Offensive prowess was a large part of what got Eliah Drinkwitz hired as Missouri’s head football coach last December.
At the high school and college levels, he coached four different offensive position groups and led the offenses of four different programs before taking his first head coaching job at Appalachian State in 2019.
Despite that experience, there was one task Drinkwitz had yet to tackle as a college head coach when he took the Missouri job: rebuilding a program and its struggling offense.
Drinkwitz said Tuesday he didn’t know if he’s “put his stamp” on Missouri, but he thinks the team is “starting to develop an identity of who (it) wants to be moving forward.” At least some of that identity has shown itself in the “pro tempo” offense Drinkwitz has sold since his introductory press conference. Through five games, it’s coming into form — bit by bit, at least.
However, from the time he was hired until Missouri’s Week 1 game against Alabama, it was unclear what Drinkwitz’s version of a Missouri offense might look like. His top-10 offense at Appalachian State in 2019 and his North Carolina State offense that saw year-to-year improvement from 2016 to 2018 were largely dependent on personnel.
With uncertainties and newcomers at key positions for the Missouri offense coming into this season, it left a lot of room to imagine this new-look style. Besides, what does it mean for an offense to be “pro tempo” anyway?
“It’s pro ideals with a college spirit, if that makes any sense,” tight ends coach Casey Woods said in August.
Without a chance to see this offense in real time, it didn’t make much sense then.
“There’s great structure, but then there’s a spirit about it that’s got a little bit of different things,” Woods continued. “You can present different looks and different plays and different motions, and you can do that while still keeping the fundamental techniques of a blue-collar football team. We can have (a) downhill power run game and still be able to do that out of a bunch of different looks, bunch of different personnels.”
At the midway point of the season, Missouri has shown that variety, whether it be in the ability to rely on multiple playmakers or in creative play design.
Schematically, the biggest building block — and freshest concept — that Drinkwitz’s staff has established has been the offense’s use of misdirection, specifically sending players in motion.
In its past three games, the Missouri offense has used pre-snap motion on just under half of its plays. During the three-game stretch, 42 of Missouri’s 54 points scored on offense have come on plays using pre-snap motion.
The film and stats also show some players finding new success.
The biggest personnel shakeup has been with receiver Jalen Knox. He’s been utilized in an entirely different way this season, moving from wideout to a slot position, and it has made him a statistical standout. Through five games, he has 236 receiving yards on 22 catches as well as 78 yards rushing on eight attempts. In comparison, he finished last season with 307 yards of total offense.
“I think we just try to tap into his playmaking abilities and find unique ways to get him the football,” Drinkwitz said of the receiver in October. “We’re just always challenging ourselves: ‘What are ways that we can get him on the perimeter? What are ways we can get him mismatched on different (defensive backs)?’ And he delivers.”
The switch to the slot, which Knox said came with transfer receiver Keke Chism’s arrival, has allowed him to work the field both vertically as a pass-catcher and sideline-to-sideline as a runner.
The motion offense has reinvented the use of the tight end position for Missouri as well. After three seasons of Albert Okwuegbunam catching passes game in and game out, the position has taken a new form as an understated role for Daniel Parker.
The tight end often finds himself lined up in the backfield, being used as a lead blocker for ball carriers. He’s only recorded a couple of catches this season, but beyond the offensive line, he’s arguably the most important blocker in the Missouri offense.
Motion can work in several ways for an offense, including confusing defenders or setting an edge for rushers, but Missouri uses it as a way to establish offense. The Tigers have been using pre-snap motion early and often, and it sets up the entirety of the offense’s success.
Against LSU, more than half of Missouri’s snaps on its first three drives used pre-snap motion, but its usage declined throughout the remainder of the game. Against Kentucky, more than two-thirds of Missouri’s plays on its first three drives used pre-snap motion.
But as Missouri shies away from the pre-snap motion later in games, its offense sustains success, likely because the opponent’s defense is off-kilter. Specifically looking at those games, Missouri outgained itself by 140 yards when it wasn’t using pre-snap motion.
As Missouri gets over the hump of this unusual season, it will be interesting to see how the offense continues to change and grow. Although the use of motion, trick plays and standout individual performances are positives, there’s still a lot of room for the offense to build on its first-half success.
Running back Tyler Badie, who is both a suitable runner and pass-catcher, has underwhelmed to this point. He’s shown flashes of success, namely with a big game against LSU, but he hasn’t been as consistent as many may have expected.
Receivers Chism and Damon Hazelton, both of whom garnered a fair amount of preseason hype, have yet to make the seismic waves some expected them to in this offense.
If Missouri can utilize the likes of Badie, Chism and Hazelton as much as it did Knox and Rountree in the first half of this season, the “pro tempo” offense could reach its full potential.