Too early to call Mizzou's QB battle but upgrades in talent, depth become clear

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The rain didn’t let up Tuesday morning and sent the Tigers back into their palatial new Stephens Indoor Facility.
Some quick thoughts and observations on Mizzou’s offense after two days of camp …
You don’t need to be Mel Kiper Jr. to watch a Mizzou practice and figure out the Tigers have upgraded the quarterback position. Compared to the past three seasons under Eli Drinkwitz, this is the best assemblage of talent he’s had at the sport’s most important position. And possibly the best depth. Who’s going to win the job? Too early to tell, but in Brady Cook, Sam Horn, Jake Garcia and even junior college transfer Dylan Laible you’ve got what sure looks like four competent passers, with varying degrees of upside in terms of arm strength and athleticism. That hasn’t been the case the last three seasons.
In 2020, Eli Drinkwitz began the year with TCU transfer Shawn Robinson as his starter. That lasted all of a game and a half. By season’s end he moved to safety then transferred to Kansas State. Connor Bazelak turned in a promising redshirt freshman year with freshman Brady Cook as his backup along with junior college transfer/walk-on Jack Samsel.
In 2021, Bazelak returned as the incumbent starter, backed up by Cook, four-star freshman Tyler Macon and two more walk-ons, Samsel and Tommy Lock. Bazelak fought through an injury while Cook and Macon earned a few appearances off the bench. The staff liked Macon’s speed and athleticism, but he wasn’t polished as a passer.
In 2022, Bazelak left for Indiana — as a Hoosier, he threw 13 TDs, 10 interceptions, had another injury and eventually transferred to Bowling Green — setting up a camp competition between Cook, Macon, four-star freshman Sam Horn and seventh-year senior Jack Abraham, a former starter at Southern Miss — a classic veteran insurance policy. Drinkwitz named Cook his starter a week into camp with Abraham as the top backup. Macon had a few cameos as a decoy on fourth-down plays while Horn played just one series late in the year against New Mexico State. Should Drinkwitz have played the youngsters sooner, especially given Cook hurt his shoulder in Week 2? That’s still up for debate, but it’s a moot point now. Macon promptly entered the transfer portal after the season but didn’t attract Power Five offers, instead signing with FCS program Alcorn State.
Now it’s 2023 and Cook returns with a surgically repaired shoulder. He’s a proven team leader who’s widely admired in the locker room. Horn is back, more mature and brimming with confidence and eager to show off his arm talent. The portal produced Garcia, another former four-star recruit who appeared in eight games at Miami last fall. He’s got a live arm and more scrambling ability than his Miami rushing stats indicate. He certainly carries himself with some moxie. Not a bad thing at his position. Laible, who’s 6-4, same as Horn, was a prolific passer at Hutchinson Community College. SEC starter material? Maybe not, but how many Power Five teams go four-deep at quarterback? Then there’s freshman Gabarri Johnson, a 5-10 dual-threat rookie from Tacoma, Washington. He stuck with his commitment to Mizzou even after his primary recruiter, former offensive assistant Bush Hamdan, left the staff for Boise State. Will he develop into an SEC starter? Impossible to know after two college practices. But there’s promise there.
On Tuesday, media got to watch the first nine periods of practice. The quarterbacks throw a lot of passes in a variety of drills — but none against a defense when the media’s around. Be wary of any armchair QB analysis of passing reps against air. But the improved depth and across-the-board talent are impossible to miss. The Tigers run a drill where five quarterbacks snag a shotgun snap at the same time, roll out of the pocket simultaneously and fire passes to receivers running routes at different depths. They have enough QBs this year that one guy has to sit out each rotation. That hasn't always been the case.
Now it’s on Drinkwitz and coordinator/QB coach Kirby Moore to figure out the starter — and the top backup. Drinkwitz measures quarterbacks on five qualities: toughness, preparation, decision-making, accuracy and leadership. There’s an extra emphasis on the fourth quality this year, especially on deeper routes.
“We’ve got to be accurate throwing the football and that's not just underneath,” Drinkwitz said Sunday. “We’ve got to be more accurate down the field. We’ve got to be more accurate throwing the football down the field.”
Mizzou appears to be developing some quality depth across the offensive line. New O-line coach Brandon Jones has some decisions to make for the starting five, but you can count on left tackle Javon Foster and right guard Armand Membou as starters. Left guard Xavier Delgado is seasoned with 28 career starts. Marcellus Johnson was a three-year starter at Eastern Michigan and now makes the transition from left to right tackle.
The big competition remains at center where 2022 starter Connor Tollison is battling with Houston transfer Cam’Ron Johnson, a converted guard. Tollison has taken first-team reps the first two days. A couple redshirt freshmen are worth watching on the second unit with a chance to push for first-team snaps: right tackle Valen Erickson and left guard Tristan Wilson. MaKyi Lee, a 2022 junior college addition, could have the inside track as the No. 2 left tackle. Then there’s right guard EJ Ndoma-Ogar, who looked strong last year before a season-ending knee injury.
Two newcomers earned their jersey numbers for Tuesday’s practice: defensive end Nyles Gaddy, No. 21, and and slot receiver Daniel Blood with No. 16.
(It's been 18 years since Brad Smith took a snap for the Tigers, but it's still a little strange seeing someone other than the QB legend wear No. 16 for Mizzou.)
Let’s talk receiver. This offense puts the ball in the slot receiver’s hands a lot. Dominic Lovett and Barrett Banister played the most slot snaps last year among all Mizzou receivers and combined for 134 targets and 100 catches for 1,303 yards. They ranked Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in receiving yards. In Moore’s Fresno State offense last year, the two primary slot receivers, Nikko Remigio and Erik Brooks, combined for 152 targets and 111 catches for 1,243 yards.
The 2023 Tigers have some weapons at the inside receiver position, starting with Luther Burden III and Mekhi Miller. Blood could push for the No. 3 job there, while fellow freshmen wideouts Joshua Manning and Marquis Johnson play on the outside.
Speaking of Burden, we’ll touch on the former five-star phenom more in the coming days, but he said Sunday he reported to camp at 205 pounds. That’s 10 pounds lighter than his 2022 playing weight. “I was too big. I’m faster and just feel lighter now,” he said. Burden credited his diet for the change and especially feels the difference getting in and out of his breaks.

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