Mizzou's Eli Drinkwitz trades play-calling for the job's bigger demands

Jul 23, 2023
From the day Missouri hired football coach Eli Drinkwitz in December 2019, the school lauded his expertise as an offensive brainiac, calling the 36-year-old “one of college football’s top offensive minds” in his introductory news release.
Whether that remains true is beside the point as Drinkwitz prepares for his fourth and most pivotal season as the captain of Mizzou’s ship. But the No. 1 line on his credentials back when Mizzou hired him from Appalachian State has lost some heft.
Drinkwitz’s three Missouri teams have produced a few all-SEC playmakers — former tailback Tyler Badie and wideout Dominic Lovett, now at Georgia — but were ranked only Nos. 78, 60 and 86 in points per game among FBS teams, respectively. Broken down by yards per play, the Tigers have been far from elite, ranking No. 67 in 2020 and 2021 and No. 87 last year.
His 2019 Appalachian State team was among the country’s best offenses, scoring 38.8 points per game, No. 9 in the country, but in three years as North Carolina State’s coordinator from 2016-18, Drinkwitz’s most potent team ranked No. 31 in scoring (33.8 points per game) and No. 43 in yards (6.06 per play). Good, not consistently great.
All of that carries less weight as 2023 looms because ... Drinkwitz fired his offensive coordinator this offseason.
For the first time in five seasons as a head coach, Drinkwitz will employ an offensive coordinator this fall: first-year assistant Kirby Moore, who’s also coaching Mizzou’s quarterbacks. Moore will call the plays on game days, too. Drinkwitz will have some say in the direction of the offense, but as a head coach in 2023 — with roster management a never-ending priority like never before — he’s got more plates to spin than he has hands.
“We have a sign in our team room that says, ‘Embrace your role. Put the team first,’” Drinkwitz said last week at SEC media days in Nashville. “At the end of the season, it was clear to me that we were ineffective on the offensive side of the ball, and it starts with being retrospective on what do you do as the leader of the team, as the leader of the offensive side of the ball. What are the issues? I wasn’t giving us the best advantage that we could have offensively to be successful, and so it was my estimation that I needed to embrace my role more as the head coach and do the things that needed to be done there and turn over the play-calling to somebody else.
“I do not plan on calling plays. I plan on being involved on the offensive side of the ball just like I am on special teams and on the defensive side of the ball as the CEO of the organization.”
He’s not the only one making that call in the Southeastern Conference.
Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, who for years resisted relinquishing his play-calling, has hired former Arkansas and Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino to handle that role. Or at least we think. Fisher’s explanation of the Aggies’ play-calling mechanics was notably clunky in Nashville. Down at Auburn, first-year coach Hugh Freeze, once renowned as the rare play-caller who could bamboozle Alabama’s Nick Saban, has turned over the play sheet to his coordinator, former Tulsa head coach Philip Montgomery.
“I think once upon a time I was probably one of the better play callers in college football,” Freeze said. “Obviously better players make you a better play caller. I don’t know that I was the greatest play caller or one of the best play callers the last few years at Liberty. I managed the game really well and gave our kids a chance to obviously win some huge games, and we were really good on defense, and I kind of played to that. But coming back knowing what was all-encompassing to bring Auburn back, sitting in the chair that I have to sit in, I needed help.”
The transition might not be so seamless in College Station, Texas. In Nashville, Fisher declined to elaborate on how things will work with Petrino taking over his offense.
“I’m not going to sit here and say exactly what we’re going to do or how we’re going to do it,” Fisher said. “We’ll have a good plan.”
Last season, Drinkwitz’s offense continued to sputter while his other duties expanded. For Drinkwitz, now 40, the job as a Power Five head coach has changed so much in a short amount of time, he accepted that he’d spread himself too thin. His first few years at Mizzou he served as head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
With the advent of name, image and likeness compensation for college athletes, combined with the constant roster churn via the transfer portal, Drinkwitz also became the team’s de facto general manager. To fully maximize the school’s NIL machine, he’s had to work closely with state lawmakers, university boosters and the school’s NIL collective, leaving fewer hours in the day to design third-down red-zone plays.
When Mizzou extended Drinkwitz’s contract with a 50% raise last fall — he’ll make $6 million this year — the administration also increased his staff salary pool, giving him the resources to hire a coordinator if a staff position opened. That came in December when receivers coach Bush Hamdan left for the coordinator position at Boise State. (Hamdan had taken over Mizzou’s play-calling late in the regular season.)
Drinkwitz went with Moore, fresh off an impressive season calling plays for 10-win Fresno State, where he developed current New Orleans Saints rookie quarterback Jake Haener. Moore, who signed to a three-year deal with an average salary of $875,000, isn’t expected to drastically change the structure of Drinkwitz’s pro-tempo-style offense, but he’ll have his own twists and flavors with a focus on stretching the field vertically. Fresno’s passing game averaged 8.0 yards per attempt last season with an efficiency rating of 149.9 — far better averages than Mizzou’s single-season figures each of the last three years.
“The thing that I really appreciated about Kirby even in the interview process was there’s a similar thought process in how we attack,” Drinkwitz said. “But obviously, he’s calling the plays, so it’ll be his design. He now has the ability with (offensive line coach Brandon) Jones in the run game to really match what he wants to do throwing the ball, protection-wise, play-action-wise, with what we’re going to be in the run game. Our guys had a really good summer making sure they understand the different presentation pieces that we’ll present our offense. I’m excited about being attacking. I think that’s the biggest thing is we gotta be an attacking style offense.
“He’s an absolute grinder, loves to watch tape, is a tremendous teacher, low-ego, high-output kind of guy,” Drinkwitz added. “I tell him all the time, ‘If we can just average one more touchdown a game, we’re going to be in really happy at the end of the season.’”
Spoken like a head coach whose team lost four games by a touchdown or less last season with an offense, Mizzou hopes, is left in the past.

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