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Mizzou in Review: Growing pains for rebuilt receiver corps

Mizzou in Review: Growing pains for rebuilt receiver corps

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — We continue our review of Mizzou’s 2020 season with a glance back at the pass-catchers, a remade group of wide receivers and a stash of holdover tight ends. As we did Monday with the offensive line, we’ll review snap counts and grades from Pro Football Focus.

Monday: Offensive line

Tuesday: Wide receivers/tight ends

Wednesday: Quarterback/running backs

Thursday: Defensive line/linebackers

Friday: Secondary

First, the team’s receiving grade for the season came in at 71.4, which ranked No. 7 in the SEC and No. 23 among the 65 Power Five teams. That’s considerable progress from last year and stands as the second-best season for MU pass-catching in the last six years. Here’s how the team receiving grades look:

2020: 71.4, No. 7 SEC, No. 23 Power Five

2019: 57.3, No. 12 SEC, No. 57 Power Five

2018: 71.7, No. 10 SEC, No. 35 Power Five

2017: 75.1, No. 3 SEC, No. 18 Power Five

2016: 65.2, No. 13 SEC, No. 46 Power Five

2015: 55.7, No. 13 SEC, No. 61 Power Five

Let’s look at the season snap counts for wide receivers and tight ends:

Wide receivers

KeKe Chism 491

Tauskie Dove 417

Barrett Banister 332

Jalen Knox 300

Damon Hazelton 245

Micah Wilson 107

Boo Smith 101

Dominic Gicinto 43

Chance Luper 21

Jay Maclin 12

Kris Abrams-Draine 8

Tight ends

Niko Hea 400

Daniel Parker Jr. 270

Logan Christopherson 139

Messiah Swinson 60

Shawn Hendershot 6

Kibet Chepyator 2

Let’s start with the two graduate transfer receivers, whose statistics looked similar by year's end but had two very different seasons.

Chism, a grad transfer from Division II Angelo State, started every game, played more snaps than all but six offensive players and finished the season with the team’s most receptions (35) and most receiving yards (458) while playing nine of MU’s 10 games. Among the five core receivers in MU’s rotation this year — Chism, Dove Hazelton, Banister, Knox — Chism had the group’s third-highest overall grade (66.5) and the third-best receiving grade (69.5). Chism led the team with 22 first downs. It was a slow start for Chism, who gradually became Connor Bazelak’s favorite outside target. Chism was targeted just seven times through Mizzou’s first three games — but was targeted 27 times over the last three games. He was the very definition of a possession receiver. He caught a high volume of passes and moved the chains better than anyone on the team but there wasn’t much production after the catch. Chism averaged just 4.2 yards after the catch per reception. On third downs, he caught just seven passes for 84 yards for four first-down conversions, far from the team leader in any of those categories.

It added up to a solid debut season after a sluggish start while the offense was finding its way. Don’t overlook the fact that the offense went through a quarterback transition in the season’s first month. Eli Drinkwitz touted Chism as an NFL player two months before the Tigers played their first game, surely leading to some outsized expectations for the transfer. But Chism can build on his strong finish. Shortly after the season he announced plans to return for 2021 to take advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility.

Hazelton decided against returning for 2021 and will make himself available for the NFL draft after a disjointed one-and-done season at Mizzou. The grad transfer from Virginia Tech saw his role fluctuate throughout the year, but in nine games he finished tied for third on the team in receptions (30) and second in receiving yards (397). His lone TD came in fourth-quarter time against Vanderbilt. The PFF metrics thought highly of Hazelton’s 2020. He was by far the team’s highest-graded receiver (77.1) and finished the year with the offense’s overall third-highest grade. He also scored the team’s highest receiving grade (78.6). Like Chism, Hazelton wasn’t terribly explosive, averaging just 4.3 yards after the catch per reception. He moved the chains 18 times for first downs and shared the team lead with 10 third-down receptions, led the team with 122 yards on third down and grabbed six third-down conversions. He also shared the team lead with four drops.

Hazelton missed most of preseason camp with a hamstring injury then got off to a ragged start despite heavy targets. All four drops came during his first 30 targets. From there, he nearly vanished from the offense. He played just one snap at South Carolina and was targeted just three times the next week against Vandy. Hazelton redeemed himself late in the year, becoming more of a fixture in the rotation and had his best game against Arkansas with five catches on six targets for 98 yards and four first downs.

Compared to his past two seasons at Virginia Tech, this wasn’t Hazelton’s most productive season — he caught 16 TDs the last two years as a Hokie — but it was his highest PFF graded season.

Dove got off to a strong start once his role expanded in the LSU game — when Chism and Hazelton were out for contact tracing — then had an injury setback and later suffered a case of the dropsies. No drops on his first 16 targets through six games, followed by four drops on 28 targets in the final four games. Still, some promising signs. On his 30 catches, 66.7 percent went for first downs, the highest rate for the regular receivers. Only Chism had more first-down receptions than Dove’s 20. He shared the team leads for third-down receptions (10) and third-down conversion catches (eight). He also caught two of Bazelak’s seven touchdowns.

Knox opened the season splitting the slot receiver role with Banister and became the offense’s most versatile weapon until a lower leg injury sidelined him for the final three halves of the season. For the year, Knox posted the second-best offensive grade (69.8) and receiving grade (68.5) for the receiver corps. He led the group with 6.4 yards after the catch per reception. He had 18 first downs on his 31 catches and, perhaps most impressive, caught the highest percentage of the passes thrown his way (75.6) among the core receivers. He did have three drops but was also reliable on third down: nine catches for 106 yards and eight conversions. His production fell off in the passing game: 25 targets the first four games, then eight targets the final four games.

Knox was the motion man in Drinkwitz’s misdirection scheme and carried the ball a career-high 12 times for 95 yards, though most of those yards came in the season’s first half.

Banister was steady in the slot, posting the best drop rate (79.5) among the receivers. Again, he was solid a possession receiver, averaging just about a first down (9.3) on every catch but totaled just 66 yards after the catch on his 27 receptions. Five third-down receptions. Reliable.

From there, Mizzou got some assorted contributions from the rest of its receivers but not consistent production. Smith had some moments against LSU, but was targeted just twice in MU’s other eight games. Wilson was never targeted more than two times in any game but carved out a role as a blocker in the run game as 72 of his 107 snaps came on running plays. Luper made the most of his only target, a 69-yard catch and run against LSU. Gicinto entered the transfer portal midway through the season. Maclin and Abrams-Draine got a few looks but combined for only four targets. Freshman receiver J.J. Hester didn’t see the field on offense.

Now, for the tight ends. Parker returned as the team’s most experienced player at the position but he missed three games with an injury. He caught eight passes on 11 targets for 37 yards with just one first down, all down from his 2019 numbers. To no surprise, he specialized as an attached blocker in the running game, posting a run-blocking grade of 70, by far the best among the four regular tight ends.

Hea took over the primary tight end duties with Parker and Christopherson missing a combined eight games and snagged 14 of the 19 passes thrown his way while sharing the team lead with two touchdown catches. Eight of those catches moved the chains. Just one drop. Not bad for the former high school receiver.

Christopherson had a big catch at Tennessee but was almost exclusively a blocker. Of his 92 snaps, 79 came as a run blocker. Swinson caught a couple balls, was never on the field in a pass-blocking capacity and got his most action as a run-blocker in the Vandy game. Hea, Parker and Christopherson all scored in the 40s as pass blockers, while Christopherson and Swinson were both in the 60s as run blockers. As a group, the tight ends were targeted for just 35 passes, with more than half going to Hea.

Looking ahead to 2021, here's what the Tigers bring back at each position among scholarship players. (Remember, this year didn't count against any player's eligibility.)

Receiver 

Seniors: Chism, Wilson (could return for 2021)

Juniors: Banister, Knox, Smith

Sophomores: Dove

Freshmen: Maclin, Abrams-Draine, Luper, Hester, Mookie Cooper (committed), Dominic Lovett (signed)

Tight end

Juniors: Parker, Christopherson

Sophomores: Hea, Swinson

Freshmen: Ryan Hoerstkamp (signed), Gavin McKay (signed)

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