Playing in the SEC means that you are going up against future NFL starters nearly every given Saturday. Outside of maybe defensive line, no other position group exemplifies this more than the secondary.
Missouri will take on the likes of Kaiir Elam (Florida), Jalen Catalon (Arkansas), Yusuf Corker (Kentucky) and Tykee Smith (Georgia). All of these guys are expected to be high NFL draft picks in 2022, and they are only the headliners of a plethora of deep defensive back groups within the conference this season.
Case in point: to win in the SEC, a team has to have playmakers on the outside that are able to win tough battles against some of these elite defenders.
Let us take a look back. Obviously the defense was far superior in 2013 and ‘14, but another glaring difference between those teams and now were the athletes lining up at receiver and tight end. We all remember the freak of nature that was Dorial Green-Beckham, coming in at 6’6”, 225 lbs, but there were other solidly-built athletes on those teams.
L’Damian Washington led the 2013 team in receiving and was 6’4”, Bud Sasser was 6’2” and Darius White (2014) was 6’3”. You can even point to the most successful season since, 2018, where Albert Okwuegbunam had his most catches and yards in a season. As most of you likely remember, Albert O measured in at 6’5”, 260 lbs.
To me, what this all suggest is that, when the Tigers were having success, they had big, strong receivers that could win battles on the outside.
Lately it just does not appear that this has been the case. Kelly Bryant received little help from his pass catchers, and it can be argued that too much was put on Connor Bazelak’s shoulders last season in the same way. Due to a lack of consistent separation from the receiving corps, Bazelak was having to make tough throw after tough throw (though it worked most of the time because Bazelak makes up for it with pinpoint accuracy). To truly be a team to fear in this conference, Eli Drinkwitz has to find some intimidating weapons outside.
This does not necessarily mean that everyone has to be 6’2” plus, but it does mean the guys outside need to be able to separate themselves from cornerbacks consistently. Many point to Mookie Cooper and Dominic Lovett, maybe the two most hyped-up new pieces added to this offense, as the answers.
Cooper is only 5’8”, 174 lbs, but he is built like a rock and is as explosive as they come. A combination of speed and strength like that is a great starting point for being able to beat a Kaair Elam or Jalen Catalon downfield. Combine those gifts with great route-running, and Cooper can develop into the star that so many believe he will become.
Lovett is similarly built at 5’10”, 175 lbs. He enrolled early in January to get a jump on his development, and he has impressed the coaching staff thus far. In high school, Lovett was known for making up for what he lacks in size with great burst off the line and ability to separate himself from defenders. That is exactly what Drinkwitz’s offense was missing for parts of last season.
Cooper and Lovett can provide the speed, and there are a handful of candidates to be the jump ball threats. Keke Chism’s rise from D-II superstar to the team’s leading wide receiver in 2020 is a fabulous story, and the 6’5” graduate student is poised for a monster 2021 season as Bazelak’s favorite target thanks to his late season burst of production.
6’2” junior Tauskie Dove was another key contributor last season who is looking to improve this fall, but the real wild card may be redshirt freshman JJ Hester. Hailing from athletics powerhouse Booker T. Washington in Tulsa, OK, Hester has a 6’3”, 200-pound frame that NFL scouts drool over. He made a living as a downfield threat in high school, in large part thanks to his background as a track star during the time.
Now, Hester is looking to fill the void in the wide receiver room with his explosive downfield ability. If he can put everything together and stay healthy throughout 2021, he may be primed for a breakout campaign.
The list of elite defensive backs that this article began with is daunting, but then again, it is every year in this conference. The difference this year is that the potential is there for this group of Missouri wide receivers to be a unit that can go head-to-head with some of the best in the conference.
The injury bug has unfortunately not been kind to this position group for some time, and the frequency of drops and lack of separation has made life tough for this passing attack in recent years. Tauskie Dove had a 9.1% drop rate in 2020, with only tight ends Daniel Parker Jr. (9.1%) and Niko Hea (10%) returning with similarly brutal rates. With all three set to be on the field frequently, these numbers cannot be replicated.
As for the point on separation, 65% of Missouri’s passes travelled 10 yards or less downfield in 2020. Eli Drinkwitz loves the short passing game, but that relies less on straight-line speed and more on quick cuts and bursts from the receivers to get open. Some of the larger targets like Damon Hazelton did not thrive in that system when transferring in, so it will be up to this year’s group to adjust and work on getting open in small areas. In order to open things up more downfield like Drinkwitz wants to do, the Tigers first have to make defenses respect the short game.
All in all, it will take a combination of winning the physical battle at the line of scrimmage, improved route-running, and some good health to change the reputation surrounding the receiving group.
If Cooper and Lovett can live up to their hype, Chism can continue his development, and someone like Hester or Dove emerges as another reliable option, then Connor Bazelak and this passing attack are poised for a season that can rival those of Drew Lock and, yes, even the great Chase Daniel.
Of course, these are all major ifs. Nothing will be determined until we see this offense hit the field on September 4th. All we know right now is that the talent bar has been raised at the skill positions, and in turn so have the expectations.