HOOVER, Ala. • Bright. Energetic. Driven.
Some of the same characteristics that have been used to describe second-year Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz were observed by Gene Chizik a decade ago.
“I’m not one to be surprised with where he’s at,” Chizik said Monday during a stop along radio row as SEC media days lifted off here at The Wynfrey Hotel.
Chizik’s perspective on Drinkwitz is different than that of your average talking head.
Before he was one of the SEC Network’s most prominent analysists, he was a national championship winning coach at Auburn. You remember Cam Newton. What you might not remember is that Chizik’s Auburn staff included an offensive coordinator named Gus Malzahn along with four members of Mizzou’s current football staff: running backs coach Curtis Luper; recruiting coordinator Casey Woods; special teams coordinator Erik Link; and the man who hired all of those men at Mizzou, Drinkwitz.
Drinkwitz’s first foray into college ball came when he transitioned from running the offense at Springdale High School in Arkansas, to joining Chizik's staff as a quality control assistant entering Auburn's 2010 season. That chance would not have happened without Malzahn taking a liking to Drinkwitz, true. But Malzahn's plan to bring Drinkwitz aboard had to receive the stamp of approval form Chizik.
“Gus is the one who brought him to my attention," Chizik said during an interview that will air in its entirety tonight on the KTRS Big Sports Show. "He (Malzahn) said, 'I've got this real bright young guy, and I'd like to bring him in and help us offensively and whatever we need him for as an analyst.' When we brought him on, it was obvious he was extremely smart. He had some experience as a high school coach. I just saw a lot of potential in him.”
That Auburn staff started assigning Drinkwitz certain tasks. Little projects, here and there. If Chizik wanted some research done on how to add some wrinkles into the team’s approach to fake punts, for example, he would have Drinkwitz do the digging. Chizik has watched Drinkwitz’s affinity for bells and whistles become a staple in his offensive play-calling over the years, whether it was while coordinating the offense at Boise State and NC State, or calling the shots as the play-calling head coach at Appalachian State and Mizzou.
“I love the intentionality of the way he calls games," Chizik said. "If you look at him, and the way he calls games, he's always going to have a little handful of trick plays that throw you off balance early in the game. Go back and look at the LSU game last year. There's a couple of flea-flickers in there early. Double-passes. There are a lot of different things that throw defenses off balance that you may only see once or twice a game. But I love the way he moves guys around. Jet motions. Eye candy to pull the defense apart. He's going to take his shots down the field but he also creates the intermediate passing game. High percentage passes. If it's not there, check it down. I think that's one of the reasons you saw (Tigers quarterback) Connor Bazelak grow once he became the starter. He (Drinkwitz) is also going to run the football. He just gets it, offensively. He gets in the flow of the games. He gets the feel. He's a really, really talented play-caller. I like the play designs. I like the strain he puts on the defense. I think you are going to see him continue to improve. And the fact that they have a quarterback for a minimum of three more years? It's huge.”
Chizik, a defensive-minded former coach, wasn’t just pumping sunshine about the Tigers. He pointed to one area he’s especially interested in watching this season – how new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks adapts after spending 14 seasons in the NFL.
“It's completely different from the NFL game,” Chizik said. “I've seen some guys make the transition and do well. I've seen some not do well. There's going to be a really interesting learning curve there in what the differences are between two, and how they approach and call defense with the quarterback run game and the RPO (run-pass option) game that is so prevalent in college. I will make the argument, 100 percent, that coaching defense in college is definitely more difficult than the NFL just from what you can see week to week. Being able to make the transition from week to week and be efficient, it's a tall order."
Chizik chuckled as he recalled Drinkwitz calling him to tell him he was getting the Appalachian State job before word got out. Now the 38-year-old is entering season two at Mizzou. A fast rise continues.
"When you get a job in this league,” Chizik said. “you've kind of arrived."