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Returning stars means more pressure for Eli Drinkwitz in 2023

Mizzou is getting a lot of reinforcements back for next season. It’s on Eli Drinkwitz to do something with them.

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

What’s the one thing we’ve always known about Eli Drinkwitz? The man knows his ‘crootin.

Drinkwitz, entering his third full (non-COVID impacted) offseason as the Missouri Tiger head coach, has offered fans something of a mixed bag during his tenure. He’s qualified for three straight bowls, never finishing the regular season below .500. But you couldn’t say that without also mentioning that he’s never actually won a bowl or finished the regular season above .500. Fan excitement has grown, to the point where attendance numbers were seemingly up in 2022. Unfortunately, that excitement has never fully translated to momentum in the offseason due to the previously mentioned failures in bowl games.

And the on-field product? That’s difficult to parse. Despite his billing as an offensive mastermind, Drink’s offenses have consistently underperformed. Call it a lack of star power at the QB position, call it turnstile offensive lines, call it uninspired play-calling. Whatever the case, Drink’s reputation has not held up. Yet, he’s fielded some excellent special teams units and seems to have struck gold with Blake Baker, who transformed Mizzou’s defense into a near-elite unit in the span of a few months. His teams have finished two consecutive seasons on strong notes and have a tendency to get up for big games.

The only consistent, undisputed win under Drinkwitz has been recruiting, which most of you could have told us by this point. His recruiting prowess has extended to the transfer portal as well as high school, with players like Ty’Ron Hopper, Michael Maietti, Joseph Charleston and DJ Coleman stepping in and providing immediate production.

The one area we haven’t touched on much is how Drinkwitz recruits the Tigers on his own roster. Following the completion of the 2022 season, the entire college football world was focused on the transfer portal, a beacon of hope for star players on middling teams looking for both pay and platform upgrades. Mizzou seemed primed to lose any number of key contributors, especially on the defensive side. Early departures from figures like Dominic Lovett to Georgia and Isaiah McGuire to the draft all but assured a mass exodus.

And then time passed... and the exodus never came. Star corners Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw, despite publicly flirting with the possibility, never entered the portal and announced their returns before the bowl game. Darius Robinson, considered one of the Tigers’ best draft prospects, announced Sunday that he’ll be returning. Players like Hopper or former All-SEC DE Trajan Jeffcoat haven’t announced one way or the other yet, though both played in Tampa.

Where roster turnover once seemed certain, we can now be certain that Mizzou will look very similar in 2023. That’s good news for Eli Drinkwitz, but it guarantees that next year is when the rubber needs to finally meet the road.

We’ve long held here at Rock M Nation that 2023 would be the year where Drinkwitz’s program needs to turn a corner. The entire roster will be his, with his top two recruiting classes will be sophomores and juniors and should be playing key minutes. The holes will be filled with transfers that he and his staff picked. Always being bowl eligible is great, but it’s not good enough in a division where schools like South Carolina and Kentucky are now looking to challenge the likes of Georgia and Tennessee. Recruiting wins are nice, but they don’t mean anything when those same prospects are leaving the program two years down the road.

Drinkwitz likely knows this is the case. After three years of being his own OC and calling his own plays, he seemingly ceded ground to former QB coach Bush Hamdan and has openly discussed hiring a coordinator and play-caller to focus in on his head coaching duties. His success in high school recruiting has given way to a greater emphasis on immediately plugging holes via the portal. Constant flirting with transfer QBs suggests he’s aware that more competition is needed for Brady Cook and his young gunslingers.

The recent roster retention is a boon, then, even if it could ultimately become his bane. In an age where roster continuity is becoming rarer, Drinkwitz will have a healthy chunk of his elite defense returning to the fold. The offense is losing Dominic Lovett, yet gaining a proven Power Five contributor in Theo Wease and returning a Luther Burden who could be due to make a similar sophomore jump as his former teammate. The gang that won six games and was a matter of lucky bounces away from winning 9 or 10 is getting back together. It’s Drinkwitz’s job to make sure they make their own luck next time around.

If you’re a believer that Drinkwitz has the makings of a good SEC coach, one who runs his program with a little flair and backs it up with star talent and high-octane play, the retention should be a welcome sign. After all, the team can only improve with more seasoning, right? If you’re not a believer, maybe you should welcome their returns anyway. You get to watch some high-quality football players and celebrate the downfall of a coach you don’t care for when he inevitably blows it.

Ultimately, how you view Drinkwitz’s capabilities won’t determine his long-term future at Mizzou. It’s what he does with the time and the team in front of him. In 2023, he’ll have much of an elite defense back for another round. He’ll have a patched up offensive line and a hungry receiving core ready to prove it wasn’t just the Dominic Lovett show. You’ll either have a motivated Brady Cook returning from injury or a QB who was good enough to displace him from his starting role.

The opportunity is there for Eli Drinkwitz to push Mizzou to another level in 2023. If he doesn’t take that opportunity and run with it, he may not get another chance.