How 'calm, cool and collected' Bazelak won Mizzou's starting QB job
When Connor Bazelak entered Missouri’s game against Tennessee on Saturday, not much had gone right for the Tigers. They had been out-gained 197 total yards to 13 and had one first down to Tennessee’s 10. Missouri trailed 14-0.
As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for the redshirt freshman, Tennessee also knew the snap count.
When Missouri positions its quarterbacks in the shotgun formation, the signal-caller uses a clap to signal that he’s ready for the snap. Tennessee picked up on the trend, and a Volunteer defensive player started to clap before the quarterback could, making center Michael Maietti think Bazelak was ready for the ball when Bazelak wasn’t expecting it. Twice, the ball hit the ground on an exchange from the center.
At the time, Bazelak didn’t know the cause for the bad snaps, yet he wasn’t fazed. The first time it happened, he picked the ball up off the turf and, all in one motion, fired a 28-yard completion to wide receiver Keke Chism. Bazelak even had alerted the officials to be on the lookout for a clapper among Tennessee’s defense, although no Vol was ever flagged for a snap infraction.
“I thought something was up in the game, because that has never happened,” he said. “So I actually told the ref during the game. I said, ‘can you watch for one of the defenders clapping, because my center is snapping the ball when I’m not clapping.’ He must not have seen it. But it’s supposed to be a penalty.”
Bazelak couldn’t close Missouri’s two-touchdown deficit, but he did provide a jolt for the offense. As a result, head coach Eli Drinkwitz named him the team’s starting quarterback for its Week Three contest against defending national champion LSU on Tuesday. His teammates said the poise that showed up in the face of the snap issues on Saturday has helped make him successful when he has been thrust into games with his team trailing against both Alabama and Tennessee. Bazelak even described himself as “calm, cool and collected.”
“He’s very calm,” tight end Daniel Parker Jr. said. “In that sense of his game, he reminds me a little bit of Drew (Lock), just because he’s very calm in the pocket, he handles himself very calmly, he doesn’t let things rattle him very easily. So I think that’s just one of the things that sticks out to me.”
Bazelak has only attempted a pass in four previous college games, but when he starts behind center Saturday, it’ll actually be his second college start. The first one came in what feels like another era — before a knee injury, coaching change and global pandemic that put into doubt whether he would ever have the chance to start another game for Missouri.
With starter Kelly Bryant injured, Bazelak got the nod in Missouri’s final game of the 2019 season. He had led the offense on its best drive of the game a couple weeks prior, at Georgia, and he once again showed some flashes, completing three third down passes for first down yardage on the team’s first touchdown drive of the game. Early in the second quarter, however, while trying to scramble away from pressure, he planted his right foot in the ground and his knee buckled. Tests would confirm everyone’s immediate fear: He had torn his ACL. The following day, the school fired Barry Odom, the head coach who had recruited him to Missouri. Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley was let go as well.
Despite the sudden upheaval, Bazelak said he never considered leaving Missouri. His plan was to rehab aggressively during the offseason so that he could get back to 100 percent in time for fall camp, then to win back the job he had tasted against Arkansas.
“Even the day after I tore my ACL, I hurt my knee, I still had the mindset of I’m going to work to be the starter,” he said. “That was my mindset.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent most of the Missouri football team home for three months, Bazelak’s rehab became even more demanding because he had to do it largely alone. “When everyone was at home in quarantine,” he said, “I was doing rehab in the training room.” But by early June, he had been cleared to resume football activities, and at some point before the end of the month, he said he was able to regain full strength in his leg and full confidence that his surgically-repaired knee could hold up.
At that point, Bazelak found himself in another position he hadn’t anticipated: Learning the offense for a coach he had once turned down. Drinkwitz had recruited Bazelak out of Archbishop Alter high school in Dayton, Ohio, when he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at North Carolina State. Drinkwitz had paid Bazelak an in-home visit during the recruiting process, and Bazelak and his father took a trip to N.C. State’s campus.
As a result, Bazelak said he already had some knowledge of Missouri’s new coach and his offense before Drinkwitz arrived on campus. Combine that with the fact that the team only took the field for three spring practices, and Bazelak hadn’t fallen too far behind Shawn Robinson, his competition for the starting quarterback job.
“Obviously when we first saw each other, when he got here, we knew who each other were, and I thought that was good, that we were familiar with each other,” Bazelak explained. “I was familiar with his offense, just from me being a football guy, just watching football, as a high schooler watching college football, watching Ryan Finley, who was a good quarterback.”
Prior to the season-opener against No. 2 Alabama, Drinkwitz declined to reveal whether Robinson or Bazelak would take the first snap. Robinson got the nod, but Bazelak played a series in the second quarter, then returned for the final drive of the game, when the result had been well decided. Even though Robinson completed 17 of his final 19 passes in the game, Bazelak, who completed seven of 14 and ran for a touchdown, showed enough that Drinkwitz once again listed both him and Robinson as co-starters entering last week’s matchup at Tennessee.
This time, Robinson struggled mightily during his first two series. When Bazelak entered the game and led Missouri to its first points, the starting job suddenly became his to lose. His 13 completions for 218 yards proved enough to keep it.
“I thought he handled the situation well,” Drinkwitz said of Bazelak’s performance in Knoxville. “He got in, he moved the ball offensively, he moved the ball on third downs. He made good decisions in the pocket. There's been some things that he missed and some things that he's got to improve on. But I just felt like he handled the situation well and he gave us a chance, and we're gonna stick with him.”
In addition to his poise and game-management ability, the trait of Bazelak’s that seemed to jump-start the offense was his ability to stretch the field vertically. During the first two drives, Robinson didn’t attempt a pass that traveled more than five yards downfield. Against Alabama, he only attempted three that traveled beyond 10 yards. Bazelak, meanwhile, attempted 17 throws that traveled more than 10 yards in the air across the first two games. His average depth of target, 11.84 yards, has nearly tripled that of Robinson, who has averaged 3.66.
Part of that may have been due to play-calling. According to secstatcat.com, more than 10 percent of plays when Robinson has been on the field have been run-pass options, which typically feature short, quick patterns, compared to 5.7 percent for Bazelak. Bazelak, meanwhile, has thrown a play-action pass on more than 17 percent of his snaps, compared to about 10 percent for Robinson. Asked about the disparity in downfield shots between the two passers, Drinkwitz said most of the team’s pass plays have a downfield option built in, and Bazelak has chosen to take it more often than Robinson.
Whatever the reason, Bazelak’s strong arm, combined with the ineffectiveness of Robinson’s legs thus far, have made him the more productive quarterback. Bazelak completed seven passes that went for 15 or more yards against Tennessee. Most importantly, through two weeks, the Missouri offense has averaged 5.88 yards per play and scored points on four out of nine drives with Bazelak behind center. With Robinson at the helm, it has averaged 3.86 yards per play and scored three times out of 11 drives.
“When you can throw the ball down the field, it just opens up everything else,” Bazelak said. “It opens up the run game, it opens up screens and short passes. So being able to throw the ball down the field is a big part of being able to move the ball and having a successful offense.”
While Bazelak showed enough to earn the starting job against Tennessee, Drinkwitz emphasized that his performance was far from flawless. Bazelak threw an interception in Tennessee territory, which essentially sealed the victory for the Vols. Drinkwitz also said he “missed a couple of reads that really have to be made.”
That’s not out of character for a redshirt freshman with one career start under his belt, however. And after seeing how Bazelak handled himself after entering the past two games facing deficits against ranked opponents, Drinkwitz and his staff can at least take confidence that Bazelak will be his calm, cool and collected self when he takes the first snap against LSU.
“He's got to play better,” Drinkwitz said. “... We all have to play better, I’ve got to coach better. But we felt like he showed some growth, and it's his opportunity.”
Other notes and quotes from Tuesday:
-- Even though LSU lost nearly every starter from its record-setting, national title-winning offense of 2019, Drinkwitz and the Missouri defense are bracing for a tough test. The Bayou Bengals are averaging 37.5 points per game through their first two contests. They’ve been particularly proficient through the air. With Myles Brennan taking for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, LSU has averaged 341 passing yards across its first two games, ninth-most in the country.
A couple things Drinkwitz and his players said to expect from the LSU offense are using a quick tempo after a positive play and getting true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert involved. Drinkwitz said Missouri’s defense struggled to get lined up when Tennessee picked up the pace last weekend, which led to some of the Volunteers’ big gains on the ground. He said that’s been an emphasis during practices this week.
Strong safety Martez Manuel said that he will often be tasked with defending Gilbert, a true freshman who won the Gatorade Player of the Year award last season as the best high school player in the country. Through two games, Gilbert has eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Even within a receiving corps that includes Terrance Marshall, who caught 13 touchdowns a season ago, Gilbert might be the most talented playmaker.
“They're scoring points at a high clip,” Drinkwitz said. “They use tempo to their advantage to take shots down the field. … It’s going to be a really difficult task.”
-- Missouri lost another scholarship player Tuesday, this one to the transfer market. PowerMizzou confirmed the report by Matt Zenitz of Al.com that freshman defensive tackle Montra Edwards has entered the transfer portal. Edwards, a former three-star recruit from Mississippi, hadn’t seen the field during his first two college games.
Edwards is the second Missouri player to enter the transfer portal since fall camp began, joining quarterback Taylor Powell. The Tigers have also had seven scholarship players opt out of the 2020 season over concerns about COVID-19. Add in season-ending injuries, and the team is down to 68 healthy scholarship players. The SEC minimum to play this season is 53.
-- Speaking of his team’s health, both from injury and COVID-19 standpoints, Drinkwitz remained coy Tuesday. He said there are “a lot of unknowns for this weekend” but did not comment on any individual players.
Missouri has had at least a few players miss each of the first two games of the season due to COVID-19 quarantines, although none have been major contributors. Drinkwitz said the team got two players back on the roster last Thursday and had two more scheduled to return for the team’s Tuesday afternoon practice. He suggested that there could be new players quarantined this week as a result of the virus, saying “we’re still working out a few scenarios right now with COVID.”
“I'll make the final announcement on where we're situation from our travel this past week on Thursday on my coach’s show, I guess,” Drinkwitz said. “But we are getting some guys back. We had two players get reintroduced to our football team last Thursday. And I think we have two more today that will be full participation in practice. But we're still working through a few things from this past trip, and I'll update that when it becomes clear. It's not quite clear yet.”
Drinkwitz also described Missouri as “a beat up football team.” Once again, he said he would address specific injuries during his radio show on Thursday evening. Cornerback Jarvis Ware missed the game against Tennessee due to a knee injury suffered against Alabama, and defensive tackle Darius Robinson left Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury but did not return.
The one individual Drinkwitz did mention as battling an injury was offensive lineman Zeke Powell, who played the entire game at left tackle against Alabama but did not see the field against Tennessee. Bobby Lawrence started in Powell’s place. The two are listed as co-starters on the team’s depth chart.
“Zeke was beat up last week with battling a foot injury,” he said. “We just didn't feel like he could play full speed, wasn't able to practice on Wednesday or Thursday. So that was what allowed Bobby to get the start.”