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Eli Drinkwitz and Backfield Usage: Part 2 - Quarterbacks

A Statistical Examination of Missouri Head Coach and His History with Quarterbacks

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

The Missouri Tigers 2022 season swiftly approaches, and with it uncertainty rises around the quarterback and running back positions. Connor Bazelak and Tyler Badie logged the majority of production at those positions in the previous campaign, and both are off to new destinations this season (transfer to Indiana and the NFL, respectively). The Missouri faithful have every right to be concerned about these positions heading into the 2022 season, so let’s try to find some order in the chaos by looking at Eli Drinkwitz’s career to see if we can find patterns in how he chooses his backfields.

Yesterday we focused on how running back carries have been distributed during Drinkwitz’s career. Today we will look at quarterback trends and his history with battles for the starting position.

Eli Drinkwitz’s college coaching career

First, let’s look at each of our man’s steps on the way to becoming the big cheese at an SEC school.

Other than a brief pit stop in the tight end room in Boise, Drinkwitz has spent his entire career coaching running backs and quarterbacks, and he has spent the last seven seasons as offensive coordinator. Our first step is to eliminate the tight ends season. For this exercise, we will also ignore his first two years in the college ranks coaching running backs, so we will only look at 2015 Boise State and on.

Let’s take a look at how signal callers have carried the load in the Drinkwitz offense.

On Quarterback Rotations

Right off the bat, it’s obvious how profoundly lucky Eli Drinkwitz has been with quarterback injuries. He has certainly earned his reputation as a creative offensive mind; I am not arguing that his ascension through the coaching ranks has been undeserved. It’s worth pointing out, and it’s also worth noting that he has not had many opportunities to manage a tough quarterback situation.

So far he has dodged a scenario like a Caleb Williams vs Spencer Rattler at Oklahoma, or a depth chart catastrophe like at Southern Miss last year, or even had to navigate tricky injury situations like the 2012 and 2013 Missouri QB rooms. There were two seasons with quarterback injuries. In 2015 at Boise State, Ryan Finley (who later reunited with Drinkwitz in Raleigh) was lost for the season in Week 2, and Brett Rypien stepped in and immediately outperformed him. In the 2021 Missouri season, a banged-up Connor Bazelak slogged through an ineffective back half of the season, which was kind of the whole impetus for this article, to pull the curtain back.

Missouri played four regular season games after Bazelak was injured against Vanderbilt. They wisely kept him out against Georgia’s mean, nasty and chiseled defense, but he was ineffective and immobile in the final three contests. Now, Missouri did win two of those games: a textbook ugly win against a Florida Gators team that was crumbling in real time, and a thorough handling of South Carolina where the passing game was immaterial. In fact, Bazelak’s two interceptions kept that game closer than it needed to be.

Despite Bazelak’s visible struggles and a fanbase clamoring for something different – to be fair, this fanbase will always clamor, it’s what we do – Drink stood by his man. And this isn’t to knock him for doing so; there is virtue in loyalty. But I wonder if a more aggressive development of Brady Cook or Tyler Macon earlier in the season could have paid dividends by injecting some life into the stale November offense. A plan similar to how Gary Pinkel would ease in his freshmen signal-callers – a planned drive, once per half, but abandoned if the game situation dictated it – could have left the staff with a better idea of what contributions they could get from the youngsters.

Doing so mid-season, and because of an injury to the starter, would require all of Eli’s leadership and communication skills. Yanking guys around has rarely worked, but a situation where buy-in and trust would be earned through teamwork and frank discussion would have been beneficial for the Missouri offense. Unfortunately, Drinkwitz did not learn how to navigate a situation like that by experiencing it during his climb through the lower-stakes levels of college football. He has one mode, and he was unable to switch to another style to reap the benefits of a well-managed quarterback rotation.

Quarterback Battles

In 2022, Missouri is entering the season with a wide-open quarterback battle between grad transfer QB Jack Abraham, Brady Cook, Tyler Macon, and four-star true freshman Sam Horn. Cook & Abraham appear to have the upper leg in the competition, but it’s still wide open, and we likely will not have a starter named until days before the season opener. What can we learn from the three open competitions previously under Drinkwitz?

In 2015, the Boise State Broncos had a battle between Ryan Finley, who had been holding the clipboard for the program the previous two seasons, and four-star early enrollee Brett Rypien. Ryan Finley won the job, had a ho-hum week 1 and was lost for the season in week 2. Rypien stepped in and absolutely torched the Mountain West conference for the next four seasons. As a true freshman, he broke multiple school records, finished first-team MWC All-Conference, and won Poinsettia Bowl MVP. I’m sorry, but Drinkwitz and company absolutely chose the wrong man here.

But don’t cry for Ryan Finley. He transferred to NC State – where he was joined by his old playcaller – and built a nice little career for himself, including drawing NFL paychecks. But before all that could unfold, he had to win the job in 2015 over Jakobi Meyers and Jalan McClendon. Meyers eventually moved to wide receiver, and McClendon finished his career at Baylor as a five-year backup. Finley started for three fine seasons, increasing his statistics each season and finally reaching first-team All-ACC as a sixth-year senior. Drinkwitz and Dave Doeren made a great choice in handing him the reins in 2016.

In the 2020 COVID season, Drinkwitz tabbed TCU transfer Shawn Robinson to lead the offense over Bazelak, who was a redshirt freshman and had seen limited action in 2019. Robinson was ineffective and was playing safety by the season’s end, with Bazelak supplanting him in Week 2. Even accounting for the unprecedented weirdness of the 2020 season, this was, frankly, a poor decision.

In all three of these races, Drinkwitz and staff chose the veteran option. Finley had seen more action in college over Rypien in 2015 and McClendon in 2016, and Robinson had started at TCU before arriving in Columbia. I expect this pattern to hold true, and the job will eventually go to Cook or Abraham. (This is bad news for fans hopeful to see Sam Horn in meaningful action in 2022, which is a longshot).

So we have three QB battles, and twice the wrong decision was made, but in both cases the right guy was starting by the midseason. Here’s to hoping Drinkwitz pulls his record in this category back to .500 this season.