GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Many SEC fans may be surprised to see Missouri sophomore Drew Lock leading the conference in passing almost halfway through the season.
After all, the Tigers were moribund offensively down the stretch last fall and Lock mostly struggled as a true freshman during his first run through the league gauntlet.
But Florida coach Jim McElwain has seen Lock’s potential developing for several years now, since he was a coveted high school prospect from the Kansas City area that McElwain took a look at while coaching Colorado State.
“He was an early (commitment) for them. Obviously we knew about him. He was a guy we couldn’t get in on at Colorado State. And maybe (we) took a little swing at him, but by then it was too late. We knew what kind of player he was and he’s a really good player,” McElwain said this week.
The No. 18-ranked Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) host Missouri (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday in The Swamp, setting up an intriguing matchup between Lock and Florida’s vaunted secondary.
Even after a pedestrian game against LSU his last time out, Lock leads the SEC with 1,675 passing yards while throwing 14 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He ranks ninth nationally with his 335 passing yards per game and has helped turn the Tigers into a big-play offense.
“What I see is (him) getting the ball out of his hand, being decisive, making decisions,” McElwain said. “… When you guys watch him play live, I think you’ll appreciate his arm talent. That’s one thing that really stands out.”
SEC passing leaders
|1. Drew Lock||Missouri||56.8||1,675||14||4|
|2. Austin Allen||Arkansas||63.6||1,632||15||5|
|3. Chad Kelly||Mississippi||66.1||1,596||13||4|
|4. Trevor Knight||Texas A&M||53.5||1,500||9||5|
|5. Joshua Dobbs||Tennessee||58.3||1,433||14||8|
Lock has certainly taken a big leap in his second year after a trial-by-fire rookie season. Last season he became the first true freshman quarterback to start at Missouri since 1995 as he took over for the final eight games, completing just 49 percent of his passes overall for 1,332 yards, 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Tigers would finish ranked 126th — second to last among full-fledged FBS teams — in scoring at 13.6 points per game.
So Lock’s development has certainly turned some heads around the conference this fall, but from his own perspective, he feels he still has a long way to go in that regard.
“I would put it as average. I wouldn’t put it below average, but I wouldn’t put it above average either,” Lock said of his season so far, while talking to Missouri reporters on Monday. “Maybe with a little different outcome in the Georgia game and the way I played the second half I could have possibly put it maybe above average, but there’s a couple quarters I’d like to have back obviously. I think with this seven-game stretch that we have I have a lot of opportunities to (improve).”
Drew Lock game by game in 2016
|West Virginia (L, 26-11)||23||51||280||1||0|
|Eastern Michigan (W, 61-21)||24||37||450||5||0|
|Georgia (L, 28-27)||23||38||376||3||3|
|Delaware State (W, 79-0)||26||36||402||5||0|
|LSU (L, 42-7)||17||37||167||0||1|
That’s probably a fair assessment as Lock has padded his numbers in blowout wins against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State while producing up-and-down performances in the Tigers’ first two SEC games.
“I think he’s continuing to develop,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said this week. “I think the thing that stands out most to me is the leadership qualities that I knew he had. I knew he possessed those through being involved when we were recruiting him, all the things he did coming out of high school. (He was) just a tremendous athlete in basketball and football and then you saw his inner beliefs and the way that he carried himself and the way that he was able to lead his teams no matter what he was playing. And that’s shown up a little bit more to me since January when we got rolling with this deal.
“I still think absolutely (he) can get a lot better — he’s going to. I think things are continuing to slow down a little bit for him on the field, and he’s preparing the right way, he’s working the right way throughout the week (with) the things we throw at him in practice. … I still think (with) where we are today from where we started, I think he’s still got that much more growth to go in a positive way.”
Even still, he might be the best downfield passer Florida has faced so far this season.
Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs is a star in the conference, but that has more to do with his dual-threat abilities and his clutch and timely play-making. The expectation is that Lock will attack the Gators through the air unlike any quarterback they’ve faced so far.
“Philosophically they’re just waiting for that one time, you know, two times, three times, whatever it is, where you fall asleep a little bit,” McElwain said. “I look at it as a great opportunity for our secondary guys — who, you know what, are pretty darn good — and yet this is a chance for them to go show that they can stay focused, they can communicate throughout the game. … This will be a great opportunity for those guys to go out and show who they are.”
Lock isn’t the only factor that makes Missouri’s offense a greater challenge than when the Gators defeated the Tigers, 21-3, last October.
After Odom was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach following Gary Pinkel’s retirement last offseason, Odom hired former Oklahoma All-American quarterback Josh Heupel away from Utah State to become his offensive coordinator.
The Missouri sports information department compiled the Tigers’ national ranking in 11 different offensive categories this year and last year, showing the offense has jumped from a composite average ranking of 115th in 2015 to 27th this year.
Again, those numbers are skewed by a couple of blowout wins, but it’s clear the Missouri offense is trending upward after its struggles last fall.
“I had lot of respect for Coach Heupel for a number of years, and it goes back to when we played against each other and coached against each other, recruited against each other. He’s always a guy that I’ve respected (for) being a great leader of young men,” Odom said. “He’s got a tremendous football IQ and is always going to try to find an advantage on where to put our kids to have success. So when we knew we had the opportunity to go target who I wanted in that spot, we were able to sit down and talk.
“And you never know when those things happen if the timing will ever work, and (we’re) fortunate that they have because he’s set a standard on that side of the ball — No. 1 (in) the way the quarterbacks are supposed to prepare and what our expectations are for our football team offensively.”
And from McElwain’s perspective after watching film of Missouri while preparing for this game, he feels Lock has gotten in sync with Heupel in short time.
He sees it in how quickly and confidently the 6-foot-4 sophomore quarterback makes decisions and gets rid of the ball and in how he effectively executes the Tigers’ game plan.
As Odom said, Lock may not yet be the quarterback he will become before his collegiate career is finished, but he’s good enough already to present an intriguing test for the Gators this week.
“I mean this guy’s really a good player and has got a long career ahead of him,” McElwain said.