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Mizzou needs someone to make the return game exciting again

There’s a proud line of exciting return specialists in Mizzou’s recent history, and the Tigers have a few players who could be next.

Twitter: @MizzouFootball

Eli Drinkwitz knows the dangers of fan apathy well... or at least he appears to.

In his brief time as Mizzou’s head football coach, Drinkwitz has reinstated a buzzy brand of marketing that permeates everything about his program. Off the field, Mizzou is engaged in Twitter follow Fridays, publishing behind-the-scenes riddles and rock-paper-scissors battles and even the occasional viral coach celebration. On the field (or at least adjacent to it), Mizzou has quickly become a team to watch, winning high-stakes recruiting battles, rivalry games and many, many press conferences.

Excitement has defined almost everything Drinkwitz has done as the head coach of the Mizzou Tigers... almost.

During the 2020 season, even as Eli Drinkwitz prodded his team to an unlikely 5-5 campaign and third-place finish in the SEC East, Mizzou’s return game was nearly the antithesis of the buzzy, energetic style with which Drinkwitz has branded the program. During the 10-game season, the Tigers ranked 102nd and 118th in average punt and kickoff return yards, respectively, out of 127 teams. No player could consistently hold the return man job, or even the ball for that matter. At some point, it felt as if the coaching staff punted on returns altogether, opting to keep the ball in a bad spot (Mizzou ranked 109th in Offensive Field Position) then have it bounce around in their own territory.

In the coming offseason, though, Drinkwitz and his staff appeared to have a plan. Upgrading both the return game’s potential — and the wide receiver room in the process — Drink flipped blue-chip receiver Dominic Lovett away from Arizona State and snagged another recent blue chipper out of the transfer portal in Mookie Cooper. In the space of a few months, Mizzou went from desperation to what appears to be a healthy competition.

Neither Cooper or Lovett will likely fit the mold of Jeremy Maclin’s other-worldly return prowess; after all, how many wiry six footers do you know that can run a 4.3 forty-yard dash? But with both players coming in as quick, slippery, strong runners, it’s easy to see how the two of them could compete to become the next person giving opposing teams the old Marcus Murphy special.

Even if they’re not hanging multiple returns a game on their opponents, it’s not hard to envision the myriad of ways a functioning, or even dangerous, return game could be a boon to this year’s team. The one knock on Connor Bazelak’s sterling freshman campaign was his hesitance to pump the long ball. Is that as much of a concern moving forward when Dominic Lovett turns a seemingly ho-hum punt into a 20 to 30 yard return? Or say the offense is stalling and in need of a boost. It’s easier to put the Thiccer in range when Mookie Cooper is burning into enemy territory before the drive even starts. And think of the headache a good return game causes, forcing opposing coaches to make difficult decisions on fourth downs. Do you boot a punt out of the end zone, go for a risky conversion or punt it to a guy who can hang seven on you in the blink of an eye?

Besides, football fans, be honest with yourselves: how many more things are more exciting in football than a kickoff or punt return that goes, as one of our patron saints would say, “to the house!” Some of the most exciting memories of football in Columbia and beyond come from exciting returns. Who can forget the aforementioned Jeremy Maclin torching the Fighting Illini in his debut, or Murphy turning Florida into a fine pair of gator-skin boots on their homecoming night? Who among us couldn’t appreciate the genius of Devin Hester or the magic of Dante Hall? There may be no scientific way to quantify momentum, but a return touchdown gets pretty damn close — nothing turns morale quicker.

While it takes more than simply a great return man to make a special season, last year’s dearth of options highlighted the simple truth that Eli Drinkwitz has been hitting home since his arrival — Mizzou needed to get better from a talent perspective, especially in the options available on special teams. Think of the great Mizzou teams of the past 25 years — 2007 had the All-American in Maclin, and the back-to-back SEC East Champions in 2013 and 2014 had Murphy, whose official school biography runneth over with Special Teams accolades. Is an ace return man essential to a winning team? Not exactly, but it sure doesn’t hurt your cause, or your case, for greatness.

So as camp comes to a close and the season sidles up to our doorstep, let’s anticipate the coming moments where the ball is booted off of an opposing foot. Think of how much better those moments will feel when someone exciting is waiting to catch that ball on the other end. Whether it’s Mookie Cooper, Dominic Lovett or one of the many exciting talents on this year’s team, someone needs to make Mizzou’s return game exciting again. The success of the team — and of Eli Drinkwitz’s brand campaign! — is counting on it.