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Eli Drinkwitz’s future is tied to his quarterback

A coach is as good or as bad as his quarterback. So what does that say about Drinkwitz’s future?

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

If I could nail down one thing Gary Pinkel doesn’t get enough credit for in his time at Missouri, it would be his ability to identify and develop quarterbacks. It started with Brad Smith and continued into his final season with Drew Lock.

A coach is helpless without a solution at quarterback. Pinkel knew this. Everyone knows this. Get the quarterback, and everything else can fall into place. Fail to do so, and everything else comes under more scrutiny. It’s the reality of the job. And it’s a reality Eli Drinkwitz is currently facing.

This era of Missouri football will largely be determined by two significant decisions looming for Drinkwitz:

  1. Who does Drinkwitz hire as his offensive coordinator, and what does that hire signify for the direction of the offense?
  2. Does Drinkwitz either have a solution to the quarterback problem currently on the roster, or can he identify such a player in the transfer portal?

I don’t mean to oversimplify things. Drinkwitz needs to make sure the defense doesn’t take a significant step back in 2023. The offensive line is in need of multiple new starers. This job never stops. But if he doesn’t figure out the direction of the offense and the solution at quarterback, nothing else matters.

Drinkwitz has done an admirable job of improving the overall talent of the roster. Rivals has ranked his first three full recruiting cycles as the 19th, 12th and 32nd best classes nationally. He completely revamped the defense last offseason, mostly through the portal. The blue chip talent on the roster is approaching the best it’s been in the past 20 years. There are real reasons for optimism with the direction of the program.

Missouri’s 5-year average 247 Composite rankings came in as the 35th best in the country. That serves as the talent base for Missouri’s roster, so I went back and looked at how Missouri’s past three seasons rank compared to other teams ranked in the 30-40 range in 247Sports’ calculations.

Teams 30-40 in Composite Recruiting Rankings (2018-2022)

Teams 30-40: 2020: 2021: 2022: 3-Year Record:
Teams 30-40: 2020: 2021: 2022: 3-Year Record:
TCU 6-4 5-7 12-1 23-12
Michigan State 2-5 11-2 5-7 18-14
Utah 3-2 10-4 10-3 23-9
Iowa 6-2 10-4 7-5 23-11
Okahoma State 8-3 12-2 7-5 27-10
Mizzou 5-5 6-7 6-7 17-19
UCLA 3-4 8-4 9-3 20-11
Virginia Tech 5-6 6-7 3-8 14-21
NC State 8-4 9-3 8-4 25-11
Baylor 2-7 12-2 6-7 20-16
West Virginia 6-4 6-7 5-7 17-18

The first thing that stands out is that Missouri and Virginia Tech are the only teams to not post a record above .500 in the past three seasons. In fact, of the 10 other teams listed in Missouri’s talent range, only two (Virginia Tech and West Virginia) failed to win at least nine games at some point in the past three seasons.

Moral of the story: Missouri has the requisite talent to win. It’s just not doing so. Why? You know the answer.

It’s all about the quarterback, baby. The vast majority of teams that reach “peak years” with solid but not spectacular talent filling out the roster were carried by a quarterback &/or proven offensive system that was able to maximize the passing game.

Missouri isn’t getting that. And, until it does, nothing will change. Need some evidence? Let’s take a look at how the Tigers’ quarterbacks stack up relative to the rest of the power five over the past two seasons.

Brady Cook’s ranking among 45 power five quarterbacks to take at least 50 percent of their teams’ dropbacks in 2022 (per PFF):

NCAA Football: Gasparilla Bowl-Wake Forest at Missouri Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
  • 21st in completion percentage (64 percent)
  • 30th in yards per attempt (7.1)
  • 37th in “turnover worthy plays” (18)
  • T30th in average depth of target (8.5)
  • 27th in PFF grade (75.4)

Connor Bazelak’s ranking among 50 power five quarterbacks to take at least 300 dropbacks in 2021 (per PFF):

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
  • 16th in completion percentage (65 percent)
  • 43rd in yards per attempt (6.7)
  • T36th in “turnover worthy plays” (14)
  • T46th in average depth of target (7.5)
  • 45th in PFF grade (67.8)

Cook was a very clear upgrade in every possible way over Bazelak, but he still ranked among the bottom half of power five starting quarterbacks in most statistical categories. To be fair to Cook, he also added value as a runner that other power five starters couldn’t dream to bring to the table.

That value as a runner is real. But the Tigers’ inability to consistently win though the air was a problem. Can Cook up his game with another offseason as the Tigers’ staring quarterback? Is Sam Horn going to be ready in his second season on campus? Can Gabarri Johnson be the near-term answer?

These are the questions the Tigers need to be asking internally. If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” then the staff needs to address the problem through the portal. I went through to identify some potential solutions.

Here’s a short list and some notes on each option:

Brennan Armstrong (Virginia):

  • Originally from Shelby, OH... Former 3-Star recruit... 3-Year Starter... Tied for 12th nationally with 31 passing TD in 2021... Was a top 5 graded QB in 2021 by PFF... Dealt with a ton of drops in 2022 (16% drop rate from receivers)... Holds the ball a long time (2.9 average time to throw)
  • Career stats: 685-for-1,131 (61%), 9,034 yards, 8.0 YPA, 58 TD, 35 INT, 363 carries for 1,267 rushing yards and 20 rushing TD

Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State):

  • Originally from Denton, TX... Former 4-Star recruit... 4-Year starter... Loves to scramble... Was inconsistent in 2022... Starter for 2021 Oklahoma State team that finished 12-2
  • Career stats: 765-for-1,254 (61%), 9,553 yards, 7.6 YPA, 67 TD, 40 INT, 493 carries for 1,956 rushing yards and 18 rushing TD

Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina):

  • Originally from Charlotte, NC... Former 2-Star recruit... 3-Year starter at Coastal Carolina... Big par of Jamey Chadwell’s success at Coastal... Runs a funky offense... A bit of a fumble issue (23 career fumbles)... Rarely puts the ball in harms way through the air (24 career turnover worthy plays, per PFF)... Can he make transition from scheme and competition at Coastal to the SEC?
  • Career stats: 549-for-780 (70%), 8,019 yards, 10.3 YPA, 78 TD, 8 INT, 293 carries for 1,053 yards and 16 rushing TD

Hank Bachmeier (Boise State):

  • Originally from Murrieta, CA... 4-Star Recruit... 4-year starter at Boise... Battled injuries... Zero value as a runner... Highly accurate passer... Receivers dropped 10% of passes in 2021
  • Career stats: 881-for-987 (61%), 6,580 yards, 7.5 YPA, 41 TD, 19 INT

Austin Aune (North Texas):

  • Originally from Argyle, TX... 3-Star Recruit (in 2012!!!)... 29 years old... Former Yankees prospect... Spent six seasons in MiLB... 2-Year Starter... 33 TDs in 2022 were top 10 nationally... Pushes the ball down the field (ADOT of 12 yards)... Gets rid of ball quickly... Has some value as a scrambler
  • Career stats: 488-for-896 (54%), 7,324 yards, 8.2 YPA, 56 TD, 28 INT

Davis Brin (Tulsa):

  • Originally from Boerne, TX... 3-Star Recruit... 2-Year starter at Tulsa... Pure pocket passer... Turnover issues in 2021 (16 INT, 8 Fumbles)... Pushes the ball down the field (career ADOT of 12 yards)...
  • Career Stats: 412-for-695 (59%), 5,651 yards, 8.1 YPA, 37 TD, 24 INT

Austin Reed (Western Kentucky):

  • Originally from St. Augustine, FL... Former zero star recruit... Transferred to Western Kentucky from Division II West Florida... Led the nation this season with 4,745 passing yards and 40 passing TD... Gets rid of ball extremely quick in WKU system (2.3 seconds to throw)... Does have value as a scrambler
  • Career Stats: 389-for-603 (65%), 4,746 yards, 7.9 YPA, 40 TD, 11 INT, 91 carries, 224 rushing yards, eight rushing TD

That is seven different quarterbacks who could represent the upgrade the Tigers are looking for at the most important position in sports. Many won’t be interested in the Tigers. Maybe the staff isn’t interested in some of the players on this list. In hat group of seven, though, there is certainly one or two that could serve as a match in Columbia.

Maybe it doesn’t come to that. Maybe the answers are internal. That’s not for me to say. It’s for this staff to decide. And they better get it right. The way the Drinkwitz era at Mizzou is remembered will depend upon it.