Remember back in the day when teams only needed two starting cornerbacks? Man, those were the days. But they’re gone now. No different than flip phones and the Walkman.
Defenses are using five and six defensive backs regularly now. Mizzou’s official depth chart listed five defensive backs as the “starting lineup.”
The same is true on offense. Fullbacks are on life support. Teams take the field with one tight end, one running back and three wide receivers on the field the vast majority of snaps. According to SEC Stat Cat, the Tigers used “11 personnel” (one tight end, one running back, three receivers) on roughly 63 percent of their total snaps, and approximately 66 percent of their passing plays. Another 16 percent of Mizzou’s passing plays came from “10 personnel” (one running back, zero tight ends, four receivers).
That means the Tigers had three or four receivers on the field on 82 percent of their passing plays. Slot receivers are officially starting players, and Eli Drinkwitz is treating them as such on the recruiting trail.
I wrote early this season about how Drinkwitz “unlocked” Jalen Knox. He was utilizing Knox in all the ways we hoped to see him used in previous years. Pre-snap motion, jet sweeps, crossing routes and the quick passing game. It was beautiful. But it disappeared in the second half of the season as Keke Chism’s usage increased. I can’t really explain that. Maybe defenses adjusted. Maybe something wasn’t quite right for Knox. I’m not sure.
But what we saw early in the year is what I hope we see more of in years to come. In fact, it needs to be, because Missouri is loading up on slot receivers for years to come.
Mizzou’s early Christmas gift this year was a late flip from four star wide receiver Dominic Lovett. The former East St. Louis star played outside plenty in high school, but he’s just 5-foot-10 and weighs in at a reported 170 pounds. He’s likely going to be pushed into the slot early in his collegiate career.
Drinkwitz didn’t stop with Lovett. He kept looking for upgrades at the receiver position, and fell into the top rated athlete in the country in 2020, Mookie Cooper. The St. Louis native didn’t see the field as a freshman at Ohio State and decided to enter the transfer portal. The Tigers will be the beneficiaries of his services, hopefully, for years to come.
Cooper, much like Knox, is an all-world athlete who plays the receiver position like a running back. 247 Sports compared him coming out of high school to former Ohio State slot receiver and current Panthers offensive weapon Curtis Samuel. That makes a lot of sense. He can impact the game in a number of ways, but his ability after the catch is what makes him special.
It’s fun to have these kind of weapons. You can never have enough good players. But it does bring up some interesting questions. Who will see the bulk of the playing time next year? How will the touches be distributed? Who earns the punt return duties - Cooper or Lovett? Do both of them pass up Barrett Banister on the Tigers’ depth chart?
It’s clear Drinkwitz values his slot receivers. He’s used them at a high level in his previous stints and his offense featured Knox at a high level early in the 2020 season. He’s going to have even more weapons at his disposal for 2021 and beyond.
There are suddenly a lot of mouths to feed, and that’s a good thing for Tigers fans. Competition brings out the best in everyone. There is going to be some serious competition for reps in the slot next season.