Drinkwitz on WR corps: "I've seen enough out of those guys"
Virtually every answer in the first week of camp is hedged. The caveat is always "it's only one (or two, or three) practices." Well, almost every answer.
On Monday, minutes after Missouri's first practice, Eli Drinkwitz was asked how much better his wide receivers need to be for the Tiger passing game to take the jump that has been talked about as necessary all offseason.
"I’ve seen enough out of those guys to know that they’re gonna help out," Drinkwitz said. "We’ll be able to cut it loose."
It's a bold statement for any coach at any time, but particularly given Missouri's lack of proven production at the position.
The Tigers' leading returning receiver is senior Tauskie Dove, who averaged 2.9 catches and 44.3 yards per game last season. In three seasons, Dove has 70 catches for 974 yards and two touchdowns. And he's far and away the most productive wideout on Missouri's roster.
It has been five years since Missouri had a 1,000-yard receiver...or anywhere close to one for that matter. The Tigers don't have another player who has caught more than 31 passes or had more than 252 receiving yards in a season. But that doesn't mean they don't have options.
Three St. Louis area products lead the discussion of those options. Everyone knows about Luther Burden, the top-ranked wideout in the Class of 2022, who looked as good as advertised in spring football and is going to have plenty of opportunities this fall. And now, here comes the caveat. He's a freshman.
"Let Luther kind of be Luther." wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler said. He's gonna have tough days. He's gonna have great days. Bad days. It's just gonna be, you know, he's gonna go through it, this is his first fall camp."
Burden is Missouri's most-highly rated recruit in a decade. But ratings don't guarantee instant success. For proof of that, Burden needs to look no further than a couple of guys he grew up with who are now his teammates.
Mookie Cooper was a four-star and the nation's No. 58 overall player when he signed with Ohio State in the Class of 2020. He didn't see the field his first year, transferred to Missouri, battled multiple injuries and had 17 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown in 2021. Drinkwitz said on Monday Cooper, who is fully healthy for the first time since camp began last August, had one of the best summers of anyone on the team.
The third St. Louis-adjacent wideout in the room is Dominic Lovett. If you took a straw poll of Missouri fans asking for a breakout player in 2022, Lovett would quite likely lead the voting. He started the first game of the 2021 season as a true freshman, but his usage was up and down all year and he ended up with 26 catches for 173 yards.
"Coming from high school to college, you know, sometimes the road may be a little slower than what it was before," Lovett said. "A lot of freshmen don't get to get on the field as a freshman or aren't forced to be on the field as a freshman. So me being out there with older guys was important to helping me grasp the game. I felt like that was big, so I would say I'm fortunate."
Fans and media frequently wondered during the season why Lovett would seem to be a focal point early in a game and then disappear from the game plan for most of the day. But the explanation may be as simple as he was just a few months removed from high school.
"There's just little things that I've been working on," Lovett said. "Speed, route-running, dropping my hips, catching. Just a little bit of everything. In my overall game, I feel like I've grown."
Lovett's coach has another explanation.
"Dom’s a great young man," Drinkwitz said. "He’s a competitor. He knows he’s talented. He knows he can help us win.
"Going back and looking at last year, I didn’t do a good enough job of getting those guys opportunities."
And that's where Drinkwitz draws his confidence in the receiving corps. It's not just the quartet that's already been talked about. Ever-reliable Barrett Banister is back for a sixth season. Chance Luper, like Lovett, should be ready for a bigger role as a sophomore. Mekhi Miller, highly-touted in his own right, signed along with Burden last December and was on campus for spring football. The Tigers added junior college speedster Demariyon "Peanut" Houston. Drinkwitz doesn't question whether he has the guys. He puts the pressure on himself.
"We’ve got to throw it more and give those guys an opportunity to make plays," he said. "I just felt like as a play caller (last year), kind of got into a bunker mentality trying to outlast the other team. It worked some games, it didn’t others. That’s not who I am and not what we’re going to be about."
It was an easy trap into which to fall. Tyler Badie set the school rushing record and carried the ball 22 times a game. That came on the heels of a 2020 season that saw Larry Rountree III get 21 carries per contest. But those guys are gone, replaced by a committee of relative unknowns at running back. Missouri is breaking in a yet-to-be determined new starting quarterback. On an offense full of questions, the crew of wide receivers may be the closest thing to a sure thing the Tigers have.
"We have a bunch of guys that can make plays," Luper said. "Talent that has not been here in a long time. Everybody has real high confidence in our receiver room."
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