Commentary: Third time a QB charm for Drinkwitz?
On Tuesday night, Eli Drinkwitz publicly named Brady Cook his starting quarterback for the 2022 season opener against Louisiana Tech. The redshirt sophomore beat out Tyler Macon, Jack Abraham and Sam Horn in a four-way battle that, in retrospect, doesn't seem to have been that much of a battle at all.
Considering the amount of energy, angst and typing that went into analyzing the quarterback position in the 231 days since a 24-22 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl, the conclusion was reached with a minimal amount of speculation or delay just eight days after Mizzou opened fall camp.
How Missouri got here--the transfer of a starter Drinkwitz stuck with over murmurs that turned into outright screams for his replacement followed by coast-to-coast flirtations with high-profile transfers who eventually went elsewhere--no longer matters. What matters now is only one thing: Drinkwitz's choice better be right.
"That's what they paid me to do," he said. "To make decisions."
Obviously not all of this inconsistency came on Drinkwitz's watch. When Lock left, Missouri had no clear successor and Barry Odom plugged the hole with a one-year stopgap in Kelly Bryant that ended up falling well short of expectations. There was no choice but for Drinkwitz to have a new starter in year one.
The choice he made was TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, who lasted all of a game-and-a-half before losing his spot to Connor Bazelak, who went on to a solid but not spectacular debut that earned him co-SEC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The choice, in hindsight, was wrong, but quickly corrected. Drinkwitz wasted no time in letting everyone know Bazelak was the guy in spring football prior to the 2021 season. Things started well enough before an overtime interception led to a loss to Boston College in the fourth game of the season.
From that point, Bazelak missed two games (one with an injury plus the bowl game when Cook was tabbed the starter), averaged just 192 yards per game when he was the starter and threw six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Drinkwitz has said this month he went into a bunker mode of play-calling down the stretch in light of the offensive struggles. Bazelak announced his transfer the day after Missouri's season ended and the Tigers were back at square one.
Despite all the struggles, Drinkwitz started Bazelak in every regular season game for which he was deemed healthy enough to play. Perhaps more telling than that, no other quarterback so much as threw a pass between the games against Southeast Missouri State and Army when Bazelak was healthy. Not necessarily an issue except for games like Tennessee and Texas A&M which were over almost as soon as they started while Missouri's backups stood on the sideline watching Missouri's offense rely almost exclusively on Tyler Badie.
You can either blame Drinkwitz for too stubbornly sticking with a quarterback who clearly wasn't right or for not having a backup he trusted in his place. Either way, the end result of year two was the same as year one. In two seasons, he's yet to get the quarterback position fully right. Mizzou fans need to hope the third time's a charm.
Enter Brady Cook.
None of this is meant as a slight to Cook. All he's done is everything he's been asked to do. If anything, most feel like he should have been asked to do more. In his career, Cook has completed 80% of his passes for 417 yards. He has thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions. He's been a willing runner, averaging a little less than four yards per carry, a number that would be much higher if college football didn't subtract sacks from rushing yardage. He led Missouri down the field to take the lead in the final minutes in the bowl game before helplessly watching the defense fail to stop Army's not-so-vaunted passing attack (yes, he missed a pass he should have made on a two-point conversion, but the standard shouldn't be perfection).
He's a kid who desperately wanted a Mizzou offer, committed weeks after he got it and never really entertained any other options even after a coaching change. He has never complained about his role, waited his turn and now has taken full advantage of his opportunity.
In other words, there's every chance Cook is the right answer for the Tigers this year.
He needs to be.
Drinkwitz not only likes his starter, but feels good about his other options if he does need to turn somewhere else during the season.
"I've got more confidence in our quarterback room than since any point that I've had since I've been here," he said on Wednesday.
Missouri doesn't need Cook to be an all-American or even all-SEC. He just needs to be good enough to guide the Tigers to a season they can point to as progress. If he does so in a fashion that establishes him as the obvious starter for 2023, even better. Worry about next year next year.
But Missouri fans need tangible signs of progress. The recruiting rankings are great and offer hope for the future. But in year three, Drinkwitz needs to get the quarterback question (not to mention the defensive coordinator) right. He's pushing his chips in with Cook.
"It matters to him to be the starting quarterback at the University of Missouri," Drinkwitz said. "And I'm excited that he's our starting quarterback. I know I can lay my head on the pillow knowing that he's going to give us and all these fans in this state everything he's got. So with that, it's going to be his job."
Now we find out if Drinkwitz has finally found the right man to do that job.
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