Year two of the Connor Bazelak era as Missouri quarterback is in its early days, but it’s easily shaping up to be less chaotic than the first season.
COVID-19 is a lingering but more controlled problem. Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz is also in his second year, and Bazelak — barring something unexpected — is the surefire starter. Bazelak won the job last year away from fall camp winner Shawn Robinson after the first game. Robinson is playing safety now in a twist of events, while the rest of signal-callers on the depth chart have seven passes between them.
Bazelak has the tools, ones that helped him capture the Southeastern Conference co-freshman of the year distinction last season.
“Summer has been great,” Bazelak, now a redshirt sophomore, said during Missouri’s media day on Thursday. “I think I can just focus on the guys around me, I just need to focus on myself and perform well the first couple days of camp. But I really can get the other guys going around me, and I think that’ll really help as a team.”
Bazelak’s possible further development is center stage as fall practices begin Friday. But the growth of his supporting cast is notable as well.
Directly behind him at the snap is senior tailback Tyler Badie, the expected starter after three years as a versatile option on offense behind current NFL running backs Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III. Badie has gained 10 to 12 pounds of muscle in the offseason in preparation for being the bell-cow back. His career single-game high in carries is 16, which he had in 2019 at Wyoming.
Running backs coach Curtis Luper told media on Wednesday that sophomore Elijah Young is likely behind Badie, with the rest of the depth chart at running back wide open.
“(Damarea and Larry) did a lot of things that I just observed,” Badie said. “It wasn’t really verbally; sometimes they’d help me with the playbook, this and that, but really just watching them. Larry was always available, so that’s a big thing. He never got hurt, so he never came off the field. So just watching him and being able to incorporate that into my game.”
Bazelak’s options at wideout include some brand new additions.
No Missouri receiver had more than 500 yards or two touchdowns through the air last season. Nor was Bazelak very productive throwing the deep ball (28% on throws more than 20 yards). So Drinkwitz emphasized getting speed at the position in the offseason.
He certainly got it with Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper and four-star freshman Dominic Lovett. The coaching staff and Bazelak have raved about the agility and explosiveness of both. Such explosiveness could also open up opportunities underneath for possession-based receivers such as grad student Keke Chism and redshirt junior Tauskie Dove.
“Each receiver in the receiver room brings a different dynamic that is definitely critical for each other’s success,” Chism said. “You look at (Mookie and Dominic): They have great ability to stretch the field, so it’s definitely going to open up some other passing lanes for other guys to get open to make plays. Just being able to count on each other to always do their job, whatever it may be, it’s ultimately gonna make the receiver room and the team better.”
As for line protection directly in front of him, Bazelak would seem in good hands with his center and roommate Michael Maietti, who returned for his sixth season and fifth as a power-conference starter between Missouri and Rutgers. Veterans on either side at guard in redshirt senior Case Cook on the right and likely either Xavier Delgado or Luke Griffin on the left add to the Tigers’ protection directly up the gut.
As for the edges, numerous players are in competition for the two starting tackle slots:Returners Hyrin White, Javon Foster, Bobby Lawrence, Zeke Powell, and Montana State transfer Connor Wood have all started games at the college level. Maietti and Cook have felt they’ve taken responsibility to make sure the five on the line stay prepared for what’s to come.
“My way of going at things is just nipping it in the bud right away,” Cook said. “The times I haven’t nipped it in the bud right away, it’s been a consistent problem that’s ended up coming back around, whether that’s in football or life in general. … That’s kind of my leadership approach … and sometimes it’s not always the prettiest.”
Will it mean an attractive style of football for an offense that averaged 26.7 points per game last year, smack dab in the middle (seventh) of the SEC?
For a guy who’s played a lot of college football like Maietti, he sees no reason why it can’t be.
“It’s going to be very explosive,” Maietti said of the offense. “It’s going to be exciting to watch. That’s why coming back for this year was a no-brainer. With Coach Drink, (offensive line) Coach (Marcus) Johnson and Bazelak (and) all the weapons we have on offense, it’s going to be very exciting this year.”