After a freshman season in which his leadership and abilities were questioned, Missouri's Drew Lock rebuilt himself into one of the top quarterbacks in the draft
By Chase Goodbread | Published Sept. 19, 2018
LEE'S SUMMIT, MO. -- A feeling of unfamiliar awkwardness overcame Austin Pace. As Drew Lock alternated between a despondent silence and an occasional utterance of reckoning, Pace knew he was witnessing a level of soul-searching that isn't supposed to share company, even between the closest of friends who had known each other since childhood. To Pace, Lock's dorm room suddenly felt too small for two people, and he pondered whether it was better to leave. His mind raced to come up with whatever words might console.
There were none.
"Here I am, his best friend, known him since we were kids, and I didn't have any idea what to say," Pace said.
Hours earlier, a Florida Gators defense chock-full of future NFL draft picks had battered Lock's body and psyche profoundly -- in a check-your-ego-at-the-door kind of way -- and Missouri's touted freshman quarterback was calculating the damage. It's the sort of math that can only be done for one's self.
Who knows if Pace witnessed rock bottom?
It might've been there in Lock's dorm room. It might've been weeks later, in Missouri offensive lineman Evan Boehm's apartment on the west end of Missouri's campus, where Lock hunkered down for a night with his old high school rival because campus racial tension was so taut that UM had issued a student safety advisory.
It might've been when the coach he'd hoped to play under for four years resigned, with shocking timing, in the midst of Season 1.
Today, Lock himself can't pinpoint the bottom. When he looks back on the 2015 football season, he sees a blur, not a line graph with definable peaks and valleys.
He turned into one of college football's elite quarterbacks, and figures to be one of the first selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. For the last three years, he's shown an ability to make throws few others in the college game could. At the Reese's Senior Bowl last month, he made a few more and drew high praise from Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
NFL scouts buzzed around the MU campus throughout last fall assessing whether their front-office bosses should stake their reputations, and perhaps their careers, on the Tigers' senior star. Scrutiny is something Lock, more so than perhaps any of the quarterbacks he'll compete with for draft status, knows how to weather. Transformational struggles like his can leave behind scars, yes, but they also can leave behind strength.
"I decided there wasn't anything that could come my way that was tougher than my freshman year," Lock said. "I knew there wouldn't be any season that could top that. I had been through the fire and back."
The second week of November 2015 proved to be a cathartic one for Lock, as a football player, and for the Missouri student body, as well.
Months earlier, Lock decided to take on a whopping course load of 18 credit hours in his first semester in Columbia, anticipating his freshman season to be more of a gentle learning experience than a fire-testing. He was a highly coveted, four-star recruit, regarded as the cornerstone of Missouri's 2015 signing class, but incumbent starter Maty Mauk had just led the Tigers to 11 wins and an SEC Championship Game berth in the 2014 campaign.
Mauk was the guy. Or so went the assumption.
That all changed after four games, when Mauk was suspended and eventually dismissed from the football team for breaking team rules. Lock stepped in and embarked upon an eight-game stretch that piled one harsh lesson on top of another. Pace had only witnessed the very first of many growing pains.
Sitting in the living room of the family home just before fall camp opened last August, looking far more comfortable in a Mizzou sweatshirt than he must have felt at the time, Lock tries to cram an explanation for eight weeks of hell into one sentence.
"In high school, I got away with just being more athletic than other people and playing on feel, and I learned you can't just play by feel in college," he said.
The statistical record summed up his freshman year this way: a 49 percent completion rate, just four TD passes and twice that many interceptions. But the number that bothered Lock most was six. As in six losses in the last seven weeks, a train-wreck finish for a team that had been 4-1 after beating South Carolina in Lock's first start.
Concurrent to the weekly demolition of Lock's confidence was a much larger come-apart, occurring just as steadily. Campus unrest had been brewing at UM throughout the fall, as students protested against the school administration over its response to incidents of campus racism. A graduate student expressed his frustration with a highly publicized hunger strike aimed at removing university president Tim Wolfe. One of the early flashpoints came on homecoming, the very day Florida overwhelmed the Missouri offense to hand Lock his first loss, when protesters blocked Wolfe's car during the homecoming parade.
A month later, tension boiled over. The football team announced it would not practice or play until Wolfe resigned or was ousted. As a football player, Lock was reeling from a four-game losing streak and wondered how he would properly prepare to face BYU -- if the game would be played at all -- without a Monday practice. As a Missouri student with a genuine love for the school -- a love rooted in three family generations who attended UM and played ball there -- he also was keenly aware of the gravity of not only the campus-wide protests, but the team's protest, as well.
A group of African-American players initially announced the intention to boycott through the Legion of Black Collegians Twitter account, and a day later, coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photo of the entire team, indicating the roster was fully united in protest. Lock, however, didn't speak out like a starting quarterback might be expected to in such a situation. Because he was at the helm of a stagnant offense on the field, he didn't feel right about playing a front-facing role in the team's protest. He wasn't even sure he had the support of the team as a quarterback, much less as a spokesman.
"I figured the guys hated me," Lock said. "I thought it was more the seniors' place to set the tone for the team at the time. I might've felt better about speaking out if we had been playing well, but we weren't scoring points. If we had gotten better results on the field, I probably would have spoken up more."
While the turbulence on campus didn't provide Lock with a voice, it did provide him with some perspective. As the losses mounted, he struggled for any answers that might help him start playing like the quarterback Mizzou fans expected when he spurned offers from blueblood programs like Michigan, Texas, Ohio State and Tennessee to sign with his home-state school. He buried his attention into the minutiae of mechanics; his footwork, his release, his vision and reads of the defense. But the protest activity served as a daily reminder that something bigger was happening around him.
Bigger than him. Bigger than Mizzou football.
Even bigger than the school's administration: Wolfe resigned Monday, Nov. 9, two days after the football team asserted its influence. It began a week Lock will never forget. Four days later, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel announced he would retire at the end of the season for health reasons. It was a gut punch for Lock, who never fathomed the coach he committed to play for – a 15-year fixture as leader of the program – would soon be gone, less than a year after Lock signed his letter of intent. Lock shook his head and let out a sigh while recounting all the factors that conspired to spoil his initial taste of college football.
"I got my ass kicked all year, this thing on campus happened, coach Pinkel leaving -- it was a freshman year to remember," he said.
Maybe it was no coincidence that when mounting campus tension found its release, Lock did, too. The very week the student body was able to take a deep breath and look forward to a new beginning, its quarterback did the same thing on the field.
On a short week of practice, surrounded by the unfamiliarity of a neutral site (Arrowhead Stadium), Lock threw for a season-high 244 yards, completed 19 of 28 passes, and led a 20-16 win over BYU. It wasn't exactly a turning point -- he struggled in subsequent losses to Tennessee and Arkansas to end the season -- but Lock acknowledges the BYU win, at least, as a building block.
Amid the last and most heated week of campus protests, and the resignation of a beloved coach, and the mounting stress of poor play, Lock turned just 19. It fell on a Tuesday, the same day the Tigers returned to the practice field following Wolfe's resignation -- certainly no time to celebrate.
But as belated birthday gifts go, the win over BYU wasn't bad.
"For me," Lock said, tilting his head in full recognition, "it was huge."
In the field house at Lee's Summit High, coach Eric Thomas sits with his feet propped on a desk in his office, alone and leaned back comfortably. He's surrounded by empty lockers and neatly stacked weight equipment, the silence just days from being broken by the arrival of fall practice. He's spinning through tape of Lock's junior year at the school. It's the glory year in recent memory for Lee's Summit -- the Lock-led Tigers went 10-2 -- so Thomas is glad to reminisce. He stops on a play, reverses it back, and points at the huge flatscreen as the play repeats.
"You see his feet hop a little right when he throws the ball?" Thomas said. "We had to coach that out of him. He was really bad about it his sophomore year, and it was always when he had to put some touch on a throw."
Thomas is convinced that little hop came from Lock's background in basketball; he played on a highly competitive AAU circuit, against a handful of current NBA players, and seriously considered playing basketball in college until the Elite 11 camp convinced him his quarterback skills were the right ticket. Thomas coached Lock throughout his high school career and developed a relationship with him that went deeper than coach-player. Their mutual trust was such that, during Lock's freshman debacle, the quarterback sent a Mizzou practice film back to his high school coach to evaluate.
The assessment was a harsh one, but it came from the kind of honesty that Lock appreciated in Thomas.
"I told him, 'Man, what are you doing? Your mechanics are a mess,' " Thomas said. "I honestly wasn't sure how well he was being coached at the time. That was an instance where I said, 'Holy crap, dude -- you've got to get it together.' "
Lock was turning in every direction for help. This wasn't how things were supposed to go for a Tigers legacy.
Jerry Lock played football for Mizzou in the early 1960s. His son, Andy, played offensive line for UM in the 1980s, and his position coach for one season was current Kansas City Chiefs head man Andy Reid. The Locks' third-generation Tiger, Drew, was born at Boone County Hospital Center in Columbia, during football season, of course, barely more than a mile from Faurot Field. The indoctrination began early and extended all the way to mascots and color schemes: Pleasant Lea Middle School, Lee's Summit High and Mizzou -- all three Tigers, all donned black and gold.
He attended his first Mizzou game at 10 months old.
So, 17 years later, when colleges from across the country flooded his mailbox with recruiting pitches for both football and basketball, they would quickly learn Mizzou was the team to beat. Lock's mother filled a plastic storage tub -- the kind big enough to store a full-sized artificial Christmas tree -- with all the mail. Lock had been just 15, a first-year varsity starter at Lee's Summit, when then-Mizzou quarterbacks coach David Yost saw him play for the first time. The evaluation wasn't a hard one. Lock threw six touchdown passes against nearby Blue Springs, a state powerhouse, in a wild 84-62 loss.
"(Yost) walked right by me on his way to his car after the game," Andy Lock said. "But he wasn't allowed to talk to Drew. He just said, 'Holy ----, we found us a quarterback. We'll be in touch soon.'"
Lock's decision was predictable, if not predestined. It's little wonder then, that he took his freshman performance so personally.
He went to classes with a hood over his head, hoping not to be noticed and feeling as though he'd let down the entire state. He secluded himself in his dorm room, avoiding public recognition. His social media accounts were plastered with feedback of the worst kind, and he read every word. Before the season began, Andy Lock had told his son to keep off of social media so his head wouldn't get too big from praise. By year's end, he wanted him off for the opposite reason.
"I got sucked into Twitter," Lock said. "It was bad stuff. The last thing I should've been reading."
As soon as Lock could escape campus after final exams, he was back home arranging a sit-down with Justin Hoover. At the Summit Grill restaurant owned by his father, Lock sat with his private quarterback coach, secluded from other diners, and discussed the task at hand. Hoover had watched in horror as Lock's freshman year unfolded, but midseason isn't the time for a private instructor to intervene.
With the Tigers failing to qualify for a bowl game, though, December was the perfect time for an intervention. On a paper napkin in the restaurant, the two jotted down a list of areas Lock needed to improve, and the quarterback was determined to have every item crossed off before returning to school in January. Some were more nebulous -- be more consistent, throw with better timing, etc. -- while others were mechanically specific. Lock's weight transfer through his delivery, for one, needed work.
"He was getting out on his front side too soon and his left arm had become a little undisciplined, especially when he had to move away from his first read," Hoover said.
Over a 31-day Christmas break, Lock and Hoover worked out on 19 of them. In a bitterly cold Kansas City winter, they'd work in a gym if necessary, but Lock would take no shortcuts. They set a start for each workout, but never arranged an ending time.
"We were done when Drew decided he was done," Hoover said. "Some days, that was an hour. Other days, it was two hours or more."
The most important box that needed a check-off -- restored confidence -- wasn't written on the napkin. It went largely unspoken between Lock and Hoover, but both knew it to be the root goal of their efforts. While Lock and Hoover were removing mechanical kinks that December, Lock also needed to reaffirm that Missouri was where he belonged.
In college football's current climate, particularly with the dawning of graduate transfers, quarterbacks changing schools is commonplace. Some of the most gifted passers in college last year -- West Virginia's Will Grier, Auburn's Jarrett Stidham, Michigan's Shea Patterson, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray -- all transferred from elsewhere. And given Pinkel's sudden exit, Lock's head spun as he pondered whether to start over at a new school. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, in the weeks following his hiring, had made a hard, late push for Lock's signature as a recruit. Surely Harbaugh would have welcomed Lock as a transfer. Tennessee's Butch Jones had made a fantastic recruiting pitch, too. Lock's options were strong and plenty.
Instead, he stayed the course.
Missouri defensive coordinator Barry Odom was named Pinkel's successor, and Lock was excited for the hiring of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, with whom he had already built a relationship from his recruitment.
And despite Lock's freshman woes, Odom never wavered from the belief that Lock would be his quarterback. The new head coach even noticed a more confident Lock when the team returned to the Mizzou practice field that spring.
"Not really understanding some of the offense and what he was being asked to do as a freshman, he really stepped into a learning curve," Odom said. "The physical tools he had, those were special from the day he stepped on campus. I felt lucky to have him. I thought he'd be an impact player for the next three years. He's turned into not only that, but one of the best in the country."
A Drew Lock poster hangs in the storefront window at The Sport Scene, a Mizzou-heavy apparel shop in Lee's Summit, beckoning the Douglas Street foot traffic outside. Lock takes brief notice, with a bit of a shrug, as he drives by in his white GMC Sierra truck. Whatever appreciation he has for the notoriety, it's not what motivates him. His place as the face of the program has been hard-earned -- too hard to take for granted with the work he's put into it.
Underlying that is a competitive drive that comes from a few different places.
Growing up, he was always the biggest kid in the neighborhood. Big enough that when children gathered to play sports, Lock didn't feel like he could put 100 percent effort into winning.
"I had fun, but a lot of times I would be thinking, I don't want to hurt this kid," Lock said.
As such, he was only able to fully tap into his competitive spirit in organized sports. Even in high school, his size dictated a different role. He played center for the Lee's Summit High basketball team and was a two-guard on the AAU circuit, trading elbows at one point or another with future NBA players Anthony Davis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Landry Shamet and Terrance Ferguson.
He also found himself playing for a lot of underdogs. At Lee's Summit, he led an athletic program without much tradition to its best football season in more than a decade, and its best basketball season in more than two. His junior year, when Lee's Summit went 10-2, fans packed Bud Hertzog Stadium. Never before had this been a tough ticket, but now, temporary bleachers were needed to accommodate the crowds.
At Mizzou, respect came just as hard.
As a junior in 2017, it took Lock playing the best football of his career to that point just to rally the Tigers, who won their last six regular-season games, into bowl eligibility. Lock threw an SEC-record 44 touchdown passes and took notice of how that feat resonated nationally.
"That was cool for a little while, but if a quarterback at Alabama or Georgia had done that, you never would've heard the end of it," Lock said.
The NFL Draft Advisory Committee provided motivation, as well. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he offers prototypical size for an NFL quarterback. And yet, after throwing more TD passes than anyone ever had in a conference reputed to be the home of college football's best defenses, his official feedback that winter from the advisory board was a recommendation to return to school. Improvement on intermediate-range throws was the area where it was suggested he improve.
"That just put another chip on my shoulder," he said.
The advisory committee's letter arrived a few days before Missouri's appearance in the Texas Bowl, but it would be another two weeks before Lock would make up his mind, once again, to stay at Missouri. Mixed feedback made the decision a tough one. Odom had received word from his own NFL personnel sources that Lock would be picked in the early rounds of the draft. The quarterback was keenly aware that the 2018 draft was highly regarded for its quarterbacks, and although confident he was as good as any of them, he recognized 2019 as potentially a better window for his draft entry.
Odom compares Lock, at least in accuracy, to former Mizzou star and NFL veteran Chase Daniel.
"He's taken ball placement to another level. He'll put it in a small window," Odom said. "He will get mad at himself if the receiver can't catch it in stride -- high-level stuff. Some of the things that used to come out of Chase Daniel's mouth when the ball wasn't placed right, I've heard from Drew. Both had that attention to detail."
Working with new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley helped make Lock an even more NFL-ready passer. Dooley came from the Dallas Cowboys, where he'd been the wide receivers coach, and began installing an offense that's a bit more NFL-like than what Heupel ran. In fact, he's brought a taste of the Cowboys with him to Columbia.
"Watching film with coach Dooley, we'll watch Dak [Prescott] quite a bit. We'll watch [Tony] Romo quite a bit," Lock said. "It helps connect the dots. We'll install something and watch an example, and it's Cowboys-Giants or Cowboys-Eagles. That's pretty cool."
When Lock drove the Mizzou offense toward the south end zone of Faurot Field last fall, a monstrous, 125-foot tower crane rising from a major construction project served as the backdrop behind the defenses he surveyed. During the practice week, workers bustled about, laying a concrete foundation for the future of Mizzou football.
What's coming is a new operations site that will house coaches' offices, meeting rooms, locker rooms, a weight room and a list of amenities to rival some of the nation's top programs. Facing the field will be club seating and swanky suites, but Lock will be long gone by the unveiling. The new facility is scheduled to open this fall, with a price tag approaching $100 million. By then, Lock will be an NFL rookie -- a freshman all over -- finding his way again.
The Tigers' former star is the same guy who felt shell-shocked after a 2015 loss to Florida. The SEC's most prolific single-season passer? Same guy the NFL told to go back to school. And those messy piles of rebar and concrete blocks strewn about the south end zone are on their way to becoming a glistening football palace.
There couldn't be a better reminder for Lock that great things don't always come at the fastest pace.