Eli Drinkwitz had a clear message when he met with his team during its weekly Tuesday afternoon meeting: This is no longer business as usual. After Missouri’s 62-24 drubbing at the hands of Tennessee on Saturday, some things needed to change.
Some of those adjustments were already visible when Drinkwitz met with local media for his weekly press conference on Tuesday. The normally verbose second-year coach was short with most of his answers. For the first time this season, he didn’t provide a depth chart, saying who sees the field when Missouri hosts North Texas on Saturday will be determined by the team’s practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. He also declined to make defensive coordinator Steve Wilks or any defensive players available for interviews during their normal Tuesday afternoon availability. Right guard Case Cook and punter Grant McKinniss were the only players to speak.
“It’s not business as usual,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s not business as the previous five weeks. It’s kind of like fall camp again. Whoever plays and practices the best is going to be who plays Saturday.”
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The most drastic change came less than 24 hours after the conclusion of Missouri’s loss. Drinkwitz relieved first-year defensive line coach Jethro Franklin of his duties on Sunday. The move came after a defense that had struggled mightily against the run all season bottomed out, surrendering 452 rushing yards, 667 total yards and 45 first-half points to Tennessee. Missouri now ranks last nationally in rush defense, allowing 308.4 yards per game on the ground, and No. 127 out of 130 teams in total defense.
Drinkwitz said he fired Franklin not just because of issues that appeared Saturday, but when he reflected on the first five weeks of the season, “it was clear to me that there was a disconnect at the line of scrimmage, and I believed that change was needed.”
“Jethro is a good coach, he is a man of character, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out and wasn’t the right fit,” Drinkwitz said. “The timing is not good, but I believe it was necessary and needed to occur and so I made the decision. It was my decision, my decision alone, and I made that decision to move forward in a different direction in the defensive line.”
Asked to elaborate about the disconnect between Franklin and his players, Drinkwitz simply said whatever Franklin was doing wasn’t working. He characterized the players on the defensive line as disappointed but understanding when they heard the news.
Defensive analyst Al Davis, who played on the defensive line at Arkansas from 2009-12 and coached defensive tackles at Illinois last season, will take over as interim defensive line coach. Drinkwitz expressed optimism that a fresh voice could rejuvenate the position group.
“Recharge us, re-energize us,” he said when asked what Davis could bring to his new position. “Maybe a new focus. Try to rally and get everybody on the same page. I felt like this was something that I could do as the head football coach to try to create change.”
Davis might not be the only new face in a more prominent role when Missouri takes the field for its annual Homecoming game against North Texas on Saturday. Drinkwitz stressed that there will be an open competition for playing time on Tuesday and Wednesday. All players will have an opportunity to play a larger role, he said, even ones who previously appeared destined to play in four games or fewer and redshirt.
“We’re trying to be 1-0 this week,” he said, “and whatever it takes to be 1-0 and whoever it takes to be 1-0 is what we’re going to do.”
While Drinkwitz is intent on shaking some things up this week, there’s a limit to how much he plans to change. For one thing, Wilks remains in his defensive coordinator role. The only time Drinkwitz was asked a question specifically about Wilks and what has gone wrong on his side of the ball, he answered “we’re working really hard to solve that right now.”
But that doesn’t mean Drinkwitz will spend more time than usual working with the defensive side of the ball during practices or meetings this week. Drinkwitz, who doubles as Missouri’s offensive coordinator and play-caller, said he can’t afford to neglect that side of the ball after the Tigers mustered just 17 offensive points against Tennessee.
“I got my hands full fixing the offense from Saturday,” he said. “So I got to make sure that the offense is right. I’ll still do normal head coaching things that I do as far as having team meetings and go to where I’m at on the football field at certain times of practice, but I’m not going to change what we were doing. If I get distracted by that, we’ve got other issues.”
If there’s good news for Missouri, it’s that the competition shouldn’t be quite as stiff this weekend. North Texas comes to Columbia 1-3, having lost its three matchups with FBS opponents this season by an average of 22 points. The Mean Green have, however, shown an ability to run the ball, which could be cause for concern for the Tiger defense. Led by tailback DeAndre Torrey, who is averaging 129 yards on the ground through four games, North Texas has rushed for 208 yards per contest.
Drinkwitz said he sees some similarities between the Mean Green’s spread attack and the one Tennessee used to gash Missouri last weekend.
“Offensively, they run a similar style to Tennessee,” he said. “Not as much tempo, but after what happened last week, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t pick it up. RPOs, run pass options. And so it’s a challenge.”
Whether or not Missouri can rise to that challenge will determine the success of Drinkwitz’s shake-ups. He acknowledged Tuesday that his talk about business as usual being out the window doesn’t matter if the usual results ensue.
“I think our team is trying, but right now, it’s a lot of talk,” Drinkwitz said. “We gotta quit talking. It’s me, everybody. We gotta fix it.”
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