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.
Drinkwitz talked a lot about “touchdown-makers” last year, and the pass-catchers on the roster… left something to be desired. What was the biggest factor that group lacked which Drinkwitz needed to address in the offseason?
Nate Edwards, Football Editor: To be blunt, the 2020 Tiger receivers lacked proven talent. Damon Hazelton was probably the best receiver in the room, but he couldn’t stay out of the doghouse long enough to build rapport with Connor Bazelak. Keke Chism had the size and athleticism but took too long to get going, while Tauskie Dove was in his first full year on the field. None of the tight ends were the big-bodied-box-out type of red zone threats and everyone else on the roster was slot receivers. There was simply no reliable red zone threat that Bazelak could develop with and Larry Rountree III was too useful a commodity to not utilize when the team got into scoring position. Add to that the fact that there was no spring practice and Drink was using Dooley’s plays - a point I make because I doubt our former offensive coordinator provided any clever red zone schemes to get a receiver reliably open - and you have a recipe for offensive glitches.
Kortay Vincent, Football Beat Writer: I think the first thing missing from last year’s team, likely contributing to the lack of TDs from pass-catching positions, was a lack of experience. Outside of Damon Hazelton, there really wasn’t anyone who returned to last year’s team with experience playing WR or TE in big-time college football. Keke Chism took time to adjust from D2, Tauskie Dove saw his first real collegiate action, and Jalen Knox was learning a new position in the slot.
Likewise, I think the implementation of Drink’s offense took a little while for the WRs and TEs to get used to, so Drink decided that relying on Larry running the ball was probably the best solution.
All in all, when you take an inexperienced position group with a first-year head coach who’s trying to implement his offensive system with no spring ball, and they’re tasked to play an all-SEC schedule starting with Alabama, it probably was never going to be too productive of a season at that spot.
The good news for Tigers fans is that Dove and Chism both showed great strides by the end of the year, and a couple of offseason additions should have the pass catchers poised to bounce back.
Parker Gillam, Football Beat Writer: All in all, I would have to point to just an overall playmaking ability. There were no guys on the wide receiver depth chart that you could just point to that opposing defenses would be afraid of. A true vertical, speedy receiver who could stretch the defense was missing.
Similarly, Tyler Badie and Larry Roundtree III were the only two guys that would attract major attention when they had the ball in space, and they are running backs. Mizzou needs WRs who have the ability to make people miss and create yardage on their own, because a lot of the time it seemed that Connor Bazelak was doing much of the work to get his guys open without expecting too many yards after catch following a reception. Overall speed and route running has to improve this season, because teams are going to heat Connor Bazelak up in the pocket, and he is going to need guys that can quickly get separation.
If talent was a question last year, it shouldn’t be this year. Drinkwitz immediately improved the overall talent level in this position group, bringing back Keke Chism, snagging Mookie Cooper out of Ohio State and signing blue-chip WR Dominic Lovett. Based on his overall receiver room, what do you think Drinkwitz was focused on with his pass-catchers?
Nate Edwards: Speed, pure and simple. It started with getting Keke last year - an athletic player who might not be a finished receiving product - and continued into this last recruiting class, bringing in unproven but explosive speedsters in Mookie Cooper and Dom Lovett. There is a bit of “imbalance” of receiver types on the roster, but that’s not Drink’s doing: he’s brought in three receivers over 6’2” (Chism, Hester, Luper) and three under 5’11” (Maclin, Cooper, Lovett) to pair with a roster of mostly slots. But so far, it seems that size is not really the qualifier: all of Drink’s guys (minus Chism) have shown elite speed in their pasts, and it seems like Drink is just looking to get the fastest, most athletic dudes on the roster and let them figure out where they play the best. At the college level that’s not a bad philosophy, and if he is the offensive mastermind that we believe he is, he’ll have plenty of ideas of how to get these guys in spaces where they can succeed the best.
Kortay Vincent: Based on the additions of Lovett and Cooper, you’d instantly think Drink was looking to add speed and explosiveness, and I’d agree with you. More and more, size is becoming less and less important at the receiver position. All you have to do is take a look back to last year and see that the most dominant player in the country was a receiver who stood 6’ flat and weighed a whopping 170 lbs. However, what did Smith have? Elite route running, great hands, and above-average speed. His game isn’t all that similar to that of Cooper or Lovett, but Smith proved you don’t have to be built Calvin Johnson to be a big-time receiving threat.
Now, I’m not saying Cooper and/or Lovett are going to be Devonta Smith, and we might never see another receiver put up numbers like Smith playing only 3 quarters every game, but what I am saying is that their game-breaking speed and explosiveness might be just what Drink needed to open up this offense and help his receivers find the endzone more frequently this year.
Parker Gillam: It appears to me that Coach Drinkwitz realized last season that to win in the SEC, you have to have legit playmakers at the skill positions. The Tigers did not have anybody that in the pass-catching core that a defense would really need to scheme for. Enter: Mookie Cooper and Dominic Lovett. Both highly-touted prospects known for their explosiveness. Neither are large targets, but both possess a great burst and ability to get separation, something Missouri lacked last season.
In the quick, short passing game Drinkwitz likes to utilize, guys like Keke Chism, Cooper, and Lovett can thrive.
While there are a lot of exciting names in this group, there are still some unknowns— guys with all the potential, but not the experience. Who do you think is most likely to hit the ground running in 2021?
Nate Edwards: Come on, it’s Mookie Cooper. The highest-rated high school player on the roster does not transfer from Ohio State to Missouri to sit on the bench and “learn”. Jalen Knox most likely transferred because of Cooper being on the roster and I fully believe that Mizzou’s first offensive play of drive one in game one will have #5 lined up somewhere on the field. And, as much as I hate to lump pressure and expectations on a kid who hasn’t been on a live-action football field in almost two years, Cooper must be an impact player in the passing game for this offense to improve from last year.
Kortay Vincent: I mean everyone is going to say Mookie, right? He’s as blue-chip as blue-chip prospects come, and Drink has been salivating over him in press conferences since Mookie stepped onto the field for spring practice in Columbia.
With that being said, I think there’s a good chance Tauskie Dove, because of his chemistry with Bazelak, and Keke Chirsm, because of the way he performed down the stretch in 2020, will outperform Mookie this year. But amongst the unproven group of receivers I think there’s only one guy you can say is most primed for a coming-out party in 2021.
Parker Gillam: Many are focused on the additions of Cooper and Lovett, and rightfully so, but I also want to give Jay Maclin some attention. His cousin made quite the name for himself at Mizzou on his way to the NFL, and I just feel like the family name does carry some weight at Faurot Field. Still technically a redshirt freshman due to COVID eligibility rules, he has plenty of time to continue to live up to his last name.
A 3-star out of Kirkwood, Missouri, Maclin was hurt for part of his high school career, leading to him to fly under a lot of recruiting radars. Still, Maclin has many of the same strengths his cousin Jeremy did. He has great ball skills to pair with an exceptional route-running ability, and many scouts point to his football IQ as a major strength as well.
With so much attention likely to be going towards Chism and Cooper, Maclin can be a second-string guy that can thrive in providing quality depth for the receiver room.
We didn’t see a lot of pass-catching action from the tight ends in 2020, but Mizzou’s roster is chock-full of exciting athletes at the position. Which players do you think are in line for a lot of snaps this season?
Nate Edwards: Daniel Parker, Jr. will be the starting blocking tight end and Niko Hea showed an ability to be at least reliable in the passing game (20 targets, 14 catches, 130 yards, 2 touchdowns). Parker wasn’t 100% last year which explains his 8 catches for 37 yards. If he’s fully recovered this year, then it would be nice to see him be more active in the passing game instead of merely bulldozing every defender into the turf.
Keep in mind that with the retirement of Logan Christopherson, there’s a hole that needs to be filled for a #2 blocking tight end. If you’ve listened to BK on Before the Box Score, you know how much he loves Ryan “The Horse” Hoerstkamp and, based off of recruiting pedigree at the very least, it seems Horse could be ready to step and fill in that backup blocking tight end need.
Kortay Vincent: Pretty similarly to last year, I think that Daniel Parker, Jr. and Niko Hea will receive most of the reps at the TE position. DPJ proved on many occasions last year how much of a monster he can be in the run-blocking game, and Hea showed flashes of potential in the passing game. In a way, they can combine to make one complete TE for the offense this year. Following the medical retirement of Logan Christopherson in the offseason, that also removed their closest challenger from last season, and I can’t foresee a situation where a freshman is taking reps from a couple of guys who are proven commodities against SEC opponents.
Parker Gillam: The returning duo of Niko Hea and Daniel Parker Jr., with good health, should provide quality experience and blocking at the tight end spot. However, in terms of the passing attack, I am most excited about the incoming prospects, especially Ryan Hoerstkamp. The Washington native was a dual-sport athlete in high school, playing basketball as well, a perfect sport for a tight end. Hoerstkamp is adept at boxing out defenders and winning jump balls, and his athleticism allows him to be moved all over the field.
As of now, his size is the only concern. At 230lb, SEC linemen and linebackers will eat him alive. However, if he can continue to bulk up while maintaining the athletic tools he already owns, he will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.