Notebook: Key looking to carve out role on D-Line
When Ben Key first started playing American football, his coaches at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles lined him up at offensive guard. Given Key’s size at 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, that made sense. But Key quickly decided the position wasn’t for him.
For one, Key said, the offensive line took too much thinking. Key, a native of Cranbourne West, Australia, never played American rules football until moving to Los Angeles as a senior in high school. Trying to learn blocking schemes before he understood the basics of the sport proved challenging. Two, Key wanted a position that allowed him to incorporate his rugby roots.
“I just wanted to hit someone, so I felt like the d-line was the best position for me,” Key said following Missouri’s Tuesday practice. “In high school, I played o-line, I played left guard, and it was just too much thinking for me, to be honest. When I went to junior college, I was like, yeah, I need to play defensive line. You just gotta go and make plays.”
Key’s unusual path brought him to Missouri last offseason, but he had never spoken to local reporters until Tuesday. He recalled the first time he watched an American football game — the 2008 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals. The matchup sparked an interest in him, but he wouldn’t act on it until years later, when he joined an academy formed to give talented athletes scholarships to play high school sports in America. That’s how Key ended up at Cathedral for his final year of high school. The next season, he made the move to East Los Angeles junior college, hoping to land a scholarship from a four-year school.
His 40 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, in 2019 made that happen. Key initially committed to Mississippi State, but after the Bulldogs fired former coach Joe Moorhead, he flipped to Missouri.
“The whole goal of me coming out here was to earn a scholarship and to play ball, so that was my number one goal,” Key said.
Even though Key said he already knew how to tackle and had strong stamina thanks to his rugby days, arriving at each of his three schools brought a steep learning curve. He had to learn the game at Cathedral, then switch from the offensive line to the defense in junior college. The move to Missouri was no different. Key, who had relied largely on his size and strength when he first started playing football, struggled a bit to master technique and adjust to the physicality of SEC play. The circumstances surrounding last season certainly didn’t help, as Key missed out on the majority of spring practices after enrolling in school early and didn’t participate in another team practice until the summer.
“I had to pick up my technique a lot, and the physicality of it, too,” Key said. “The SEC is a different type of build, so I had to kind of get used to that. But last year I learned a lot, and this year I’ve managed to pick up from there, and coach (Jehtro Franklin) has been helping me a lot too, building on my fundamentals and stuff. So I’m getting better at that, for sure.”
Key played just six defensive snaps last season. With Missouri dealing with a number of injuries and absences on the defensive front this spring, however, he’s gotten quite a few valuable reps, including some with the first team during the scrimmage portions of Saturday’s practice.
He sees a role for himself on the interior of the defensive line this season. Asked about what that could look like, he delivered easily the most memorable quote of the spring.
“I just gotta wreck shit in the middle,” Key said. “That's my position, I feel like, in the d-line.”
Second-year receivers coming on
Another group of players that had their first year at Missouri complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic was the trio of freshman wide receivers the Tigers signed in the 2020 class. JJ Hester, Jay Maclin and Chance Luper each saw at least a few snaps throughout the year, but combined for just two catches on the season.
Head coach Eli Drinkwitz noted that the shortened offseason in 2020 made it difficult for those players to get up to speed with the college game and to build chemistry with the quarterbacks. For one thing, he said, once the season starts, the quarterbacks and receivers don’t get a lot of opportunities to work on routes together. Plus, during the limited preseason practices the team did get, eventual starter Connor Bazelak was splitting reps with Shawn Robinson behind center.
“During the week, you’re trying not to run your wide receivers to death and overthrow your quarterbacks’ arms, so this is really the first time you’ve been able to just get repetition, repetition, repetition at the routes and the details,” Drinkwitz explained.
The three second-year players have been using the spring to their advantage. Drinkwitz has specifically praised Hester on a couple occasions. The 6-foot-3 target was limited by a toe injury a year ago. Had he been healthy, Drinkwitz said, he likely would have contributed.
“We’ve got some experienced guys returning as far as Keke Chism and Micah Wilson and Boo Smith, and the Barrett Banisters of the world, Tauskie Dove,” Drinkwitz said when asked about the receiver room on Tuesday. “But then we’ve got the new guys. JJ Hester was beat up a lot of last year with his toe, and we got Mookie (Cooper) coming in and Dominic Lovett, and so we’re trying to maximize those reps.”
Maclin is also looking to carve out a role in the receiving corps. While the casual fan might have expected more from him due to his last name — Jay is the cousin of former Missouri great and first-round NFL Draft pick Jeremy Maclin — Maclin readily admits he doesn’t have the size nor speed of his cousin. However, he believes he’s improved his speed since getting to campus. Despite a crowded slot receiver group, he worked his way into occasional playing time by the end of last season.
“It was scary at first whenever I first got in a game, I ain’t going to lie,” Maclin said. “But we had a few slots, a lot of slots. Barrett Banister, Jalen Knox and Dom Gicinto. I just kind of had to work my way up from the scout team, making plays every day. That was my biggest thing was staying focused.”
Missouri has lacked a game-breaker at wideout since Emanuel Hall graduated following the 2018 season. Since taking the job, Drinkwitz has done his best to infuse some dynamism at the position, bringing in three transfers (Damon Hazelton, Chism and Cooper) in addition to five high-school signees over the past two recruiting cycles (one of whom, Kris Abrams-Draine, now plays defensive back). With everyone except Hazelton back from last season, plus another year under the belts of the second-year guys, plus Cooper and Lovett already turning heads during fall camp, Maclin expressed optimism that the wideout position will be more productive in 2021.
“It’s going to be crazy,” he said. “That’s all I can say. We got a lot of talent, a lot of guys who want to be here and do big things for Missouri."
Drinkwitz sounds off on return of recruiting
Since COVID-19 brought the sports world to a standstill more than a year ago, high school prospects haven’t been allowed to take recruiting visits to schools and coaches haven’t been able to see prospects in person, thanks to a recruiting dead period instituted (and repeatedly extended) by the NCAA.
The end might finally be on the horizon. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported Monday that the NCAA Football Oversight Committee will recommend that the dead period, which is currently slated to run through May 31, transition to a “quiet period” starting June 1. A vote on the matter is expected this week.
While coaches still can’t visit prospects in their homes during a quiet period, players can take official visits and perform at camps hosted by colleges. The change would at least allow coaching staffs to get in-person evaluations and interactions with recruits, two things that have been impossible for the past year.
Drinkwitz would welcome the end of the dead period, he said Tuesday, but he’s not getting ahead of himself. He’ll wait to start planning June’s recruiting events until the measure is officially passed by the NCAA.
“I have no idea what they’re going to decide,” Drinkwitz said. “Even if they say, okay, it’s not going to go open, then what’s the new plan? Is it like a free for all? Or do we have to follow COVID protocols? Do we follow local health officials? I mean, I don’t know. So just about like with everything in COVID, I just take it one day at a time, and if they say it’s open June 1, we’ll have a plan ready to rock and roll.
“It will be exciting to actually get to see these guys in person. Hopefully they’ll allow us to have camps so we can make an evaluation on some players and continue to develop relationships with these guys, but I don’t know, man. ... Crud, it’s like every day’s Christmas around here, you get new information, you’re never quite sure if we’re masking up, two-masking up, no masking up, going to Texas and not having any mask or going to California and double-masking and locking in. Are we taking one shot, two shots, how many shots? So whatever. Just get me back to 56,000 people in Faurot going crazy and winning some football games and tearing down goalposts.”