Notebook: With Bryant expected back, intrigue turns to backup QB
A week ago, when the Missouri football players and coaches met with the media, no one ruled quarterback Kelly Bryant out for the team’s matchup at Georgia, but the signs were visible that the team expected Bryant to sit out. Bryant said he still needed to gain clearance from team doctors, offensive coordinator Derek Dooley declined to answer questions about Bryant’s hamstring, and backup Taylor Powell split first-team reps with Bryant during practice. Bryant ultimately participated in pregame warmups but didn’t enter the game.
A week later, Bryant’s status once again isn’t concrete, but chances appear better that he will suit up when No. 10 Florida comes to Columbia on Saturday. Bryant said his hamstring feels better than it did a week ago. More telling, Dooley said Bryant “took all the reps” during Tuesday’s practice.
“It was good to have Kelly back,” Dooley said. “Kelly took all the reps. He’s not quite a hundred percent, but it was good to have him back in there leading the offense.”
Head coach Barry Odom, too, was more definitive than last week, saying he expects Bryant to line up behind center on Saturday.
“He’s got clearance from our medical staff on being able to go play, and he looked good running around,” Odom said. “… Unless there’s a setback, fully anticipate him playing and playing well.”
As long as Bryant is healthy, he’ll be Missouri’s starter. More intrigue now centers on who would take the field if he is unable to play.
Making his first collegiate start against Georgia’s vaunted defense, Powell made a few impressive throws but largely struggled. He finished the game 10-22 for 84 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, the coaching staff swapped the redshirt sophomore for true freshman Connor Bazelak. Bazelak, who had appeared in one previous game but hadn’t thrown a pass, looked sharp, completing eight of 12 passes and leading the Tiger offense into the red zone for the first time all game.
Bazelak appeared to take some reps with the second team during practice Tuesday. Odom said that, if Bryant misses any more time this season, both Powell and Bazelak would likely see the field. Dooley said Bazelak has “earned the right to play.”
“He went in there and he was three for his first three on third downs,” Dooley said of Bazelak. “Hat’s off to him. He’s worked hard, we think he’s got a lot of ability, and it was a one drive sample. There’s a lot left. But I was proud of him.”
While the coaching staff will hope it doesn’t have to use Bazelak in any more high-leverage situations this season, both Odom and Dooley said they were impressed by what the freshman showed them in his first meaningful action. His performance has the staff optimistic about the future of the quarterback position.
"I learned some more about him,” Odom said. “I was impressed with and respect the way that he went in and competed in that situation. He stood there all night, was cold, and he went out and he played and there wasn't really anything that fazed him. ... He made some completions, he went through the progression, on the reads, the way he needed to. And he stood in the pocket. So I think that is good for us, it's good for the future.”
Offense focused more self rather than Florida
No matter who has lined up behind center the past three weeks, Missouri’s offense has struggled. After scoring more than 30 points in 11 consecutive games between the end of last season and the first six games this year, Missouri has scored just 21 total points during its three-game losing streak. The offense bottomed out against Georgia, going scoreless for the first time since 2014.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier this week. Florida comes to Columbia ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense, allowing opponents to score just 15 points per game. The Gators boast a balanced defensive attack — they rank No. 23 against the pass and No. 24 against the run — headlined by a talented defensive line. Florida leads the SEC in both sacks (35) and tackles for loss (69).
“They’ve got an elite skill set,” Odom said of Florida’s defensive line. “A lot of credit to Todd (Grantham) and his scheme defensively, but also they get some good dudes that they can get after the quarterback and win one on one matchups.”
Dooley, however, is not as worried about Florida’s defensive front as he is his own players. He pointed out that, when Missouri has entered games focused and executed the game plan, the Tigers have proven they can move the ball. The unit’s failure to do so the last few games has resulted more from its own execution than anything opposing defenses have thrown at it.
“That’s really more important than anything an opponent does,” Dooley said. “When we do that, it really doesn’t matter who we play. And when we don’t do it, it also doesn’t matter who we play. We’ve seen that this year.”
Offering a more specific diagnosis of Missouri’s offensive struggles, Odom pointed to the team’s inability to run the ball and hit on downfield passes as the two main causes. Missouri has averaged just over 109 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry during its current losing streak. The Tigers have also completed just one pass that has traveled 20 yards in the air during that span.
Getting Bryant back this week should help some. But ultimately, Dooley believes the remedy lies in what he termed “competitive finish:” essentially, overcoming an opponent to execute an assignment. Doing so will be even more important against Florida’s stout defense.
“There’s gonna be guys on you, you’ve got to go finish the catch. There’s guys trying to get off blocks, you’ve got to finish the block. There’s unblocked defenders, you’ve got to finish the run,” Dooley said. “So if everybody can improve their competitive finish a little bit better, have a little better focus on our details — and obviously it’s our job to put a good plan together to have them in a position to do that.”
Odom, players still say morale is high
As the losses have piled up during what some hoped could be a nine or 10-win season for Missouri, the Tiger players and coaches have faced increasing questions about the locker room mentality. Has the team given up? Do players believe the season can still be salvaged? Has finger-pointing led to fractures between players and position groups?
So far, Odom and his players have resolutely maintained that the team remains close and morale is high. Tuesday was no different. Center Trystan Colon-Castillo, who has been vocal in addressing critics of Odom and the off-field habits of his teammates during the losing streak, said the players are still together.
“Honestly, it sucks, because we’re coming in and putting in the work but we’re not getting the results that we want,” Colon-Castillo said. “So just trying to keep morale high, try to keep people going, keep fighting, because that’s something we can’t do. We can’t just sit down, keep taking all these L’s. We need at some point to turn around and fight, and I feel like that’s something we’re going to do.”
Odom, too, reiterated that he “knows what he has” in the locker room, and the group will stay together. He pointed out that, this time last season, Missouri found itself with an identical 5-4 record. Last year’s Tigers righted the ship in Week Nine by upsetting a top 10 Florida team and finishing the regular season 8-4. Odom believes this year’s edition is capable of repeating the feat.
“I feel really good about the leadership in our locker room,” he said. “I feel really good about what we have going into the last three weeks. We got 18 or 19 days, and we got three games, three opportunities to go make something happen, so I'm excited about it. I'm more excited walking off the field after this morning's practice than I was yesterday, and that's going to continue.”
While Bryant participated fully in Tuesday’s practice, senior slot receiver Johnathon Johnson, who also missed Saturday’s game at Georgia, did not suit up. Odom said Johnson has been battling both an illness and a shoulder strain. For the second week in a row, he described Johnson as “day-to-day.”
Odom also revealed that running back Larry Rountree III sprained his toe against Georgia. Rountree only played 18 snaps, as opposed to 26 for fellow tailback Tyler Badie. However, Odom said Rountree “practiced really well” on Tuesday and should be available against Florida.