Drinkwitz hopes MU’s camaraderie sets it apart from SEC competition

Emily Leiker

Football is often compared to the trenches of war, with coaches keen to point out that both are places where bonds between men are tested.

The stakes are much lower for football players than servicemen if they let their mental or physical fortitude waver, but the need for camaraderie is still there. No one wants to be the one to blame for a teammate getting tackled unnecessarily, or worse — injured.

Missouri took to a different trench Wednesday, perhaps a mix between a football field and battleground, playing paintball. It’s at least the second bonding activity the team has partaken in this spring, having previously gone go-karting and more at Midway Golf & Games.

“I felt like the team came really close because to win, everybody got to work together to capture the flag, all that type of stuff,” defensive lineman Akial Byers said.

As MU’s spring season draws to a close, coach Eliah Drinkwitz said his team is finally starting to come together. Camaraderie was one of three goals the second-year coach set for the Tigers over the past month.

“I do think that camaraderie and the team chemistry is really starting to develop on this football team,” Drinkwitz said. “I really think that’s what’s standing out to me as much as anything. It’s not that I didn’t see it in the fall, it was just really hard because of COVID protocols and all the different restrictions that we had.

Missouri is still following COVID-19 health and safety protocols, but the team is having an easier time coexisting with them one year into the pandemic. There’s also a glimmer of hope on the horizon: Drinkwitz said he thinks the team will all qualify for vaccinations by mid-April.

Team camaraderie is more than just making sure players feel accountable for their teammates’ safety and success, though. Drinkwitz said it can be the difference between his team being good versus great in the Southeastern Conference.

“The best teams I’ve always been on — the ones that win championships — have a level of camaraderie,” Drinkwitz, who won the 2019 Sun Belt Conference Championship as head coach at Appalachian State, said March 13.

Players also feel relationships with their teammates growing stronger. Connor Bazelak and Brady Cook both touched on the chemistry within the quarterback room this spring, and other positions are finding ways to strengthen their bonds, too.

One of Missouri’s largest position groups is its wide receivers. For graduate wideout Keke Chism, getting younger guys more involved has been a priority.

“We have to do more to get people involved, whether it’s film study or putting in extra work in the weight room, or getting field work throughout the team,” Chism said Feb. 26.

He also noted that connecting with other position groups, including the ones on the opposite side of the ball, is important. Sophomore defensive back Jaylon Carlies said he’s seen that happening.

“I feel like the team’s definitely gotten closer, locker (room)-wise, on-the-field-wise,” Carlies said. “I feel like it comes from communication, being on the field, having trust in each other. That builds a lot of chemistry over the spring.”

Drinkwitz doesn’t just want his players to bond with each other, though. He wants them to do the same with new coaches as well, especially on the defensive side. Establishing those relationships now means that by fall, players will know “what that voice sounds like when they’re in good situations, bad situations, adverse situations,” he said.

While spring practice might be ending, the work Missouri does over the next few months to maintain and continue building that camaraderie could be the difference between winning and losing in the trenches this fall.