Notebook: Mizzou preparing for Odom's return
Eli Drinkwitz hasn’t shied away from embracing things that happened prior to his arrival at Missouri. In search of bulletin board material, he brought up the Tigers’ five-game losing streak to Kentucky before the team took the field against the Wildcats. Prior to facing Vanderbilt last week, Drinkwitz pasted a newspaper story from the Commodores’ 2019 upset of the Tigers both in the team room and each player’s locker.
This week’s opponent, Arkansas, brings even more memories for the Missouri players who have been on campus more than one season. Former Missouri head coach Barry Odom now serves as the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator. Odom, of course, spent four years leading the Tigers prior to being fired last year. He coached the vast majority of the players on the Missouri roster and recruited even more. Accompanying him in his return to Columbia will be former Missouri assistant coaches Brad Davis and Sam Carter, who now coach Arkansas’ offensive line and cornerbacks, respectively, as well as former Missouri linebackers turned Arkansas staffers Michael Scherer and Jacob Trump.
Drinkwitz hasn’t ignored Odom’s return. He said he brought it up in a team meeting Sunday. But don’t expect Odom’s picture to hang in any lockers this week. Drinkwitz and his players made clear that they have plenty of motivation for Saturday without trying to stick it to former coaches.
“There's no hiding it,” Drinkwitz said. “We can talk about it on Sunday that, you know, obviously we're going against coach Odom and a couple other coaches that used to be here. But again, this is the players’ game, and when the kickoff starts, it's gonna be about the men on that field and the jobs they do.”
Drinkwitz’s players largely echoed his sentiment. All six players that spoke with reporters on Tuesday spoke highly of Odom. Some said it would be weird to have Odom on the opposite sideline, others said they’re excited to get a chance to see him, but all said his return to Faurot Field won’t be a distraction once the game starts.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Odom,” sophomore safety Martez Manuel said. “I love him. He gave me a shot, just a kid out of Rock Bridge, so I have a lot of respect for him and the things that he’s taught me and the things that he’s done for me. I just feel like the best way to respect him is to prepare to play the Razorbacks as if I’m playing the Super Bowl. … I feel like that’s the best way to show coach Odom how much I respect him, is to play hard.”
“The way I look at it this week is I’m not playing against him, I’m playing against the players that are going to be on the field,” said quarterback Connor Bazelak. “Yeah, he’s coaching them, he’s the defensive coordinator, but this offense and myself are playing against Arkansas’ players.”
Odom’s sheer presence aside, Drinkwitz is more concerned about facing the former Missouri coach from a schematic standpoint. Arkansas’ defense has improved greatly under Odom, especially against the run. The Razorbacks rank 76th nationally in both rushing and scoring defense, up from 122nd against the run and 124th in scoring a season ago. Linebacker Grant Morgan leads the country with 104 tackles on the season, and three Arkansas players rank among the top four in the SEC in stops.
But Arkansas’ best defensive success has come in forcing opponents to turn the ball over. The Razorbacks are tied for second nationally with 13 interceptions on the season. Generating turnovers has been pivotal to their success. Arkansas is 3-0 in games in which it has taken the ball away more than it’s given it up, in which it is a combined plus-nine in the turnover margin. In its other four games, when it is minus-one, the Razorbacks are 0-4. Ball security will be key for the Missouri offense Saturday.
“They do a really good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes,” Bazelak said. “They play a lot of zone, so they have their eyes on the quarterback, so they just make plays. We just gotta stick to the game plan and execute and kind of deceive the defense.”
Odom’s familiarity with the Tiger roster presents a challenge, as well. Bazelak noted that he’ll certainly possess a better than average understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Missouri’s offensive personnel. On the other side of the ball, Drinkwitz acknowledged the Tigers might have to change some calls to make sure the defense isn’t using terminology with which Odom is familiar. He will also know defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ tendencies as a defensive signal-caller and be able to help the Razorbacks’ offensive staff exploit those — although the same could be said in reverse.
“I do think that there's some things that obviously the defensive staff has been able to give us as far as scouting report, maybe the type of defensive coordinator, play caller that he is or what's his go-to,” Drinkwitz said of Odom. “Is he a pressure guy in the red area, is he a zone guy on third downs, is he more attacking or aggressive, laid back? What are some things that gave them problems? No different than I'm sure coach Odom is telling the Arkansas staff.”
Ultimately, how great an impact Odom’s sideline switch will have on the game Saturday remains to be seen. What’s not up for debate, however, is that his presence on the Arkansas staff has provided some extra juice to a rivalry that has lacked cache in recent seasons.
His return to Columbia won’t be the only storyline Saturday, either. Drinkwitz grew up cheering for Arkansas in his hometown of Alma. He recalled Tuesday watching Barry Lunney Jr. lead the Razorbacks to an upset of Alabama in 1995 and Houston Nutt’s high-scoring teams in the late-1990s. Missouri’s roster also features a handful of contributors from the state of Arkansas: wide receiver Barrett Banister and defensive linemen Akial Byers and Markell Utsey. Drinkwitz said Byers and Utsey would serve as captains Saturday. (Oh yeah, it’ll also be Senior Day for the Tigers — more on that shortly.) Arkansas’ Morgan played in high school for current Missouri analyst Rick Jones. Finally, Missouri will look to defend the Battle Line trophy, which Drinkwitz quipped is so big he can’t lift it by himself, for the fifth straight season.
Drinkwitz summed it up, saying, “this year doesn’t lack any storylines, that’s for sure.” But he and his players also pledged those storylines wouldn’t detract from the task of winning a third game in a row.
“They're standing in our way from accomplishing what we want to accomplish this year and we’re standing in their way,” he said. “So that's rivalry enough. There's plenty of storylines, however you want to create them. But the bottom line is it’s a players game, and on Saturday at 11 o'clock whichever team is ready to play the most is going to win. And, you know, both of us desperately want to win. So rivalry or not, I think we're both going to get each other’s best shot.”
Senior Day ceremonies could provide glimpse of future
Saturday isn’t supposed to be the final home game of the season for Missouri. The Tigers are still scheduled to host Georgia to make up a game postponed from Nov. 14, although the SEC hasn’t yet announced whether the game will take place on Dec. 12 or 19. But given the uncertainty surrounding the schedule this season, Drinkwitz didn’t want to risk running out of home games to honor Missouri’s senior class. As a result, even though family members won’t be allowed on the field, the Tigers will honor 17 seniors prior to kickoff.
The festivities could offer a clue about what Missouri’s roster will look like next season. Prior to this year, the NCAA announced that the 2020 season would not count against any player’s eligibility, meaning everyone on Missouri’s roster could return in 2021. Drinkwitz said that the coaching staff has started to have conversations with seniors about their desire to come back for an additional year. Those who choose to be honored Saturday aren’t necessarily set on leaving, he said, but if players don’t participate in the ceremony “that should give an indication that they are coming back.”
According to a list released by Missouri on Tuesday, five seniors will not be honored Saturday: defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside, defensive end Sci Martin, linebacker Jamal Brooks, wide receiver Micah Wilson and punter Grant McKinniss. Whiteside and McKinniss have both served as regular starters for Missouri, while Wilson, a former quarterback, has taken on a larger role at times this season.
Utsey, the lone senior interviewed Tuesday, said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will take advantage of the free year and return in 2021.
“It’s not nothing really set in stone,” he said. “It’s just kind of up in the air. … I’m still thinking on it.”
Drinkwitz praised the senior class for helping guide Missouri through such a tumultuous season.
“They haven’t thrown their hands up in the air and said, ‘well, we can’t do it, it’s too hard,’” he said. “You think about guys like Larry Rountree and Josh Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie and you think about Markell Utsey and you think about these guys that have given you everything they’ve got for an extended period of time, and we’re just really appreciative to them and we’re going to play for them.”
Arkansas' Boyd opts out
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said during his Monday press conference that he anticipates the Razorbacks having nearly a full roster for this week’s matchup, meaning the team has moved past the COVID-19 issues that caused last week’s game to be postponed. But Arkansas will be without one contributor both at Missouri and for the rest of this season.
Senior running back Rakeem Boyd announced Tuesday that he has opted out of the rest of the 2020 season in order to prepare for the NFL Draft. Boyd led Arkansas with 1,133 rushing yards a season ago, including 95 against Missouri. He battled injury and took a back seat to Trelon Jones this year, however, rushing for 309 yards on 82 carries.
Boyd’s departure leaves Arkansas thin at running back. Behind Jones, the only scholarship player left at the position is true freshman and former Missouri commit Dominique Johnson, who hasn’t yet recorded a carry this season.
With Arkansas nearing full strength, Missouri should also field as healthy a team as it has had in a couple months — barring further positive COVID-19 tests, of course. Drinkwitz said Tuesday that Sunday’s round of testing didn’t return any positives. With a handful of players set to return from quarantine this week, the team is expected to have 61 scholarship players available to play Arkansas.
“They said we're gonna have 61 scholarship players available and it's like a sigh of relief,” Drinkwitz said. “... I don't know if that's full strength or not strength, but it is what it is. I know our guys are gonna fight their guts out.”
That group does include a couple players who are considered questionable for the matchup due to injury, however. Drinkwitz said that junior tight end Daniel Parker Jr. has a shot to return from the injury that has forced him to miss Missouri’s past three games. Parker’s name returned to the team’s depth chart this week. Drinkwitz hasn’t disclosed the exact nature of Parker’s injury, but he said the team will make a decision on his availability on Thursday or Friday.
“We'll make a decision probably Thursday or Friday on what's the best interest of his long term health and not short term results,” Drinkwitz said. “For us, it's all about what is best for our student athletes’ futures. So we're not going to risk long term for short term results.”
Wide receiver Jalen Knox will also need to progress this week in order to play against Arkansas. The junior left Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt with what Drinkwitz called a lower leg injury. Drinkwitz described Knox, who leads Missouri with 26 catches, as “tough as nails” and said “if he's got an opportunity to play he’ll be out there for us.