It’s been more than two weeks since Blake Baker left the Tigers to coordinate the defense for the purple version of the feline at LSU. The move, while not altogether shocking, seemed to leave Eli Drinkwitz in the lurch as he has yet to name a replacement for Baker’s position.
Baker’s move came just two weeks after he signed a lucrative extension with Mizzou and publicly announced on
X Twitter that he wasn’t going anywhere. So while the move may have come quickly to Drinkwitz, it could not have been a huge surprise knowing Baker’s recent coaching history and family ties to LSU and the state of Louisiana.
It seems in modern day college football, with the transfer portal and NIL, that athletic departments are increasingly motivated to replace coaches as soon as possible in order to maintain stability within their programs. After all, LSU hired Baker only two days after firing their previous defensive coordinator. Alabama hired their new head coach, Kalen Deboer, less than 48 hours after Nick Saban announced his retirement.
The Mizzou DC job has been posted publicly since Jan. 9, meaning an announcement could come at any time. However, despite the recent examples of quick hiring turnarounds in the SEC, Drinkwitz has chosen to take his time in naming Baker’s replacement.
That is a good thing.
Building the Brotherhood
In his first four years at Mizzou, and especially throughout the successful 2023 campaign, Drinkwitz has made an intentional effort to foster a culture of brotherhood throughout his program. Culture can often be a delicate balance heavily dependent on the individual personalities of the players and the coaches.
This offseason, the Mizzou defense will see a huge roster turnover as many of its leaders on and off the field made the decision to pursue a professional football career. Much of that talent will be replaced, for better or worse, by players recruited through transfer portal. This large-scale overturn in personnel will create challenges and opportunities for maintaining and building the established culture.
At first blush, it seems like the obvious decision Drinkwitz could make to continue building the brotherhood is to simply elevate co-DC and linebackers coach DJ Smith to full coordinator. Smith seems well-liked by his players and has proven to be a strong recruiter and developer of talent since joining Drinkwitz’s staff as an original member in December 2019.
As we are now into week three of the coordinator search, it seems like Smith is not Drinkwitz’s first choice for the position, which makes finding cultural fit in an external hire all the more important. It is much quicker to evaluate a candidate’s on-field coaching credentials: a simple review of statistics or film study could do that. However, a holistic evaluation of a coach on and off the field should be a much more time-consuming process in which Drinkwitz is hopefully fully engaged.
A Slow Schedule
Since the advent of the December early signing date for high school recruits, January has become a very slow period in terms of recruitment. Mizzou doesn’t have any commitments or known targets signing in February, so January is largely spent recruiting the next year’s class.
This past weekend saw dozens of 2025 recruits in Columbia for Junior Day, for example. While having a defensive coordinator in-seat to meet those recruits would have been nice, that person will have plenty of time to catch up with 2025 targets over the spring and summer.
Similarly, January finds us with a closed transfer portal, so no players can enter (or exit) the roster until after spring practices. While there are some big names currently in the portal from programs like Alabama and Washington, it doesn’t appear as though the current staff is focused on adding any of those players at the moment.
With a coaching transition, the biggest fear for Drinkwitz has to be maintaining his current roster of defensive players once the portal reopens, but the new coordinator will have all of spring practice to convince the roster to stick around.
As for spring practice, Drinkwitz has yet to announce a schedule, so there is no rush to get a guy in before practice begins. Drinkwitz seems to prefer his spring practice schedule to occur as early as possible, but the NCAA allows a pretty wide window for when those practices can be scheduled. It will be important to have the new coordinator in place a few weeks ahead of spring practice to get on the same page with his staff, but Drinkwitz has the flexibility to push those practices back if he feels it necessary to makes sure the on-boarding process goes smoothly.
The Perfect Fit
Eli Drinkwitz is no stranger to taking his time to find what he considers a perfect fit for his coordinators. When Ryan Walters left to take the DC position at Illinois, it took Drinkwitz more than two weeks and quite a bit of persistence to hire Steve Wilks as his replacement. Just last year, it was three full weeks between the time Bush Hamden left for Boise State and Drinkwitz named Kirby Moore offensive coordinator.
Despite Wilks’ short tenure in Columbia, it’s safe to say both hires were successful, or at least trending positively for Wilks, who is currently coordinating a defense in the NFC Championship game and has interviewed for at least two NFL head coaching positions this month.
An additional consideration for Drinkwitz is the need to fill not one, but two positions on his defense after defensive ends coach Kevin Peoples absconded to Baton Rouge with Blake Baker. Drinkwitz faced the same dilemma in 2021 when he needed to replace both Walters and Brick Haley. While the next DL coach, Jethro Franklin, quickly didn’t work out, the choice of Franklin was made in conjunction with Steve Wilks, who reportedly knew Franklin well.
Because he has to fill two positions quickly, it is quite possible that Drinkwitz is searching for DC candidates who can bring a good defensive line coach with him (a la Baker and Peoples) or can help identify good DL coach candidates who will fit neatly into the strong culture already established in Columbia.
After an amazing step forward in 2023, Mizzou football sits at the precipice of something truly special. While it is safe to say that Kirby Moore was Drinkwitz’s most important hire in his time at Mizzou, the sky-high 2024 expectations for the Tigers coupled with the major defensive roster turnover have made this latest decision perhaps his most impactful. Though word of a hire could come at any moment, Tiger fans would do well to sit back and let Eli cook, because the pot is starting to smell pretty damn good.