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Behind Enemy Lines: Missouri Athletics beat writer Eric Blum discusses CMU game

Mizzou Tigers vs. Arkansas Razorbacks at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics

Central Michigan Life's Christian Booher spoke with Missouri beat writer Eric Blum from the Columbia Daily Tribune to preview Central Michigan's 4 p.m. Sept. 4 game against the Tigers at Memorial Stadium. 

Missouri was 5-5 in the 2020 conference-only season. The matchup with the Chippewas will be the start to head coach Eli Drinkwitz's second season with the program.

CMU and Missouri have never played. 

Blum discussed the trajectory of the program under Drinkwitz, potential breakout players, quarterback Connor Bazelak and more in this exclusive Q&A. 

*Note -- These responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

What is there to know abou Missouri heading into week one? 

A lot of questions. Missouri seems to be pretty strong at every position but without a huge star. They basically are deep but there’s a lot of questions outside of quarterback. We know Connor Bazelak is gonna be the starter. He was picked third-team All-SEC in the preseason and was the Freshman of the Year. Seems to be a really promising prospect, really in line with Missouri quarterbacks they’ve had. 

Running back Tyler Badie is in his fourth season at Mizzou, but his first as a starter and there’s some questions as to whether he’s durable enough to be the main guy. The wide receiver room is deep but with no star, same with the offensive line, tight ends, defensive line. 

The defense as a whole is kind of a big question mark. They switched from Ryan Walters to Steve Wilks, former Arizona Cardinals head coach and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator. We know he’s switching from a man-to-man scheme to a zone, which allows more high-risk plays to happen to you, but also allows more points and potential to score on defense.

As of now, a lot more questions than we usually have this time of year. Some of that’s COVID, some of that’s the coaching staff and some of that’s just happenstance. Missouri looks to be strong but not incredibly strong.

Are there any players you believe are due for a breakout season?

Their biggest star outside of Bazelak is probably Trajan Jeffcoat, he’ll be on the defensive line. He was first team All-SEC last season and is probably the biggest star on that defense and definitely has NFL potential. I don’t want to call it a breakout season because everybody at Missouri already knows how good he is, but I don’t think the league as a whole knows how good he is. I don’t think the country knows how good he is. He’s definitely one of the best defensive linemen in the league, and being one of the best defensive linemen in the SEC probably makes you one of the best in the country. 

Somebody nobody’s talking about that I think is gonna have a breakout season is Keke Chism, a wide receiver. Division II transfer but he came in late during the COVID season so this is his first full season in Columbia. He’s 6-foot-5, gotta be 215, just an absolute matchup nightmare. He only had about 450 yards but was Missouris’s leader. I think he’ll have a big, breakout season. 

Going back to defense, they got two Tulsa transfers at cornerback: Caleb Evans and Allie Green IV. I expect both of them to contribute to a room that’s pretty young.

I know the wide receiver, redshirt freshman and Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper, was a top-100 prospect out of the St. Louis area and Eli Drinkwitz was able to bring him back after he didn’t get much playing time in 2019. He was a little banged up in camp but looks to be a really impressive guy who can play in the slot and is really gonna expand their vertical passing game. 

What are some of Missouri's weaknesses?

One is just inexperience, overall. This group has not been truly tested together. With what was going on last year and essentially an entirely new coaching staff in 2019, this group as a whole has not been tested enough to compete in the SEC. The cracks willshow, it’s just a matter of where they are. 

I think the offensive line is still a bit of a question mark. They’ve got experience there, Mike Maietti is gonna play for his sixth year in college and has started all of them at center. Right guard Case Cook is a team captain for the second year in a row and was really good but they weren’t great last year. 

Finding who that go-to person is going to be, we really don’t know. When the game is on the line, when Missouri needs a big fourth down conversion, who is that guy going to be? It could be Chism or Cooper, I think those are great options. But last year, and probably the couple years before that, it was kind of a given that it was either going to be a pass to Albert Okwuebunam or it was going to be a handoff to Larry Rountree. Neither of those guys are on the team anymore. 

So who’s your go-to person? Obviously, it can’t be your quarterback. He can throw it to someone or hand the ball off because he is very much a pocket quarterback. Bazelak is not going to do many run plays himself even though he’s capable of it. 

How has the program changed since Eli Drinkwitz took over as head coach?

Under Barry Odom everything was looked at as a glass half empty kind of vision. Under Drinkwitz, everything is glass half full. Every single thing. Just look at their records. Barry Odom went 6-6 in 2019 and everybody wanted him gone -- and he got fired. Eli Drinkwitz only went 5-5 in 2020. Yes, the circumstances are different. A couple of possessions go different against Tennessee and Mississippi State, and he’s 7-3 and the only three losses were to Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Those are three pretty good teams. 

In terms of momentum behind the program and the life in the program, Drinkwitz is as good a coach as I’ve ever seen, probably equal to Lane Kiffin in terms of the public relations part of his job. He knows how to sell his program, sell his players and sell himself as the face of Missouri football to engage the fan base. And results obviously help that and losses hurt, but there’s more public momentum behind Mizzou football than there’s been probably since Gary Pinkell was there and they won the SEC East in 2013 and 14. It’s not quite there, but it’s as close to there as it’s been since. 

A lot of that has to do with Drinkwitz’s recruiting. Drinkwitz is recruiting at a level that Missouri has never recruited at before. People around Columbia now are disappointed when we just get good three-star kids. That’s absurd, as three-star kids are very much Power Five ready. But you’re now bringing in four stars, and Missouri hasn’t signed a five-star yet, it’s just like Drinkwitz is landing people Missouri has never landed before, or landed very sparingly. There’s a lot of momentum behind everything he’s doing.

It’s 100 percent on the upswing, it’s just a very hard curve when you’re on the upswing in the SEC. Missouri could finish third in the SEC East this year and that would be a phenomenal year for them. But they still have a ways to go to keep up with Georgia and Florida. 

What is the offense's ceiling with Connor Bazelak at quarterback?

His ceiling this year is first team All-SEC. I think he can be an absolute game changer at quarterback for them. His worst is falling on his face. I don’t think that will happen but it could. He doesn’t have a full season under his belt as a starter yet, but he has all the intangibles to be a solid, successful college quarterback for several years. And if Missouri’s going to go 8-4, like they probably have a shot at, Connor Bazelak’s gonna need to be an integral part of that. 

Missouri’s wide receivers and running backs are not going to take a lot of the load off him. There’s not that dynamic guy who’s gonna shoulder the load, this is Connor’s offense. If Connor sputters, Missouri will sputter. If Connor succeeds, Missouri will succeed. 

I’d be shocked, unless he gets injured and is out for the year, if I look back in December and Connor Bazelak’s way of doing things isn’t Missouri’s way of doing things. If that doesn’t hold true in December I’d be very shocked. 

Score prediction: 

Missouri 45, CMU 17