COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz was effusive in his praise for Central Michigan’s Jim McElwain early this week, pointing out his successes in the SEC at Florida and the more recent job he’s done rebuilding the Chippewas.
Now, Drinkwitz won’t even have a chance to match wits with him on Saturday.
McElwain had an emergency appendectomy Wednesday that is expected to keep him from making the trip to Faurot Field for the season-opener for both teams. Newly minted assistant head coach Tim Skipper will lead the Chippewas, though the change in leadership is not expected to dramatically alter any preparation or game plans already put in place.
“We are hoping, praying it’s one of those 24-hour deals and then he gets back with us, we get on the plane and we go play the game,” Skipper said, ”but Coach Mac has prepared us for situations like this. I’ve been with him a long time, and he’s always talking about ‘setbacks are temporary.’ So we’re moving forward as a team.”
Besides, just about every team should be accustomed to overcoming adversity after the past year or two.
Drinkwitz took over the Tigers after a successful season at Appalachian State, only to see the world turn upside-down when the pandemic broke out a couple months later. His entire offseason plan was thrown in the trash, and Drinkwitz’s first season leading the Tigers turned out to be an all-SEC grind that tested the limits of everybody in the program.
The Chippewas were limited to just six games because of the pandemic last season, McElwain’s second in charge.
So even though McElwain is not expected to be on the sideline Saturday, the reality is things are a lot more normal for both teams than they have been lately. Both went through a normal offseason, weathered a typical training camp and should be greeted by a nearly full stadium when they walk onto the field in Columbia.
“I’m excited,” Tigers quarterback Connor Bazelak said. “I played in two games on the road as a freshman, one in Georgia in front of about 90,000 — I didn’t start that one — but I’ve played in front of big crowds, and I’m really excited to have fans here. I think that’ll be a big advantage to have fans out supporting us.”
Longtime assistant coach Ryan Walters left after last season for the defensive coordinator job at Illinois, and Drinkwitz brought on Steve Wilks to replace him. The longtime NFL coach, who had a one-year run as the head coach of Arizona, has not been in the college game since leading Notre Dame’s secondary more than 15 years ago.
“I think there’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered,” Drinkwitz said, “but Steve has been coaching football a long time and knows what it takes, and our staff knows what it takes.”
Missouri could have the best defensive line in the SEC this season. Trajan Jeffcoat had six sacks during an all-conference season in 2020, and Kobie Whiteside is back after 6 1/2 sacks in 2019 and a season-ending injury last year. Akial Byers, Darius Robinson and Isaiah McGuire provide solid depth across the defensive front.
LEWIS GOES DOWN
The Chippewas lost running back Kobe Lewis, who along with Lew Nichols III gave them a potent one-two punch last season, to a knee injury early in fall camp. Lewis started all six games last season, piling up 574 yards and seven touchdowns in all.
“Losing Kobe,” McElwain said, “you’re not only losing a great player and an explosive player, a guy who can make plays and help you win, but you’re losing a great leader, a guy that is really valuable in that locker room.”
SPEAKING OF RUNNING BACKS
Tigers standout Larry Rountree III departed after averaging nearly 21 carries per game with 14 touchdowns rushing last season. But they still return experienced speedster Tyler Badie, freshman Elijah Young is listed second on the two-deep and veteran bruiser Dawson Downing is back for another season in Columbia.
While the Tigers have an established starter in Bazelak, the Chippewas are a little more uncertain of their situation. Daniel Richardson threw for 715 yards and four touchdowns in four starts before a season-ending injury. Now he’s being pushed by Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon and freshman Tyler Paper.
“We have to become more efficient at the quarterback position,” McElwain said. “Let’s call it the way it is.”