offensive line?

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Missouri offense with this many questions. There is no shortage of storylines for spring ball.

Nate Edwards: You can’t help but always watch the quarterback position, especially since this will be the first open spring quarterback competition since 2011. And since passing the ball is the most correlated to overall offensive success, I want to see which receivers take to the new book the fastest. I understand that most of the installation has yet to be done, but I’m hoping to see a lot of new faces on the field with the 1s and not having the ball bounce off their fingertips. I’m also really curious as to who fills in the offensive line gaps.

Ah, crap. I guess I’m watching the entire offense closely. That’s what happens when a terrible unit loses damn near everybody.

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All eyes are on Shawn Robinson, the presumptive favorite in Missouri’s first open QB competition.
Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tim Bussen: Quarterback is the most intriguing spot by far. Presumptive starter Shawn Robinson is a gifted runner (see this Film Room piece from last month), but an inconsistent, often reckless passer (see Film Room pieces coming this spring!). I’m interested in seeing if Coach Drink and Bush Hamdan can work some magic on Robinson, harnessing his playmaking abilities while tempering his propensity for bad decisions.

The line is a major concern of mine. While 2019 contributors Case Cook, Larry Borom, and Hyrin White return, each of them has had his struggles. O-Line coach Marcus Johnson will have earned his paycheck and then some if this offense moves the ball consistently this year.

Finally, I’m excited to check out battle-tested transfer receiver Damon Hazelton Jr, and young wideouts Maurice Massey and C.J. Boone. And I’m curious about Coach Drink’s plans to deploy all-purpose back Tyler Badie.

Drinkwitz’s staff was a major story of the offseason, especially the fact that he retained most of Barry Odom’s defensive coaches. Is the Missouri D a well-oiled machine going into spring, or are there underlying cracks that need to be addressed?

Brandon Kiley: Oh, there are definitely some cracks. Have you looked at the defensive end depth chart recently? I think Chris Turner will start on one side. Who is going to start opposite him? And will it be realistic to expect any production from either defensive end spot this season?

The questions don’t stop there. The Tigers have some big shoes to fill at cornerback. Nick Bolton is fantastic, but the starter next to him will have to be finalized after some shuffling at that spot last fall.

The defensive side of the ball should be solid. But it is certainly not without questions.

Nate Edwards: Well, defensive end has been a barren wasteland since Marcell Frazier graduated, so it’s certainly not the wellest-oiled machine. The secondary was excellent last year and most of those guys are gone; a strong secondary can cover the limits of an effective pass rush so now someone (ANYONE) needs to step up on the end of the line to give some modicum of pressure for the newest faces in the secondary. If there is not jump in line production, the entire defense is going to regress horribly; inexperience in the secondary is a death knell for defenses, and I imagine they’ll struggle mightily for at least the first half of the season.

Missouri v Arkansas
Nick Bolton had a breakout campaign in 2019, but will he have much help holding down the defense in 2020?
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Tim Bussen: Cale Garrett’s injury marked the beginning of auditions for 2020’s starting Mike linebacker spot. Getting a look were Cameron Wilkins, Jamal Brooks, and Devin Nicholson, none of whom significantly distinguished himself from the others. I’m looking forward to seeing who will join All-SEC Will linebacker Nick Bolton on the Tiger defense’s second level.

I’m also interested in seeing if there will be a shift in base personnel. Last year the Tiger D used its base 4-2 personnel, but lined up in an odd front the majority of the time. This usually meant assigning a smaller defensive end — Jatorian Hansford, Tre Williams, Chris Turner — to an interior gap. With so many bigger veteran bodies on the roster — Coach Brick Haley will have five senior defensive tackles — and a woeful dearth of playmaking ends, I wonder if one of those end positions will be filled by a heftier player in 2020.

Drinkwitz’s first recruiting class had a lot of hype, especially with the surprise signing of Ennis Rakestraw on NSD. Which of Drink’s early enrollees do you think could make a splash in their first taste of college ball?

Brandon Kiley: There are currently four freshmen listed on the roster for spring ball: quarterback Brady Cook, wide receiver Jay Maclin, running back Elijah Young and kicker Harrison Mevis. JuCo transfer Ben Key and graduate transfer Damon Hazelton, Jr are also on campus early, but choosing Hazelton seems like a bit of a cop-out (although I do believe he’s the correct answer here).

To answer the spirit of the question, I’m going with Young. His high school highlight reel is as good as it gets. He seems to have a unique combination of size, speed and vision. He’ll start the spring buried on the depth chart. It’ll be telling to see if he can finish the spring as the third or fourth player rotating at running back.

Nate Edwards: Due to recruiting restrictions, the honest answer is that they ALL need to make an immediate splash, otherwise two years from now that class will be the backbone of the team and if they aren’t any good or are no longer here, it’ll be a rough few years until the recruiting classes even out. Based off of his late rise, plus the programs the Tigers fended off for his services, Rakestraw will have the reputation of making a big splash early, especially since corner is a huge position of need. For legacy reasons, I want Maclin to make an immediate impact especially since — like corner — receiver is a huge position of need. But based off of hype alone, I’d say Elijah Young has the biggest chance of the early enrollees to make a splash during spring ball.

Tim Bussen: Coach Drink said he’s looking for touchdown-makers, a commodity this offense seems short on. Elijah Young and Kris Abrams-Draine (not yet on campus) are both electric with the ball in their hands, and could bring some instant juice to Drink’s attack.