Position Reset: Wide receiver
The first Missouri football season of the Eli Drinkwitz era showed both plenty of reasons for optimism as well as room for improvement. The Tigers finished a 10-game, all-SEC schedule with a record of 5-5, including an upset of defending national champion LSU and at one point cracking the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 25. However, the team also dropped its final two games of the season and saw an average margin of defeat of 24 points in its five losses.
In this series, we will go position by position to break down Missouri's performance in 2020 and look ahead to spring football practices, which should start in March and kick off preparation for the 2021 season. Last week, we examined the running back situation. Today, we shift our attention to the wide receivers.
One of the clear priorities for Drinkwitz before he ever coached a game at Missouri was upgrading the Tigers' talent at wide receiver. Prior to last season, the coaching staff brought in two graduate transfers who would be immediately eligible to play in Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism.
The results were a mixed bag.
Hazelton and Chism got little time to gel with their new offense in the offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it showed early in the season. Chism caught just four passes across the team's first four games of the season, while Hazelton lost his spot in the starting lineup due to drops. Both improved as the season went on and showed flashes of their ability, however. Hazelton caught a few clutch passes in Missouri's comeback win over Arkansas. Chism looked like the team's most consistent receiver in the second half of the season. He caught at least five passes in five of the Tigers' last six games and finished the year as the team's leader with 35 receptions. Chism has announced that he plans to use the extra year of eligibility afforded players by the NCAA to return next season, while Hazelton has declared for the NFL Draft.
Elsewhere in the receiving corps, junior Jalen Knox looked revived by a new role in the offense, although a combination of injuries and drops hindered him down the stretch. Knox lined up largely in the slot and was utilized on a lot of short routes and running plays, rather than lining up on the outside and running deep like he did his first two seasons. Knox had at least five touches and 50 scrimmage yards in each of the first four games of the season, then never touched the ball more than four times and only eclipsed 50 yards once the rest of the way. He was joined in the slot by fellow junior Barrett Banister, who resumed his role as a reliable chains-mover. Banister caught 27 passes for 253 yards on the year.
The biggest surprise among Missouri's wideouts was redshirt sophomore Tauskie Dove, who had just two career catches prior to last season. Yet Dove emerged as the team's best downfield threat, catching 30 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns. Missouri's wideouts only accounted for three touchdowns on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air last season; Dove caught two of them. (The other, Micah Wilson's score against LSU, came on a busted coverage.) Finding more consistent deep production will be paramount for Missouri this offseason, as will cleaning up some of the drops that plagued the receiving corps in 2020, especially early in the season. In sum, the Tigers had several solid receiving options but lacked the kind of dynamic playmaker that consistently demands double-teams or the top cover corner from an opposing defense.
Departing: Damon Hazelton
Returning: Jalen Knox, Keke Chism, Tauskie Dove, Barrett Banister, Micah Wilson, Boo Smith, Chance Luper, Jay Maclin, JJ Hester, Kris Abrams-Draine
Missouri will bring almost its entire receiving corps from last season back in 2021, with only Hazelton departing. While that group doesn't include a proven alpha receiver, there's certainly reason for optimism that a full offseason of working with Drinkwitz and quarterback Connor Bazelak could boost the production of the receiving corps. It will be particularly interesting to see how last season's crop of freshmen progress. Hester was the highest-rated recruit of the bunch, but he rarely saw the field and never recorded a catch. Both Luper and Maclin made one grab, with Luper's coming in a big moment. His 69-yard catch set up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against LSU. Abrams-Draine, meanwhile, actually saw the field the most out of any of the freshmen, but mostly at positions other than wide receiver. The speedster lined up at running back, punt returner and even cornerback at various points in the year. There should be opportunity for at least one player from that group to push for a larger role this season.
Incoming: Mookie Cooper, Dominic Lovett
As mentioned above, Missouri lacked big-play ability in its wide receiver room last season. Well, the two newest additions to the group should possess no shortage of it. Cooper announced on Jan. 5 that he would transfer to Missouri from Ohio State, where he spent his first college season. He will still have four years of eligibility remaining. As a high school prospect, the St. Louis native was ranked the No. 58 player nationally and second-best player from the state of Missouri. The question, however, is whether Cooper will be able to suit up in 2021. The NCAA was widely expected to pass a one-time transfer exemption for all student-athletes earlier this month, but the vote got tabled, so as of now, Cooper would have to apply for a waiver in avoid sitting out one season. It's also worth noting that, even if Cooper gains immediate eligibility, he might not be the day-one starter some might expect, as he hasn't played in a football game since 2018. Still, Missouri could use his speed and big-play ability.
Lovett, who flipped to Missouri after originally committing to Arizona State, possesses those same qualities. The East St. Louis high product caught 73 passes for 1,541 yards and 16 touchdowns from fellow Mizzou commit Tyler Macon as a junior. Both Cooper and Lovett are built like typical slot receivers, but look for Drinkwitz to utilize them in creative ways, and possibly on special teams, as well. Both players are already enrolled at Missouri and will participate in spring practices.
Projected Starters: Jalen Knox, Keke Chism, Tauskie Dove
As of now, Cooper is not eligible for next season, so we're operating on the premise that does not change. These three players started the most games at their respective positions for Missouri last season, so they look like the safe bets to top the depth chart at Week One, but they certainly won't be excused from offseason competition. If we had to pick one player at the position most likely to start next season, it would be Chism, as he looked increasingly comfortable as last season progressed and his teammates and coaches alike raved about his work ethic last offseason. Dove could face competition from Wilson or one of the freshmen, while Knox and Banister will almost certainly split reps, regardless of who is named the starter.
Spring Practice storyline to watch: The clear number one question facing this position group is whether anyone can emerge as a consistent big-play threat, but it's unlikely we know the answer to that until Missouri actually lines up against another opponent. However, it will also be intriguing to see how Drinkwitz and receivers coach Bush Hamdan divvy up reps in the slot and move the interior receivers around the formation. Knox, Lovett, Abrams-Draine and Cooper (if he's eligible) all have similar skillsets. Banister and Maclin are both built like traditional slot receivers, as well. Obviously, all of them can't have consistent playing time at the same position, so it will be worth monitoring how the depth chart stratifies and which players are able to move around and line up on the outside of the formation (or possibly even in the backfield).
Previous Position Breakdowns:
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