Mizzou football 'on the rise': Eli Drinkwitz gives Tigers swagger and momentum | Toppmeyer
Eli Drinkwitz doesn’t care for the term underdog, not as a descriptor for his Missouri football team.
The Tigers embraced an underdog, us-against-the-world mentality in winning consecutive SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014.
Drinkwitz, Missouri’s second-year coach, prefers a twist to that mindset.
“I don’t know if underdog is the right word. I kind of like hungry dog,” Drinkwitz said during an interview with the USA TODAY Network. “I kind of think we’re a hungry university. We’ve got hungry players that are in a program that is eager to make its place in our conference.”
Whatever the term, Missouri’s program is enjoying its most momentum since those back-to-back division titles. The Tigers went 5-5 last season against a schedule featuring all SEC opponents to finish third in the East after being picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll.
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Drinkwitz is elevating Missouri’s recruiting, too. The Tigers’ 2021 recruiting class ranked 28th nationally in the 247Sports Composite, the program’s highest ranking since 2015. Nine players are committed to the 2022 class that ranks 14th nationally, as of Monday. Missouri outdueled Tennessee and Michigan State to earn a commitment from four-star quarterback Sam Horn, a top-100 prospect from Suwanee, Georgia.
“I think we’re on the rise,” Drinkwitz said.
And a coach with a self-described chip on his shoulder is hungry for his program to become a bigger disruption within a conference it joined in 2012 as a geographic outlier from the Big 12.
“I’m not going to wait for the SEC to make room for us,” Drinkwitz said. “We’re here, so let’s go be the very best that we can be and don’t care who it makes mad in the rest of the conference.”
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“I can tell you, Coach Smart and Coach Mullen don’t really care if Mizzou has any success or not. They’d prefer if we didn’t,” Drinkwitz added, referring to Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Florida coach Dan Mullen. “I’m not going to wait for their permission.”
Eli Drinkwitz is fueled by an ‘outsider’ status
Drinkwitz, 38, looks more like whom you’d expect to find in an H&R Block cubicle than on an SEC sideline.
The 5-foot-10 coach with black-rimmed spectacles joins Mississippi State’s Mike Leach as the SEC’s only coaches who did not play college football.
“I definitely think I’m an outsider, just in college football in general. I’m a high school coach who’s gotten an opportunity to coach college football, and I’ve worked extremely hard to get here," said Drinkwitz, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in Alma, Arkansas, where he started his career as a high school assistant coach.
Drinkwitz maintains a line of communication with Gary Pinkel, who retired in 2015 after 15 seasons at Missouri as the winningest coach in program history.
Unlike the understated Pinkel, Drinkwitz oozes bravado and swagger.
In a moment recorded on video and posted to the team’s Twitter account, Drinkwitz celebrated the February 2020 signing of cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr., who had Alabama and Texas offers, with a series of war cries, fist pumps and hugs.
He goaded Arkansas, saying the “school south of us” kept targeting the recruits to whom Missouri had offered scholarships.
After improving to 3-3 through six games last season, Drinkwitz admitted he had gained motivation by taking screenshots of predictions that said Missouri would win only two games all year.
Drinkwitz insists that what you see isn’t false bravado.
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“My strength is understanding who I am,” he said. “I don’t morph to the environment. This is who I am. This is who I’m going to be. You can kind of take it or leave it.”
Drinkwitz had one season of head coaching experience – he led Appalachian State to the Sun Belt Conference championship in 2019 – before Missouri hired him. He replaced Barry Odom, fired after going 25-25 in four seasons.
Odom was foiled, in part, by an inability to sign enough of the state’s top recruits. That’s changing under Drinkwitz. Missouri signed five of the 247Sports Composite’s top 11 in-state prospects in its 2021 recruiting class, and its 2022 recruiting class features commitments from three four-star prospects from the St. Louis area.
“Your foundation is only going to be as good as your home-state recruiting,” Drinkwitz said.
Missouri Tigers suffered key losses, but return solid core
Peel back a layer on Missouri’s 5-5 record last season, and you see the work left to do. The five losses were by an average margin of 24 points. That included losses to the conference’s elite – Alabama, Florida and Georgia – but also to unranked foes Tennessee and Mississippi State.
“We just want to make sure that everybody understands that we didn’t meet the standard of who we want to be moving forward at Mizzou,” Drinkwitz said. “We want to be a team that competes for the SEC East, and we fell short of that.”
Five Tigers were selected in the NFL Draft this spring. Among them: their best defensive player (linebacker Nick Bolton) from 2020, along with their leading rusher (Larry Rountree III) and best offensive lineman (Larry Borom).
But 13 offensive and defensive starters return, headlined by quarterback Connor Bazelak, who completed 67.3% of his passes last season as redshirt freshman.
The Tigers boast an experienced defensive line, and Drinkwitz is counting on veterans Devin Nicholson and Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge, a two-time first-team All-Conference USA selection, to fill Bolton’s void.
Meanwhile, the university and its donors are showing support for a program entering its 10th season in the SEC, where the facilities arms race never relents.
The university’s board of curators in May approved the construction of a $33 million indoor practice facility that’s scheduled to open in December 2022, alongside the $98 million team and stadium facility that opened in 2019.
“I think we have some good momentum right now,” Drinkwitz said, “and we’re working extremely hard to capture it.”
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.