As camp kicks off, Mizzou's Eli Drinkwitz bullish on team's restored depth, talent

COLUMBIA, Mo. — No matter what the preseason projections say, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz insists this is the most talented and deepest of the three teams he’s coached in Columbia.

Between COVID and the transfer portal, the Tigers’ roster has been in constant churn since he took over the program in December 2019. But when he gathered his players Sunday for his annual address on the eve of preseason camp, he saw something more than talent and depth: commitment.

“This is the most excited I’ve been about a team and really the most comfortable I feel walking in front of this team because everybody chose to be here,” he said Monday after the first practice of camp. “The first two years, there were guys that I didn’t recruit, whether they did or didn’t have the freedom to go, whatever. … This is a group of guys who choose to be here and play for each other and understand what we’re asking them to do. And there’s power in that. There’s power in that choice to be a Tiger.”

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Through one day of practices, it’s impossible to know whether those intangibles can translate to more victories this season. But through all the player and staff turnover that’s impacted Drinkwitz’s roster, his staff’s recruiting has delivered a new layer of depth that’s accelerated the program’s growth.

One example became obvious Monday.

“We had guys missing the last part of practice because they were cramping,” said Drinkwitz, 11-12 in two seasons. “In the past, we would have considered, ‘Ahhh, maybe we don’t need (to finish.)’ Man, now we got so many guys, it’s next guy up. It’s their responsibility to be ready to play. And if they’re not, they’re going to get passed up. We’ve got consistent depth at every position on this football team. And if they’re not prepared, then we can’t count on them.”

It’s taken two years to structure this kind of depth within the program, powered by two straight top-20 recruiting classes. Looking back on Mizzou’s first game under Drinkwitz, the 2020 opener against Alabama, more starters from that game transferred (six) than remain on the current roster (five).

The turnover is undeniable — and normal under the NCAA’s relaxed transfer rules. Seven players from last year’s roster have found new Power Five teams: quarterback Connor Bazelak (Indiana), receiver J.J. Hester (Oklahoma), tight ends Daniel Parker Jr. (Oklahoma) and Messiah Swinson (Arizona State), defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo (Louisiana State), safety Shawn Robinson (Kansas State), plus cornerback Ish Burdine (Texas Christian University). Another eight players transferred to schools outside of the Power Five.

But the transfer door swings both ways. Mizzou replenished its roster this offseason with 19 transfers, 10 from other Power Five schools.

“There’s probably 10 new guys just on the defensive side of the ball that we didn’t have in spring practice,” first-year defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. “Part of (preseason) camp is figuring out what we do have.”

The roster also includes a core of players who saw the field in some capacity each of the past two years, many as starters. They’ve become the foundation for what Drinkwitz continues to build. Seven of the nine defensive players who logged at least 475 snaps last season have returned. There are crucial competitions up and down the offense, but five of the 10 offensive players who played 400 snaps last year are back.

“We’re going into Year Three and for the most part, we have a lot of new faces but we have a lot of guys that have been here with us all three years and are familiar with the system and familiar with expectations,” said tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Erik Link, one of five assistants who has been with Drinkwitz all three seasons. “So I don’t necessarily think there’s going to be a huge culture shift necessarily. But just that familiarity with expectations, just the day-to-day process that we go about is always critical. That continuity is big.”

Drinkwitz sees one major payoff to the team’s enhanced depth: He plans to hold more live drills during camp to get players on both sides of the ball acclimated to the full-speed tackling and blocking they’ll experience on Saturdays in the fall — or Thursday in the case of MU’s season opener, Sept. 1 against Louisiana Tech.

“We’ve got enough depth that we can be a physical football team,” he said.

That could especially benefit a defense that took nearly half of last season to tackle anyone.

“I think it was a minor issue for us last year,” said linebacker Chad Bailey, offering the early frontrunner for understatement of the year.

As for camp’s top position battles, Drinkwitz mentioned six key competitions unfolding this month — quarterback, center, defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and punter — but for the first time in his three seasons, he looks over a roster he believes can fill those gaps without concern.

“This is a meritocracy. You get what you earn,” he said. “Anybody can do it. Anybody on the roster right now can step up and earn playing time, whether it’s defense, offense or special teams … whether scholarship, walk-on senior, freshmen, it doesn’t matter.”

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