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Mizzou has clear starters at QB and RB... but will there be enough depth?

We kick off our preseason previews with a roundtable on Connor Bazelak, Tyler Badie and who will assert themselves on the two-deep

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

Believe it or not, fall camp is approaching quickly for Mizzou Football. To prepare you, we’ll be previewing each position group with a roundtable Q&A every Monday.

Connor Bazelak entered last season as a big question mark, but no longer: The reigning SEC All-Freshman QB will be the team’s unquestioned starter and leader on offense. What’s the next step in his evolution as an SEC starter... and will he take it?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Edwards, Football Editor: I wrote about this previously but now is a good time to revisit.

If Connor Bazelak’s next step mirrors the progression of Eli Drinkwitz’s other multi-year starting quarterback, Ryan Finley, then Bazelak’s stat line at the end of next year would look like this:

  • 362-500 (72.4%)
  • 3,537 yards (9.2 yards per attempt)
  • 9 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 13 sacks
  • 43 rushes, 207 yards, 5 touchdowns

Keep in mind that the Tigers were the 95th-best deep-ball throwing team and 103rd-best passing explosiveness team of 2020 so there’s a lot of room to grow here. If Mookie Cooper is what we think he is and Chism/Dove/whoever can reliably get open downfield, I think the completion percentage goes down a tick but yards per attempt increases. Additionally, with Larry Rountree III off to the NFL and a larger implementation of Drinkwitz’s playbook (Mizzou apparently ran a ton of Dooley plays but used Drink’s scheme/verbiage) I think passing touchdowns will easily get into the double digits.

So, yes, I do think that 8 games as a starter, a full offseason, and some development means Bazelak takes a step forward. I don’t think he’ll become some piss-and-vinegar vocal leader but I do think he’ll provide a steadying presence for this offense. As for stats, let me make a totally wrong prediction of:

  • 68% completion rate
  • 8.2 yards per attempt
  • 20 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 16 sacks

Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: The next step is pretty simple: Make more explosive plays. Bazelak finished 2020 with just seven pass plays of 30+ yards. Myles Brennan, who started three games for LSU, finished the year with the same number of explosive pass plays. Bazelak’s seven touchdown passes were tied with Terry Wilson for 13th most among SEC quarterbacks. Bazelak attempted 324 passes last season. Wilson attempted 200.

Moral of the story: Bazelak was the prototypical game manager last season. There’s nothing wrong with that - especially as a freshman. But the explosive plays and touchdowns need to spike a bit for him to take the next step in 2021.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: If you think of quarterbacks coming in on a spectrum — game managers, playmakers and everything in between — Bazelak fell squarely on the “game manager” end in his redshirt freshman season. Baze was ice cold with the ball in his hands, rarely ever making the wrong call or putting the ball in danger. That’s quite a refreshing trait for a Mizzou QB — Drew Lock went through four seasons at Mizzou and never quite figured that part of his game out.

However, I’d love to see Bazelak break things open a little more in his sophomore season. That’s not entirely up to him, as he’ll need more receivers to take the top off and make plays in the open field. But sometimes the safe choice isn’t necessarily the correct one. I’d like to see Bazelak discern between the two in real time.

For all the excellent recruiting Drinkwitz has done, the increase in talent in the QB room has been particularly noticeable. Can you see any other signal callers making their presence known in 2021?

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

Nate Edwards: The fact of the matter is, when you recruit elite prospects to your quarterback room, you have to continue to recruit elite prospects because those guys aren’t going to stay. If Connor Bazelak develops, improves, and holds on to the starting position for the next three years, that’s awesome. That also means that, most likely, Tyler Macon and Sam Horn will be gone. In fact, regardless of who develops and starts, there will be a quarterback transfer in the next two years. That’s just the nature of a position that only plays one guy at a time.

So, for 2021 at least, Bazelak will be the starter; write it in stone. Brady Cook is in his second year on the team and will be a solid #2; I’m confident in that decision, as well, as I am also confident that he will not make a huge impact this year (barring injury). But - thanks to his elite athleticism and the 4-game redshirt rule - I would damn-near guarantee we see Tyler Macon take snaps in four games this year (I’ll set the over/under at 10.5 possessions). He is an option for “future dynamic Mizzou quarterback” and you want him to see the field to see what he can do, get some experience, and keep him locked in to working with this team and this staff. And don’t rule out Drink trotting the young man out there in the 4th quarter of a tied game for some tricky shenanigans...

Brandon Kiley: I don’t think so, no. Bazelak is pretty established as the Tigers’ starter in 2021. Could that change if Bazelak doesn’t take the next step we just mentioned? It’s possible. But I’m not sure who that next guy will be. Brady Cook has a year in the system and he seems to be the forgotten man in that room, but Tyler Macon is coming in with some well-deserved hype.

My assumption is Bazelak will receive the vast majority of the QB snaps this year when the games are still competitive. Who the second quarterback will be is a legitimate question, and I’m fascinated to find out the answer.

Josh Matejka: Ideally, none of the guys on the two-deep do enough to make a name for themselves in 2021 as you’d always prefer no one know the name of your backup QB.

That being said, I’m curious to see how (or if) Eli Drinkwitz chooses to utilize the backup QB position. For schematic purposes, I’d imagine Brady Cook might be the more one-to-one comparison with Bazelak. However, we know Drinkwitz likes a little trickery in his playbook, and East St. Louis’s Tyler Macon can help him carry that out with his dual-threat ability. So while Cook may be the “back-up” I’d be surprised if he actually got more looks than Macon throughout the season.

The promise of Sam Horn looms large as well. Whoever can’t assert themselves this year will go into 2022 at a disadvantage, so it would appear that this season is key for the Cook/Macon pair.

Tyler Badie has always been the lightning to someone’s thunder, using his speed and versatility in the change-of-pace role. This year, though, he’s the go-to guy. How can Drinkwitz utilize Badie’s skill set well as the new feature back?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Edwards: I’m still not convinced that Badie is going to be the every-down back. Yes, he’s just as effective catching the ball as he is running it, and pretty decent in pass protection as well, but if we are to assume Taj Butts is ready to go and Elijah Young can average 7.8 yards per carry last year, you should absolutely create an effective rotation to keep a fresh back in the game at all times. Yes, you can keep Badie out there in crunch time, but I would be disappointed if Badie wound up taking more than 70% of the season’s snaps at running back, especially with Mookie Cooper’s athletic versatility available to syphon off some of Badie’s usage. Regardless of player, a 40%/30%/30% split of the top three backs would be a really good sign for the future of the position.

Brandon Kiley: Are you asking if I think this could be Tyler Badie’s breakout season?

Badie isn’t your prototypical bellcow back, but it’s not hard to imagine him averaging roughly 20 touches per game. Eli Drinkwitz has experience with a back just like him in former NC State star and current Indianapolis Colts running back Nyheim Hines. Hines finished his final season at NC State with more than 1,250 yards from scrimmage. It’s a tall task to ask Badie to reach that kind of potential, but he has the talent to do so.

Josh Matejka: It’s probably too early to completely rule out the north-to-south run game as part of Drinkwitz’s plans. After all, Larry Rountree was a workhorse in Drink’s first season calling the shots, and you need to have at least some sort of vertical running presence in the SEC. However, Badie’s clear versatility out of the backfield opens things up immensely for the second year head coach/playcaller. Connor Bazelak’s life already got a lot easier with the addition of Mookie Cooper and Dominic Lovett, but having a back like Badie available for quick screens or even to go into motion should add an extra layer of difficulty for opposing defenses.

Having a solid number one is important, but Missouri fans know well the importance of having other options in the backfield. Who is best suited to provide some balance when Badie needs a rest... or when the offense needs a different look?

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

Nate Edwards: I’m sure BK is going to scream “ELIJAH YOUNG” during his portion and, folks, he’s not wrong! Over a mere ten carries Young gained 78 yards and was only stuffed once. Small sample sizes can be misleading, yes, but he’s built like Badie and has shown enough flash to pique our interest in what he can do with a heavier load.

I’m also pulling for Taj Butts. He and Dawson Downing are on the thicker end of the runners and Butts has shown some adept agility at the high school level, at least. It’s easy to predict him being a short-yardage/early-down back with Badie and Young coming in for big play potential. That fact that I haven’t even talked about B.J. Harris - the #1 running back out of Tennessee who ran for over 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns last year - speaks to the caliber of running back this team has for the next few years.

Brandon Kiley: Not to ride the fence, but I think those are two different questions that require two different answers.

Badie’s direct replacement could (and I believe will) be Elijah Young. He’s a similar style runner with similar size and comparable speed. Young showed some of that potential in limited snaps a year ago, and he can expect far more opportunities in 2021.

As for the change-of-pace back, it has to be my guy Taj Butts. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 232 pounds. His high school football coach compared his running style to former Alabama running back Josh Jacobs. He’s fast, but where he wins is with his power. He’s completely unafraid and he’s not afraid to run through small spaces. He would be my favorite to get the third most touches among Mizzou’s running backs this season.

Josh Matejka: Elijah Young is the obvious answer here, and the offseason hype for the talented Knoxville native would suggest he’s the next in line. But is he too much like Badie to really complement the lead back? I’m of the opinion that you play the best players no matter what... but could freshman Taj Butts could some looks on third-and-short or on the goal line? It’s possible, especially if he runs as heavy as he did in his highlight reel.