Continuing swiftly on from the game-by-game portion of this preview, it’s now time to discuss the many factors that will define the season for Mizzou.
3 Key Players to Season Success
- Brady Cook | Junior | Quarterback
This was the easiest pick I have ever made.
It’s hard to have more of an up-and-down season than what Cook had in 2022, which is expected out of a first-year starter who is playing behind a patchwork offensive line. Throw in the fact that he played with a torn labrum from Week Two onwards, and there’s reason to believe that he should be much improved in ‘23.
Still, the injury and offensive line can only account for so much. Cook’s decision-making and inability to drive the ball downfield cost Mizzou games against Florida, Kansas State and Kentucky, and the Tigers can ill-afford to field another QB who holds them back at times. Jake Garcia and Sam Horn each have a chance to earn the starting nod in fall camp, but it seems that Cook is operating with a leg-up right now. With a fully healthy labrum and an offseason of working on his craft, Cook should be improved.
That is a pretty big “should”, and the fan base will be quick to call for a new signal-caller if he comes out of the gates sloppy. It is worth noting, however, that Cook was playing the best football of his career at the end of last season. He accounted for more than 300 yards of offense in each of the final three games of the regular season and was the star of the Arkansas game. This team will go as far as Cook can take them, and we will just have to see if he can live up to the pressure that will come with this upcoming season.
2. Darius Robinson | Senior | Defensive Lineman
Playing as primarily a defensive tackle in 2022, Robinson worked at defensive end during the spring and may play in that position primarily this season. The unquestioned leader of the defensive line room and one of the main voices for the defense as a whole, Robinson recorded 5.5 tackles for loss last season in a breakout year. He opted to return for a fifth season, joining a host of other defensive players looking to somehow improve upon the unit’s gaudy 2022 statistics.
Robinson began his career as a pure mauler, but he has added some speed and finesse to his game over the years. Defensive end is the one position with major question marks, meaning that a lot of pressure will fall on Robinson to step up in his new role. But, he is perhaps more important to this team as a leader and motivator, keeping the guys on the right track when times are tough like Martez Manuel and Tyler Badie did for the program in the past. There’s an NFL future waiting for Robinson if he takes the step that everybody expects him to take this season.
3. Luther Burden III | Sophomore | Wide Receiver
Another fairly obvious answer, but when you look at the offensive roster, Burden is the first player who anybody would point to as a “game-changer.” His ability with the ball in his hands and athleticism jumps off the tape, and he’s one of the few skill position players that can truly hang with the athletes of opposing SEC defenses for Mizzou.
After recording 375 receiving yards, 88 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns while adjusting to life as a D-I athlete, Burden is poised for a breakout season as WR1 on this team. Drinkwitz and Kirby Moore will attempt to get him the ball in a variety of ways, but opposing teams will be keying in on him, attempting to make Burden’s life difficult out wide. With the transfer of Dominic Lovett to Georgia, there is no other established commodity at receiver, meaning that teams will largely key in on Burden. Moore and the staff have worked with moving him into more of a slot role, which would give him more space to operate with and allow Cook to get him the ball quicker. Drinkwitz also reported that Burden is leaner and faster than he has ever been in his career right now.
5 Pivotal Questions To Be Answered
- Will a fully healthy Brady Cook take the necessary steps to be a reliable SEC quarterback?
- Will inexperienced players step up and be productive in the defensive end room?
- What kind of impact will the likes of Mookie Cooper, Theo Wease and Mekhi Miller have in being able to take pressure off Burden?
- Will the change at offensive line coach and added transfers provide a spark for a unit that needs to improve?
- How will Kirby Moore’s offense perform against SEC-caliber defenses, and how will the young coordinator fare at adjusting during the season?
What does 7-5 mean?
A 7-5 regular season. It sounds about as boring and unappealing as driving through the state of Kansas, but in my eyes, it grants Eliah Drinkwitz another year in Columbia.
Before you say that is not enough, you have to take a look at the schedule. It is hard to see this team doing anything more without winning every single swing game on the slate, which is a tall order for a program with question marks at quarterback and offensive line.
Going unbeaten in nonconference play is something Drinkwitz has yet to accomplish in Columbia, and it is almost a must for him to maintain his job status. Starting out 4-0 with a win over a quality Kansas State team and a victory in St. Louis over Memphis would have the fan base ecstatic for conference play and virtually guarantee another bowl berth. That early-season momentum is something this team has lacked in prior years, and it would be a welcome sight. On the flip side, starting out 2-2 or even 3-1 would bring in a chorus of “here we go again” from the Mizzou fan base, and there’d be plenty of reason for it.
Per usual, the rest of the schedule is a minefield of top and mid-tier SEC programs, with Vanderbilt thrown in there for good measure (although, as I said, they’re building something over there in Nashville). A win over the ‘Dores is a must, but within the realm of swing games, Missouri needs to pick up two more victories to get to that seven-win mark. Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky fall into that category, and splitting those games is certainly possible.
While a one-win increase is nothing to parade down Broadway about, it would show marked improvement within this program. At the end of the day, that is the only thing we can hope to see in the fall from this team.
With the defense the Tigers will field in 2023 and the expected improvement from the offensive side of the ball, there is no excuse for this team to not show tangible improvement both on the field and in the win column. Seven wins will buy Drinkwitz another year and get the fan base off of his back, but it will not silence all of the doubters. That mark would set up the head man for an even bigger 2024 season, one in which he will have to replace a plethora of defensive talent while also continuing to show improvement in the ever-changing and challenging SEC.
For now, we’ll just take things one week at a time. Merry football season, everyone.