Drinkwitz endorses COVID vaccine, talks NIL and more at SEC Media Days
HOOVER, Ala. — As the SEC head coaches have met with reporters at the league’s annual media days this week, the storylines have evolved more quickly than the conference churns through coaches.
The dominant talking point entering the week was expected to be the first three weeks of the name, image and likeness era in college football. League commissioner Greg Sankey quickly introduced a new storyline when, in his opening remarks, he confirmed that teams will be exempt from COVID-19 contact tracing if more than 85 percent of personnel receives a vaccine and hinted that the conference will require members who fall below roster minimums to forfeit games rather than reconfiguring the schedule. Then, Wednesday afternoon, the news that Texas and Oklahoma had reached out to the SEC about joining the conference thrust everything else out of the spotlight.
Making the rounds at his first SEC media days appearance, Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz broached all three topics. None of his answers were more forceful than when asked about his stance on Missouri players getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
Drinkwitz said that about 95 percent of Missouri’s staff has received its vaccine shots. The roster isn’t quite at the 85 percent threshold, but he said he’s confident it will get there by the time fall camp begins during the first week of August, “if they don’t change the number again.”
Asked whether he’s encouraged his players to receive the vaccine, Drinkwitz didn’t tip-toe around the question. He cited the experience of his brother Jeremy Drinkwitz, the president of Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Missouri, and said that he has endorsed his players and staff getting vaccinated not just to avoid contact-tracing headaches but because he believes “that’s what we need to do in order to take care of our neighbor.”
“For me, when I think about vaccinations, I think about what if I’m wrong,” Drinkwitz told a group of local reporters. “So if I say it’s up to each individual’s decision and I’m wrong about that, the consequences of not getting the COVID vaccine are death. My brother’s a hospital administrator in Joplin, Missouri, and they are in the firefight right now for people’s lives. And so the reality of it is, if you’re wrong on not getting the vaccine, you’re going to die. ... It’s not certain death. Some people fight it off, some people don’t. There’s all kinds of different age groups that are really struggling with it, and it’s a choice to get the vaccine. Then you weigh, okay, what if I endorse the vaccine? What’s the side effects? Well, so far, if I’m wrong on endorsing the vaccine, I don’t know what the side effects are. Oh, the long-term, well, it’s been seven months since I’ve been vaccinated and I’m doing okay. I haven’t lost any more hair than coaching the SEC schedule.”
Drinkwitz admitted that getting more than 85 percent of his team vaccinated would represent “a competitive advantage.” He referenced the NC State baseball team, which was forced to drop out of the College World Series last month despite not having been eliminated on the field due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.
But his stance on the vaccine is shaped by more than his desire to win on the field. He noted that his sister, Anna Drinkwitz, also works in the healthcare field as a neonatal nurse and physical therapist, while he has a brother-in-law who is a pediatrician. He cited an article he recently read, which he said claimed “doctors are dealing with people that are asking for the vaccine right before they get put on a ventilator. It’s too late. And it’s all preventable.”
Drinkwitz understands that his comments could be viewed as inflammatory about a divisive issue, but he doesn’t believe that needs to be the case. He bemoaned the fact that the disease has become so political.
“COVID has, like anything right now, become a political football,” Drinkwitz said. “I don’t believe it needs to be a political football. … There are people dying, right, because of this disease. It didn’t disappear after the election, it wasn’t a simulation. I mean, if we’re worried about long-term outcomes of the vaccine, we’ve seen this COVID situation for 18 months. Like, we have to do something. It’s within our opportunity to do something.”
Drinkwitz noted that he hasn’t demanded that players receive the vaccine. However, those who opt not to will be subject to more strict social distancing and mask-wearing mandates in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the team.
“I don’t believe it’s a personal choice,” Drinkwitz said, before softening his stance a bit. “It is a personal choice, but it has consequences, just like any action you have has consequences. And so I’m encouraging people to get the vaccine.”
Texas, Oklahoma talk continues
On a more lighthearted note, Drinkwitz flashed his typical wit when asked about the biggest storyline of the day, the potential addition of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. The rumor has gained traction since being initially reported by Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle, with Big 12 officials reportedly scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon.
“I’ve been saying for years we’re the best conference in college football and obviously those colleges want to join us,” Drinkwitz said with a grin. “Maybe we were trend-setters leaving the Big 12, and maybe that opened the door and gave them courage to try it, too.”
Drinkwitz did note that realigning conferences is well outside of his job responsibility, but he expressed confidence that Sankey would do what is best for each member of the league. He did slip in a quick shot at the league office, however.
“I don’t think it’s going to change our schedule this year, but I am prepared for (associate commissioner) Mark Womack to put both Texas and OU on our schedule like he did last year with Alabama and LSU.”
When conference realignment last dominated the college football news cycle, Missouri found itself in the center of the rumors. This time, the Tigers should be secure in the SEC, regardless of whether the league adds more members. Drinkwitz praised the administration that came before him for putting the athletics department in that position.
“That probably opened the door for me to be here,” Drinkwitz said of Missouri’s move from the Big 12 to the SEC. “We’re the best conference in college football, so to be a part of it is a special thing, and it’s obvious that our commissioner is always going to put us in a position to maintain that status with forward thinking. Obviously Mizzou did a good job of that 10 years ago.”
Drinkwitz looking to capitalize on NIL
Until realignment chatter resurfaced Wednesday, the predominant talking point in college football during the month of July had been the fact that college athletes can now monetize their names, images and likenesses. Alabama coach Nick Saban threw gas on the flame earlier this week when he revealed that Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young, who has yet to start a game in college, has received nearly $1 million in NIL payments.
College football fans have been split about the impact NIL will have on the sport. Drinkwitz continued to support the new regulations. He helped galvanize support earlier this summer for the NIL bill that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson recently signed into law. Thursday, he referenced Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s quote that payments to college football players have been happening for years; this just makes it legal.
“The collegiate model, all that stuff — coach Fisher said it, not me — but we’ve been doing name, image and likeness now for years and now it’s legal. I’m just saying, hey, it’s time for Mizzou to really engage in that and try to give our football program, our basketball programs the greatest advantages they can.”
Now that NIL is here to stay, Drinkwitz is focused on using it to his advantage. He believes Missouri is positioned well to help its players cash in thanks to its status as the only FBS team in the state.
“I think for NIL, it really comes down to three things,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s going to be those that watch what happens, those that wonder what happened and those that make things happen. I think it’s an opportunity for Mizzou to make things happen. Our greatest advantage and one of the reasons that I chose Mizzou is because it is surrounded by two large metropolitan cities in Kansas City and St. Louis. We have 10 Fortune 500 companies, we are the only Division I football-playing school in the state, and what an opportunity for everyone to get behind our players, our programs, our athletes at the University of Missouri and support them with name, image and likeness.”
Senior guard Case Cook, one of Missouri’s two player representatives at media days, agreed that NIL is a welcome development. Cook, a team captain last season, said he has preached to his teammates that they can’t let pursuing endorsements hinder their on-field performance or academics, but as long as they keep a healthy balance, he’s all for players to be able to cash in.
Cook dismissed the idea that unequal endorsement money could promote locker room strife, as well.
“I can tell you 100 percent there’s going to be opportunities for anybody,” he said. “No doubt. I got deals just the same as other people. Follow me on the socials and you’ll find out soon enough. But yeah, I think just the fact that we’re all college football players gives us an opportunity. And a guy might have more deals or more money somewhere, but you don’t spend too much time looking at someone else’s yard and how their grass is growing. You turn around and look at yours, it’s going to be dead.”
Bazelak, others inspiring optimism
Drinkwitz did carve out some time to talk about the state of Missouri’s roster entering his second season at the helm. He noted that there’s a new sense of calm about the team compared to a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to punt on most of spring practices and summer workouts with his new roster. That allows him to approach the season differently.
“There’s just a different sense of going into fall camp,” Drinkwitz said. “The goals of fall camp are different. Last year we were trying to identify who could play, who couldn’t play, what quality depth we were going to have, lay the foundations for our schemes. That’s really not the plan, we’ve already done that. Now it’s about, okay, let’s get these people up to speed, let’s see if this person can contribute, let’s put our guys in situational football.”
The most obvious position at which Missouri is more settled than a year ago is quarterback. Last season, Connor Bazelak, coming off a torn ACL suffered in the 2019 season-finale, lost the starting job to Shawn Robinson during camp only to take over midway through the second game of the season. Thursday, Drinkwitz reaffirmed his message from spring football that Bazelak is locked in as the starter behind center. He noted that he’d like to see Bazelak improve his deep ball and red zone production, but said that also falls on him as a play-caller. Overall, he sees Bazelak as more confident than a year ago.
“He’s actually training at full speed,” Drinkwitz said. “Last year he was recovering from an ACL and wasn’t going full speed. So he’s had a full offseason in college football, which is huge for him, his growth. Went to the Manning Passing Academy. He has a whole new sense of confidence in who he is and control of this football team.”
Cook, too, said he has seen Bazelak take a step forward during the offseason, both as a passer and a leader. Asked by one reporter whether he would consider Bazelak a game-manager, Cook instead called him a “gamer” and a “stud.”
“I think just him getting a year of starting games and being the guy, I think it’s really apparent this offseason, you really see him fill that role and really start pushing guys and bringing guys in for extra work and really being that quarterback, that leader guy," Cook said. "It’s been awesome.”
Elsewhere on the offense, Drinkwitz expressed optimism that Missouri can get more explosive plays from its skill positions than a season ago. He and Cook both mentioned the addition of Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper at wide receiver, and Cook singled out another wideout, as well.
“Watch out for Tauskie Dove,” Cook said. “I think the work that Tauskie has been putting in over the offseason, what I’ve seen from him, flashes in the spring and even this summer. Watch out, that’s all I’m going to say.”
On the other side of the ball, Drinkwitz said he expects the defensive line to be the strength of Steve Wilks’ defense. The Tigers brought three fifth-year seniors back on the defensive front, as well as all-SEC defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat. Elsewhere, the team added transfers to try to replace several returning starters: Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge at linebacker and Tulsa transfers Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV at cornerback.
Drinkwitz noted that he had seen some worry “on the Twitterverse” about Missouri’s defensive backfield, especially after Jarvis Ware and Jadarrius Perkins entered the transfer portal earlier this offseason. But he feels good about the cornerback room after the additions of Evans and Green. He noted that Wilks will likely employ a 4-2-5 base defensive scheme that will be similar to Ryan Walters’ base formation but with three cornerbacks instead of three safeties.
“Feel really good about Akayleb and Allie being able to play at a high level with their length,” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously Ennis (Rakestraw) and Ish (Burdine) have played in this league a lot, and really excited about what Kris Abrams-Draine has done growing as a DB. So we’re going to be based more of a 4-2-5 team, so basically three corners on the field at a time, and we feel like now we really have the depth that we need in order to sustain excellence at those positions.”
Ultimately, Drinkwitz didn’t want to set any specific win-loss expectations for the upcoming season. On a couple occasions, he sought to temper some of the optimism that has been percolating among fans, noting that Missouri still has a bit of catching up to do with Georgia and Florida from a program-building standpoint. But he vocalized quiet confidence that the team can take a step forward after a more traditional offseason.
“There’s a lot of things that our team has done to put themselves in a position to have a good season,” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously you’ve got to perform, but we all know the separation is in the preparation and I think our team and staff have done a nice job preparing for the opportunity, and we’re anxious to get going.”