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Texas A&M Football

Dramatic defensive improvements vital for Missouri, Drinkwitz in 2021

July 15, 2021
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Missouri found its quarterback in 2020. The Tigers hope to find their defense in 2021.

Third-year passer Connor Bazelak, who passed for 2,366 yards last season, gives Missouri hope to contend in the Southeastern Conference East Division this season.

Yet, if the Tigers are truly going to challenge powerhouses Georgia and Florida, the defense must make dramatic improvement.

Second-year coach Eli Drinkwitz knows this. He must also know something that everyone else doesn’t because he all but called out the Bulldogs and Gators in a USA Today article last month.

“I can tell you, (Georgia) coach (Kirby) Smart and (Florida) coach (Dan) Mullen don’t really care if Mizzou has any success or not. They’d prefer if we didn’t,” he said. “I’m not going to wait for their permission.”

The Tigers face a tough task to prove that’s not false bravado.

Last season, Missouri was outscored 90-31 in losses to Florida and Georgia.

Those opponents were among five — also including LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State —that scored more than  40 points against Missouri. Two other opponents — Alabama and Tennessee — scored at least 35.

That’s bad enough. But Mizzou must improve its defense without the services of All-SEC linebacker Nick Bolton, a second-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, as well as safeties Joshua Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie, who were also selected in the NFL draft.

Don Shrubshell/Tribune via Imagn Content Services,
As Drinkwitz enters his second year in Columbia, he hopes the Tigers can contend with Florida and Georgia sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, defensive ends Kobie Whiteside and Trajan Jeffcoat returning the Tigers’ pass rush figures to be formidable.

Also, the addition of transfer linebacker Blaze Alldredge, a first-team All-Conference USA selection at Rice, may ease the loss of Bolton.

The offense must replace some significant losses, too.

All-SEC running back Larry Rountree and tackle Larry Borom, a fifth-round pick of the Chicago Bears, leave big shoes to fill.

Versatile Tyler Badie has been a solid backup running back but might not be the threat that creates play-action pass opportunities for Bazelak.

However, Bazelak should have more productive targets. Leading receivers Keke Chism and Jalen Knox return. Also, Mookie Cooper, the fourth-rated prospect in the state of Missouri in 2020, transferred from Ohio State.

Whether that’s enough to seriously challenge Florida and Georgia is up for debate. For his part, Drinkwitz bristles at the label of underdogs.

“I don’t know if ‘underdog’ is the right word. I kind of like ‘hungry dog,’” Drinkwitz said. “I kind of think we’re a hungry university. We’ve got hungry players that are in a program that is eager to make its place in our conference.”

Missouri

  • Head coach: Eli Drinkwitz
  • 2020 record: 5-5
  • Postseason result: Music City Bowl vs. Iowa canceled due to COVID-19 concerns

Returning starters: Offense (7); Defense (5)

Area of strength: Quarterback Connor Bazelak passed for 2,366 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2020. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s accurate. He’s already established as one of the best passers in the SEC.

Area of concern: A vulnerable defense that allowed at least 35 points in seven games last season could be worse this year. That unit lost linebacker Nick Bolton, a second-round draft choice, and starting safeties Joshua Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie. The hope is a pair of cornerback transfers from Tulsa will help slow down opposing offenses.

Significant losses: RB Larry Rountree (NFL sixth-round draft choice); LB Nick Bolton (NFL second-round draft choice); T Larry Borom (NFL fifth-round draft choice); S Tyree Gillespie (NFL fourth-round draft choice); S Joshuah Bledsoe (NFL sixth-round draft choice).

Key additions: CB Akayleb Evans (transfer from Tulsa); CB Allie Green (transfer from Tulsa); WR Mookie Cooper (transfer from Ohio State); LB Blaze Alldredge (transfer from Rice).

Top three players

  • Connor Bazelak, QB: Bazelak took over as starting quarterback midway through the second game of last season. He quickly cemented himself in that role. Bazelak completed almost 68 percent of his passing attempts and averaged 236 passing yards per game despite having no major receiving threats. He threw just six interceptions, three of which came in one game against Mississippi State.
  • Tyler Badie, RB: Though used in a backup role throughout his career, Badie has been versatile and productive. Last season, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry while rushing for 242 yards. He also had 28 receptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns.
  • DT Kobie Whiteside, DT: The Houston native was expected to an all-conference candidate in 2020, but injuries limited him to five games. Healthy again, he’s looking to show his form of 2019 when he 6.5 sacks and 27 tackles.

2021 schedule

  • Sept. 4 vs. Central Michigan
  • Sept. 11 at Kentucky
  • Sept. 18 vs. SE Missouri
  • Sept. 25 at Boston College
  • Oct. 2 vs. Tennessee
  • Oct. 9 vs. North Texas
  • Oct. 16 vs. TEXAS A&M
  • Oct. 30 at Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 6 at Georgia
  • Nov. 13 vs. South Carolina
  • Nov. 20 vs. Florida
  • Nov. 27 at Arkansas

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