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Drew Lock Is a Heisman Contender, Potential First-Round Pick—and Mizzou’s Great Hope

Heading into his senior season, the record-setting QB carries the weight of massive expectations for both the present and the future

Drew Lock gripping a football with both hands Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Drew Lock won’t be securing the bag this season. The Missouri quarterback’s occasionally mocked touchdown celebration, one he had the chance to bust out 44 times as a junior, won’t be in his arsenal as a senior. Well, probably not, anyway. “I don’t know if the bag is gonna come out this year,” Lock said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I’ve got someone on [my right] shoulder and someone on [my left] shoulder right now fighting about it. That has yet to be determined. … It’s leaning towards retiring.”

Lock is starting fresh. Over the past year he’s gone from being a relative SEC afterthought to the conference’s leader in passing yards per game (304.9), passer rating (165.67), passing touchdowns (44), and yards per attempt (9.5). He enters the 2018 campaign on virtually every preseason awards list and Heisman Trophy watch and is the face of a program trying to regain its footing in the national conversation. The importance of this season, for both Mizzou and his NFL future, hasn’t been lost on Lock.

In April, 13 quarterbacks were taken in the 2018 NFL draft. Lock had the opportunity to be among them, but after the NFL Draft Advisory Council suggested he play in college for another season, he decided to return to Mizzou to improve the parts of his game that concerned scouts. Specifically, he wants to show he can run a pro-style offense (Mizzou used run-and-gun last season) and demonstrate superior touch on intermediate passes.

That’s the type of progress that Lock and new Tigers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Derek Dooley are focused on as they prepare for the opener against Tennessee-Martin on Saturday. They’ll look to break Mizzou out of its funk of three consecutive underwhelming seasons (5-7, 4-8, and 7-6, respectively) and establish a measure of stability given that Lock has shuffled through three OCs, two head coaches, and two athletic directors during his time at Missouri. Most of all, they’ll seek to help Lock to put up lofty numbers, boost his NFL draft stock, and position himself to enjoy a lengthy career in the pros.

Lock has the talent to find the type of long-term success that has eluded so many of the school’s former greats. Beyond that, he has a chance to give Mizzou the football legacy it’s never had.

Mizzou has produced many good, and some great, athletes in the school’s history. Though there are exceptions, most fit into one of five categories.

First are the undervalued prospects who came to Mizzou and broke out en route to the pros. This includes many of the school’s recent NFL-caliber talents: Shane Ray was a three-star pass-rushing prospect out of Kansas City who became the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and was taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft; Sean Weatherspoon was a two-star recruit out of Jasper, Texas, who blossomed on campus before going 19th overall in the 2010 draft; Markus Golden was a three-star talent who shined for the Tigers and recorded 12.5 sacks in 2016 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals; and Evander “Ziggy” Hood was a three-star prospect who built himself into a 2009 first-round pick. This list doesn’t end there: Aldon Smith was the 734th-ranked prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and went seventh overall in the 2011 draft. And though he famously didn’t play in the NFL, Michael Sam went from being the 1,117th-ranked prospect in the 2009 class to taking home SEC Defensive Player of the Year co-honors in 2013. These players have had varying NFL experiences: Smith’s career was mired in legal troubles, Golden was successful almost immediately, and Ray is still awaiting his breakout. But none has reached a level of stardom, and few would be recognized by an average football fan on the street.

Second are the players who meant a lot to the school but couldn’t hack it professionally. This is where Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert come into the fold, as both were incredibly successful quarterbacks in college … and both failed to translate that success to the NFL. Daniel has been a perennial backup, making $24.3 million over the course of his career to stand on the sideline and hold a clipboard; Gabbert has had many chances at landing a starting job but used those opportunities to throw almost as many career interceptions (43) as touchdowns (44). Outside of football, this category also includes guys like Kim English and Marcus Denmon, who lifted Mizzou basketball to a no. 2 seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament but never went on to do much in their respective pro careers.

The third category is the in-betweeners, athletes like Ian Kinsler, Phil Pressey, DeMarre Carroll, and Jordan Clarkson. These guys have had significant success in the pros but are known more for moments than megastardom.

Fourth is the highly sought-after prospects who disappointed: Dorial Green-Beckham, the consensus no. 1 prospect in the 2012 recruiting class who was kicked off the football team after a woman and her roommate told police that Green-Beckham pushed her down the stairs during a dispute, is the most obvious example. Though the circumstances are magnitudes less damning, Michael Porter Jr., the no. 2 basketball prospect in the 2017 class who missed almost all of his freshman season due to injury and whose NBA prospects remain uncertain as he continues to recover from that injury, could fall into this category as well.

Then there’s the fifth category: the actual superstars. Well, superstar, singular, might be more apt. While Mizzou has produced its share of athletes who have come close to stardom in their respective sports—Carl Edwards in NASCAR, J’den Cox in wrestling, Jeremy Maclin and Kellen Winslow Sr. in football, and Sophie Cunningham, who has the potential to join this list down the road, in the WNBA—the only person to really fit this bill is Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young winner and heterochromia iridum god who is the only good thing about the Washington Nationals.

But despite Scherzer’s success, and his public support of the Tigers via onesie pajamas, Mizzou is a football school. Maybe you’re an SEC purist who laughs at that convention, but it’s true: Homecoming is the university’s biggest weekend of the sports calendar—it did invent the concept, after all—and Saturday tailgates are an all-out affair. Of all the teams that the university trots out each year, football is far and away the best supported.

So it’s strange that, despite the overall success the program has had in sending players to the NFL, Mizzou has yet to find its superstar talent, the guy fans can point to and say, He went to my alma mater. That weight of not just a team, but an entire program’s history is a lot to put on Lock going into the 2018 season. But he’s not the kind of guy to let pressure get to him.

Lock walked into Tuesday’s press conference sporting a goofy grin and a backpack; he said he had to head to class directly after talking to the media. His posture sloped downward as he spoke, hunching his back, shoulders, and neck forward to speak into a microphone that was mounted on a podium too short for his 6-foot-4 frame.

He answered questions about his preparation, discussed his chemistry with Dooley, and joked about how the features of his limited-edition bobblehead resembled his appearance. (Lock’s take: The eyes are the wrong color, and he’s “not a huge forehead shower,” though overall the bobblehead received his stamp of approval.) But through the comments about his hairstyle and an anecdote about his mom confiscating the one bobblehead he managed to secure, Lock showed signs of the guy who’s hoping to be a senior leader on this team—and maybe the guy who’ll be a Mizzou icon for years to come.

He said he and backup quarterback Jack Lowary spent extra time in the film room this week, learning the differences in how Dooley wanted them to prepare. He said he and Dooley—who served as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach from 2013 to 2016—also gave former Dallas quarterback Tony Romo a call to get some advice on how Lock could maximize the extra prep time afforded him when Mizzou plays a night game.

Lock didn’t mention much more about his touchdown celebration in the press conference, other than to say he was moving on. But last year, after Texas coach Tom Herman mimicked Lock’s dance along the sideline in a 33-16 Longhorns win, Lock shared a few thoughts about what the incident symbolized. “[Texas] is a pretty big program,” Lock said, “and when the head coach is mocking your dance move, you must be doing something right. You’re not a nobody. You’re definitely doing something that is catching other people’s attention.”

This year, Lock doesn’t need a mimicked celebration to tell him that he’s doing something right. He has ESPN cameras, NFL scouts, and Heisman hype for that. Instead, Lock heads into this fall with a chance to change the Mizzou football trajectory in the present—and a dream of creating a long-awaited program legacy in the future.

An earlier version of this story suggested that David Freese played baseball while attending Mizzou. The article has been updated to reflect that he did not.