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Now it’s time to get funky: Seven Kirby Moore plays that could spice up Mizzou’s offense in 2023

Moore’s arrival as offensive coordinator projects Mizzou to have a much more lively offense this season

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a big fan of vanilla. Vanilla cupcakes. Vanilla pudding. Vanilla Ice. Vanilla ice cream. While there’s nothing fancy or flamboyant going on with anything that’s vanilla, its simplicity is what makes it good.

However, one thing you don’t want to be vanilla is a football offense, which is a reasonable word to describe Mizzou’s last season. While recent iterations of Mizzou football have seen far worse offensive units (see: 2015), the 2022 squad often hamstrung what was a vastly-improved Mizzou defense and even drew comparisons to the 2015 team early on in the season by Rock M’s own Brandon Kiley.

One of the culprits was the subject of this column: creativity, or rather, the lack thereof. Being the head coach and the offensive play caller is very difficult, and head coach Eli Drinkwitz showed the perils of such last season. While prioritizing efficiency over explosiveness is a more sustainable way of running an offense, last season saw Mizzou display little pizazz on offense. While conventional and ordinary isn’t necessarily bad, it’s bad when the ordinary plays you call most often don’t yield much success, which was the case with Mizzou’s offense last season.

What made it extra frustrating is that Drinkwitz has shown he can get a little eccentric with play calls (in a good way). Here’s a compilation of plays from 2020 and 2021 that showed a legitimately creative side of Drinkwitz’s play calling that seemed absent for a lot of last season:

Isn't that awesome?! There were so many great things happening! Motion, fakes, making the defense think they’re doing one thing, but then doing another thing?! There was a Wishbone formation for crying out loud!

However, there are several caveats to the lack of creativity we saw from Mizzou’s offense last season.

One is that Brady Cook had a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder for almost the entire season. Whether that was known internally or not, having your starting quarterback unable to use his throwing arm properly certainly limits your abilities as a play caller.

For NFL fans, think of last season’s NFC Championship game, when the 49ers literally ran out of quarterbacks because all of them were injured. Despite Kyle Shanahan being one of the most creative play callers the game has ever seen and San Fran sporting a terrifying collection of skill position players, Shanahan couldn’t do much with his starting quarterback having a torn ligament in his throwing elbow en route to a beatdown at the hands of the Eagles.

Back to Mizzou. The Tigers also really struggled staying ahead of the sticks last season. They often found themselves in second and third-and-10+, which really restricted the playbook. Not that I think Drinkwitz had some sort of Andy Reid-esque ring-around-the-rosie wizardry up his sleeve that kept getting thwarted by negative plays on early downs or anything. It’s just that thinking outside the box becomes extra challenging when the defense knows you’re going to pass the ball.

Mizzou ranked 117th out of 131 FBS teams in Standard Downs Line Yards Per Carry last season according to Football Outsiders which, according to them, is “the raw, unadjusted per-carry line yardage for a team on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer)”. There were far too many instances of first and second-down running plays going nowhere or backwards, as a porous rushing attack frequently put the passing attack in extremely disadvantageous situations. In general, Mizzou’s offensive line was subpar last season due to a combination of injuries and poor play. It’s hard to execute creative offense if your offensive line isn’t giving you much time to throw or any open lanes to run through.

On a more positive note, there were moments last season where Drink’s play calling was fresh, exciting and, most importantly, effective. Luther Burden III took a handful of snaps out of the Wildcat or lined up in the backfield, most of which ended up being positive gains. Plays like the option touchdown against Auburn and the fake-bubble-screen-wheel-route touchdown against Georgia were a breath of fresh air from a schematic standpoint. Remnants of meaningfully imaginative offense proved to still exist.

However, the overall results were poor enough to warrant a desire for change. Last season, Mizzou’s offense felt like an old Saturn in a world of Teslas and BMWs. Oftentimes, it felt like an invisible wall appeared the moment the Tigers crossed the 50-yard line. A 10 yard gain felt a little too miraculous. Combine all of that with a lack of aggressiveness and pushing the ball downfield, Mizzou’s offense simply wasn’t good or dangerous enough in 2022.

Thankfully, Drinkwitz recognized the need for change and brought in former Fresno State OC Kirby Moore to call plays, whose arrival should induce some positive changes on that side of the ball. Moore looks as if he’s going to bring a few new spices to the play calling kitchen, as his pass-first offense last season at Fresno State was far more prolific than Mizzou’s in both the eye test and the numbers.

Once again, however, there are a few important caveats to Moore’s success in Fresno. I virtually pinky-promise you that this is the final set of caveats.

One is that Fresno State was far superior to almost all Mountain West teams last season. For one, the Bulldogs had the best collection of offensive talent in the conference. They had the best quarterback (Jake Haener, first team all-MWC, eventual NFL Draft pick), arguably the best running back (Jordan Mims, first team all-MWC) and arguably the best receiving tandem in Jalen Moreno-Cropper (first team all-MWC and eventual NFL Draft pick) and Nikko Remigio (second team all-MWC). While Mizzou’s collection of offensive talent is good in itself, they probably won’t overpower opponents like Fresno State did, which speaks more to the level of competition in the SEC than the abilities of Mizzou’s skill position players.

The Mountain West was also not very good. The conference saw 75% of its teams finish with either a bottom 30 offense and/or defense in terms of points per game and points per game allowed, and a third of its teams finished with three wins or fewer (Colorado State, Hawai’i, Nevada, New Mexico). The Bulldogs played the latter three and beat them by a combined score of 137-36. With all due respect to the Mountain West, your offense is generally going to look a lot better against two-win Nevada than 10-win LSU.

Another is that 2022 was Moore’s only season calling plays for a collegiate offense. For context, Isiaih Mosley was a Missouri Tiger for just 13 fewer days than Moore was the OC at Fresno State. We’re working with a small sample size here.

Alright, let’s exit Caveat Central and get to the good stuff. Here are seven plays that Fresno State ran with Kirby Moore as the OC that I think would look really great with Mizzou’s current personnel.

Play #1: Fake post into a wheel route

Something that was lacking last season with Mizzou’s offense was deception, as there were troves of play calls that were way too predictable. Any semblance of fakes, misdirections or anything that was intended to catch the defense off-guard was sparse.

One play that comes to mind in regards to the lack of unpredictability is the pick-six Cook threw against Florida last season.

While Burden got knocked off of his slant route by Gator LB Ventrell Miller, Cook stared Burden down the entire way, making it a far easier read for DB Jaydon Hill. While isolation routes are called all the time at all levels of football, this specific one seemed easier to snuff out than others.

With Moore, there should be a lot less predictability, and this is one of my favorite examples. Against San Diego State, Fresno State faced a second-and-seven from inside the Aztec 10-yard line. Likely desiring some end-of-quarter momentum, Moore dials up this beauty of a play for a touchdown:

Bulldog WR Zane Pope ran a post route, stopped as if that was the intended play, then did a 180-degree pivot into a wheel route that turned into a touchdown. While Pope didn’t generate a ton of separation, the fake was enough to make the Aztec DB bite just a little bit, opening up a big enough window for Haener to hit.

This play looks very similar to a route Odell Beckham, Jr. ran when he was with my beloved New York Giants back in 2016. It’s almost the exact same play call: OBJ fakes a post route, gets Bengals DB Pacman Jones to bite HARD, then spins around for a wide open touchdown.

*Ke$ha voice* I wish somebody would’ve told me babe, that someday these will be the good old days…

Looking at Mizzou’s projected depth chart, I think either one of Burden, Theo Wease or Mookie Cooper could play the Zane Pope role, as all three are pretty twitchy and have proven that they can generate separation in one-on-one coverage. In case of a jump-ball situation, Cooper can provide that too despite standing at just 5’9”. While it was only one instance, his 46-yard contested catch against Georgia last season makes me think Cooper could win a leaping contest against an opposing DB. Incoming freshman Josh Manning and redshirt freshman Ja’Marion Wayne also offer intriguing contested-catch upside, as both posses strong frames and catch radii that could prove valuable in goal-line passing situations.

Play #2: Fake end around into a tight end screen

The first play was one player enacting a fake; this one involves the entire offense faking out the entire opposing defense. Watch how the USC defense reacts to the initial movements of Fresno State and how it opens up a wide open lane for a chunk gain.

See? Deception is a powerful thing. The motion by Remigio causes the USC DB to leave the left side of the field. His movement along with six other Bulldogs acting like the play is going to the right side brings almost the entire USC defense to that side. When Haener checks it down to tight end Raymond Pauwels, Jr., nine of the 11 Trojan defenders are almost out of the play entirely, and Fresno State has a three-versus-two on the left side.

Another reason I like this play is because a tight end was involved, which was a rare sight for Mizzou last season. Tyler Stephens, Kibet Chepyator and Ryan Hoerstkamp combined for 10 catches, 112 yards and two touchdowns in 33 combined games. For context, Peanut Houston, Tavorus Jones, Taj Butts and Tyrone Hopper combined for 10 catches, 86 yards and a touchdown in 26 combined games. 11 of those games came from Hopper, who is a linebacker. An offense is objectively less threatening when the tight end isn’t used very much as a pass-catcher; that should hopefully change under Moore.

One thing this play requires is a mobile collection of offensive linemen who can effectively get to the second and third levels of the defense. While the starting five offensive linemen for Mizzou haven’t been determined yet, several of them have proven to be sufficient downfield blockers.

The aforementioned Shanahan has shown the possibilities of a well-executed tight end screen, as he’s whipped up some disgusting fakes to get George Kittle open. It’s like if a basketball ankle-breaker was a football play. While the one Fresno State ran isn’t as extreme as some of the ones the 49ers pull off, Mizzou has the ingredients to make running Moore’s version a plausible possibility.

Play #3: Wildcat fake jet sweep on the goal-line

Missouri had a lot of trouble on short-yardage run plays last season. They sported one of the lowest Power Success Rates in the nation last season according to Football Outsiders, which is the percentage of run plays on third/fourth-and-two or shorter that got a first down or a touchdown.

One solution that Mizzou could definitely utilize more are Wildcat jet sweeps, especially considering that they have one of the most lethal Swiss Army knives in the country in Burden. A few designed runs and short passes were designed for Burden last season (with most of them being close to the goal-line), and good things usually happened:

However, Fresno State ran a Wildcat fake jet sweep a little differently than Mizzou did:

There are two specific things to really like about this version of the fake jet sweep. One is the pre-snap motion that sends the Bulldog receiver in motion from the left to the right side of the formation, taking a Washington State DB out of the play and creating space on the side of the field where the play is intended to happen.

The second thing was having a lead blocker in front of Sims to help pave a path to the end zone. Even though the block from running back Elijah Gilliam likely wasn’t earth-shaking, it was enough to slow down the Cougar DB and give Sims an extra step as he turned the corner. For Mizzou, Michael Cox could play the Gilliam role, as his strong frame would help in carving out a path to the end zone.

On the handful of the designed runs Mizzou ran for Burden last season, there often wasn’t a lead blocker in front of him; it was usually just “our guy is better than your guy, here it goes!” Now, did it work a lot of the time? Certainly! But having a blocker out in front makes things a little easier on the ball carrier.

Play #4: Play-action halfback wheel route

Moore’s first game as a play caller – the 2021 PUBG New Mexico Bowl (???) – was a rousing success, as Fresno State produced 467 yards of offense en route to a 31-24 victory over UTEP. This play was one of a handful of creative ones.

There are three things I want you to watch in this play. One is Mims in the backfield. The others are the UTEP linebacker closest to the right side of the field and number 12 on UTEP (the one who points his finger in the air before the snap), because one of the two was supposed to pick up Mims when he motioned to the right side.

A classic breakdown in communication and coverage creates a Miner issue on this play.

I’ll be here all week.

The reason I’m harping on pre-snap motion so much is that it’s like a schematic power-up. (Purposeful) pre-snap motion forces the defense to complete a task before the play even happens. It requires communication, and if that communication isn’t received or doesn’t happen at all, the offense has already created a major advantage. Even if the defense properly re-defines matchups, the offense could still gain an advantage because a wide receiver that was being guarded by a fast defensive back is now being guarded by a not-as-fast linebacker. The above play is a prime example.

Pre-snap motion it also lethal when the ball is snapped as the motioning player is still moving, as seen above. When a motioning player stops for a few moments before the ball is snapped, it gives the defense extra time to communicate matchups. When the ball is snapped as the offensive player is still moving, a breakdown in communication on defense is more likely to be exposed, as there’s less time to re-configure matchups.

Mizzou’s running backs are also pretty good pass-catchers. While the receiving production wasn’t spectacular — the running backs combined for a 38-252-1 line last season — there’s untapped potential here, especially with Schrader, who’s built like a Ford F-150 with a V8 engine. Check out this pair of plays Mizzou ran last season that look eerily similar to the one above from Fresno State:

Consistently involving as many people as possible in the passing game makes an offense that much more dangerous; the above play is a good step in achieving that.

Play #5: Out route that opens up a seam shot

This is probably the most normal-looking play out of the ones I’ve outlined here, and it follows the same principle as the previous play. Remigio motions to the right, then runs an out route. That takes one Boise State DB with him, opening up a soft spot in zone coverage, one that Haener hit with a laser beam to Moreno-Cropper.

Should Cook be fully recovered from his shoulder injury, I’d expect him, Jake Garcia and Sam Horn to all be able to make this throw. If Barrett Banister was still around, his sure-handedness would’ve intrigued me to put him in the Moreno-Cropper role, where the Boise State DB leveled him from behind just after he caught it. Nevertheless, any of Mizzou’s current wide receivers could conceivably run that seam route.

Play #6: Fake reverse

This was my favorite play call from the UTEP game; not only is the play wildly fun, it was the first play from scrimmage. Giving Moore play calling duties was like giving a newly-licensed teenager a sports car, except Moore drove it really well!

The interesting thing about the fake reverse is that it doesn’t normally happen with normal offensive sets; if a reverse is called, it’s either a handoff to one receiver, or if there’s a second receiver involved, it’ll be a second handoff/pitch to that second receiver. The only times you’ll usually fake reverses are on kickoffs. This has been pulled off a handful of times at both the collegiate and professional level.

Mizzou has run a handful of reverses within the past couple of seasons, with Burden and now-departed Dominic Lovett being the primary ball-carriers. While Burden is the easy choice to be the ball-carrier here, Cooper’s speed would be valuable in this spot, too.

Play #7: A play that definitely has a fun name

This is a play that I feel like Moore will run only if he’s feeling really ambitious. I have no idea what it’s called, but I know for sure that Moore probably had a blast drawing this one up.

Again, don’t expect this play to be called often, but if it’s ever called, buckle up. It might be a fun ride.

Now, with all that being said, how much will this prospective injection of innovation improve Mizzou’s offense in 2023? Expecting the unit to suddenly light the world on fire is a foolish standard to have. However, with Moore now calling the shots on offense, becoming a nationally decent unit is a reasonable goal, and a starting point can certainly be integrating plays like the ones above into the offense. While they won’t be the meat and bones of the offense, simply having them available is a step forward.

Finally, not only is Moore’s pass-first play calling bag deep, he’s shown and spoke of a willingness to adapt to his personnel.

“I think offensive football, first it’s got to fit our personnel,” Moore said during his opening press conference back in January. “We’ve got to figure out what our guys do well, and then do that over and over and over. I don’t think you can just say, ‘Hey, your offense is this.’ I think it comes back to what fits our personnel, what fits our quarterback, our running back, offensive line. And then at the end of the day, it comes back to we got to take care of the ball, you got to be explosive and we got to score more.”

This is a very good thing! While there are some similarities between Fresno State’s personnel from last season and Mizzou’s projected personnel this season (clear WR1, speedy WR2, versatile running back), there’s a solid chance that Moore’s play calls (including the above plays) will be a little different in order to fit Mizzou’s offense. The goal is not to try and logjam players into pre-set roles within a certain system; the perils of such have proven to be very harmful, including sports outside of football. Moore sounds like he’s going to do the opposite.

For example, there’s one type of play the Bulldogs didn’t really run last year that would fit the Tigers better: designed QB runs. While Haener wasn’t necessarily a statue, he wasn’t very mobile, either. The only times he tucked and ran were when he absolutely needed to. Mizzou’s QB room of Cook, Garcia and Horn offers a lot more to work with on the ground.

Outside of skill, there are four traits a lot of great football offenses possess (not including skill): versatility, unpredictability, aggressiveness and a willingness to adapt. The Tigers already have the first component; should Moore bring the other three components to fruition, Mizzou’s offense is going to have a lot more flavor next season.