HOOVER, Ala. — Missouri will have Fayetteville Purple Dogs on each side of the ball this season and be led by a former Arkansas Tech University student body president.
Defensive tackle Akial Byers and receiver Barrett Bannister, both Fayetteville High School alums, are fifth-year seniors who have played a combined 73 games for Missouri.
Eli Drinkwitz, the Arkansas Tech graduate who also was the student body president at Alma High School, is back for his second season as the Tigers’ coach.
Byers is taking advantage of the extra season of eligibility provided by the NCAA because of the coronavirus pandemic and will be on the field for a fifth season after never redshirting. Bannister, who redshirted as a walk-on in 2017 before earning a scholarship, will be playing his fourth season.
“Those are two guys who do great in our program,” Drinkwitz said at SEC Media Days.
Bannister has 62 career receptions for 586 yards in 32 games, including 14 for 132 in three games against the University of Arkansas.
“Barrett is a guy who always seems to raise his game against the Arkansas Razorbacks,” Drinkwitz said. “I guess it means more to him being from the state and playing against those guys.”
Bannister had six receptions for 60 yards in each game against Arkansas in 2019 and 2020 to help the Tigers beat the Razorbacks 24-14 in Little Rock and 50-48 in Columbia, Mo. Those games are his career-highs for catches and yards. His top game as a redshirt freshman in 2018 came in Missouri’s 38-0 victory over Arkansas with two catches for 12 yards.
“He’s a guy that does all the little things right,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s an extra gritty player.
“Works extremely hard at his craft to perform above his abilities on a day-to-day basis. He’s the type of player that Mizzou football has always been about. He’s the type of player that our fan base can really embrace because he has a blue-collar mentality, works for everything that he’s been given in life.”
Byers has 66 tackles in 41 games, including 5 1/2 for losses totaling 15 yards. One of his career highlights was scoring a touchdown when he recovered a fumble in the end zone against the Razorbacks in 2018.
“Akial is a young man who’s a leader on the defensive side of the ball,” Drinkwitz said. “He has a lot of experience. He has the potential and has really invested himself into this season and into our football team.”
Drinkwitz brought Byers to Media Days along with senior guard Case Cook.
“I was able to bring both an offensive and defensive lineman, just to emphasize to our team and really to our fan base that it’s got to start at the lines of scrimmage for us to be successful,” Drinkwitz said.
“I think Coach did a fabulous job bringing us big guys, showing us love, because we work hard and the team goes where we go,” Byers said. “Just being in the trenches, being able to come and represent Mizzou, it means a lot.”
Missouri sophomore quarterback Connor Bazelak, the SEC co-freshman of the year last season with Auburn running back Tank Bigsby, is back for his second season as a starter.
Last season Bazelak completed 218 of 324 passes for 2,366 passes for 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions last season.
“He went out there into really difficult situations and gave himself an opportunity to play the game,” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously, there are areas he needs to improve on — deep ball accuracy, red zone completion percentage, and touchdowns.
“Those are a direct correlation with me as the play caller and quarterbacks coach. I’ve got to give him more opportunities in the red zone to make plays. I’ve got to put more trust into him.
“He’s got to put more trust into his teammates, and I think you’ll see that growth.”
Bazelak was among the quarterbacks working at the Manning Passing Academy earlier this month.
“He’s anxious to continue to improve,” Drinkwitz said. “I think one of his strengths is his quest to be a constant learner.”
The Tigers finished 5-5 last season against an SEC-only schedule. It was Missouri’s most SEC victories since 2014 when the Tigers went 7-1 and won their second consecutive East title.
After an 0-2 start with losses to Alabama and Tennessee, Missouri beat defending national champion LSU 45-41 for Drinkwitz’s first victory, beat Kentucky 20-10 to end a four-game losing streak to the Wildcats, avenged a loss to Vanderbilt the previous season by pounding the Commodores 41-0 and beat Arkansas 50-48 on a last-second field goal to extend their winning streak against the Razorbacks to five games. They also beat South Carolina 17-10.
“I really felt like last year we exceeded the expectations of many of the people [in the media],” Drinkwitz said. “But also many of the people within the state about what we could accomplish in such a challenging season.
“We did a nice job with recruiting and continued to develop this program, but we didn’t meet the standard of what we want to be moving forward. So we are continually chasing that close-the-gap mentality.
“How do we close the gap amongst the upper echelon teams of the SEC? It’s going to be a process. It’s not something that just happens overnight.”
Missouri is looking to play in its first bowl game since 2017.
When the Tigers finished 6-6 in 2019 under Coach Barry Odom — who was fired after the season and is now Arkansas’ defensive coordinator — they were ineligible to play in a bowl because of NCAA sanctions.
Last season Missouri was set to play Iowa in the Music City Bowl, but the matchup was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak within the Missouri program.
“It’s been unfortunate we haven’t been able to play in a bowl game for whatever reason the last two years,” Cook said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to make a bowl game this year, and whatever one we’re in, we’re going to win that thing.”
Drinkwitz’s confidence was obvious at Media Days — he made jokes about the breaking news that Oklahoma and Texas will soon be joining the SEC and wasn’t shy about mentiong the winning streak against Arkansas — and he has instilled that in his players.
“I think Coach Drink is fitting in pretty well,” Byers said. “He loves the media and the media loves him.
“He’s a very energetic guy. He’s a great coach. He just did a fabulous job with coaching us up, keeping the tradition the same at Missouri but adding his own style and swag to it.”