Culture matters. It’s built over time. It’s something that you feel the moment you walk into a locker room. Players know when they’re part of something special, and they can feel it when they’re being sold a bag of goods.
We’ve talked about this before. Eli Drinkwitz is trying to build something at Missouri. I know ‘culture’ can be a buzzword for some. It’s the first thing a new coach talks about in their introductory press conference, right after they tell you how they’re going to run the ball successfully and before they tell the fanbase about how they’ll lock down the borders in recruiting.
It’s a nice thing to say. But can you back it up? Drinkwitz talked the talk, and thus far he’s walked the walk.
His players are clearly buying what he’s selling. We saw the results on the field. His team got punched in the mouth and responded multiple times. He had success on the recruiting trail.
You can add one more tangible result of the positive culture Drinkwitz’s built within the Tigers’ locker room.
Right before the season, the NCAA made a historic decision when it announced fall sport student-athletes would be granted an extra year of eligibility. This was a blanket waiver which didn’t come with any fine print. These athletes essentially get six years to play five instead of five years to play four.
This left Missouri’s senior football players with a decision to make at the end of the year.
It was hard to know how players would use the extra year of eligibility, especially when it was combined with immediate eligibility after transferring. Would players look to play elsewhere? It was an open question. One we’re starting to get answered.
Mizzou’s seniors have overwhelmingly decided to ‘run it back’ for another season in 2021. We know of at least seven who will return for their extra year of eligibility. The list includes wide receiver Keke Chism, center Michael Maietti, punter Grant McKinniss, defensive tackle Markell Utsey, linebacker Jamal Brooks, defensive tackle Akial Byers and safety Mason Pack. Most seem to expect wide receiver Micah Wilson and defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside to be added to that list.
That’s nine seniors who either have or are expected to announce they’ll return for another year in Columbia. That’s one heck of a feat for Drinkwitz and his staff. Five of the nine players expected to return are starters. Three are rotational pieces. The other, Pack, is enough of a key contributor on special teams that the staff rewarded him with a scholarship after the season.
There are schools where this might not be such a big deal. Alabama might prefer some of its seniors move on. The roster crunch can happen quickly, and having too much depth can prove problematic. Missouri is not one of those schools. The Tigers lacked depth in 2020, and were at risk of lacking depth again next year if some of their key contributors decided not to return.
The wide receiver room looks a lot better with Chism and Wilson. The Tigers have a talented group group of high school defensive linemen committed in the 2021 class, but Utsey, Byers and Whiteside’s return will allow those freshmen to have time to develop. Maietti’s return means Missouri will return four of its five starters along the offensive line. Larry Borom leaves a big hole at right tackle, but Missouri’s 2019 starter at right tackle, Hyrin White, is expected to return from injury.
I’m not trying to sell you on Missouri competing for a national title next year. That’s not going to happen. But next season could have been rough if Drinkwitz was unable to convince these seniors to return for another season.
The foundation of a program can’t be built in a day. It can takes years to develop. But Drinkwitz is starting to build this program brick by brick. It started with getting the players to buy in over the summer. It continued with a successful 2020 campaign. His first full recruiting class is still ranked among the top 25 in the country. And now he convinced at least seven (and possibly as many as nine) seniors to return for another year to keep pushing the program in the right direction.
Speeches when coaches get hired can be hollow. Drinkwitz said all of the right things, but so do many other coaches. The difference, thus far, is Drink has followed those words up with meaningful action. His players took notice, and now they’re ready to #RunItBack.