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Why Drew Lock could have more upside in Denver than he got to show at Mizzou

Lock had to play through a revolving door of coordinators and schemes, and his top targets got hurt during his last year.

Original image: Getty Images.

New Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock had one of the more scattered college careers we’ve seen from a blue-chip QB.

In four years as the starter at Missouri, the No. 42 pick in the 2019 draft had three offensive coordinators with three different systems in place around him. Head coach Gary Pinkel retired after his freshman year and was replaced by defensive-minded Barry Odom, who hired Josh Heupel as OC.

After two prolific seasons with Lock, Heupel departed to take the head coaching job at UCF, and Odom replaced him with ex-Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. Pinkel ran a hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense, while Heupel had Lock flinging the ball down the field in a veer-and-shoot offense inspired by the Baylor teams of the early 2010s. When he arrived, Dooley installed a pro spread that offered Lock a chance to audition more of his skills for the NFL.

Lock had good but uneven college stats. He struggled badly as a freshman at 5.1 yards per pass, but he sat at 7.8 as a sophomore, 9.5 as a junior, and then 8.0 as a senior. His somewhat up-and-down performance fit with a constantly changing environment around him. It’s that environment that could have left a lot of Lock’s upside untapped during his time in the SEC.

Because Lock only played one year under Dooley, he had a limited window to show how he’d perform in an NFL-like system.

Dooley didn’t walk into the worst situation at Missouri. The Tigers had five returning offensive line starters, a future NFL tight end in Albert Okwuegbunam, and a fourth year-starting QB in Lock. However, the Tigers were used to a much different scheme than the one Dooley — most recently the Cowboys’ receivers coach — brought to Columbia.

Heupel’s veer-and-shoot was a sort of run-centric spread offense that asked Lock to identify when his WRs had one-on-ones and then take deep shots to them off RPOs or normal play-action. It was an extremely aggressive approach designed to keep defenses from getting any kind of numbers advantage near the box to stop their run game. Even with college and NFL offenses looking increasingly alike, the Heupel system is highly collegiate.

In Dooley’s pro-style system, Lock excelled at leading his speedy wideouts on go routes, often throwing low darts that would hit his targets in the hands on the move:

It was rare to see Lock put the ball on the back shoulder for his wideouts to bring in a jump ball. Instead, he tried to lead them and try to hit narrower windows. On this throw, he caught the Texas corner failing to carry a vertical, leading to the deep safety getting split by the double go routes.

Dooley inherited an offense that was designed to run the ball downhill behind a massive line and then take shots in the passing game on RPOs or play-action, which helped keep the pass rush off Lock. Dooley had the OL slim down a little bit and diversified the passing attack. The Tigers remained effective in the run game with feature RB Larry Rountree III running for 1,216 yards at 5.4 per carry with 11 TDs, but they weren’t amazing in pass protection, giving up two sacks in a loss to Georgia and four in a loss to Alabama.

With those tools in place, Dooley went all in on building the offensive strategy around dual-threat TE Okwuegbunam. At 6’5, 255, Okwuegbunam’s a big, powerful mismatch who can cause all kinds of problems. Mizzou would take to the field in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE) and perhaps start with a spread set that included Okwuegbunam as a blocker:

On this play, the Tigers had an RPO going, and Lock handed off when the Gators’ middle LB stayed out of the box to deny an easy window for a stick route to the slot. Meanwhile, the Tigers mauled the five-man box on a stretch zone run behind Okwuegbunam.

Then they could flex him out and either throw to him as some helpless LB would try to keep him covered in the seams ...

... or work the ball elsewhere when a safety had to come help cover him. An injury limited Okwuegbunam to 43 catches for 466 yards and six TDs through eight games and change, but Lock thrived when he had him as an outlet for option routes.

When Okwuegbunam missed the last third of the 2018 season, everything was on Lock, and he performed.

The Tigers would cycle through 11, 12, and 10 personnel sets with slot receivers and less developed TEs subbing on and off the field based on situation. Yet despite those challenges, Lock finished the year on 4-1 run with 1,354 yards in five games (at 8.6 per throw) with 12 TDs and two INTs. Okwuegbunam missed all but one quarter of that.

Mizzou’s 2017 and ‘18 bowls were interesting but brief peeks into Lock’s strengths and struggles as a collegiate QB trying to carry his team.

In 2017, the Tigers took their explosive offense, which had been a revelation in the SEC the back half of the year, into the Texas Bowl against Texas. The Longhorns countered with a 3-2-6 base dime package that had evolved out of the Big 12, where defenses had been working out how to stop spread offenses like Heupel’s for about a decade.

Between the speed of the Texas defense (eight defenders on the field at a time who ran better than a 4.65 40), an inverted Tampa 2 scheme that Missouri wasn’t used to facing, and the outrageous punting of Michael Dickson (10 of his 11 punts pinned the Tigers inside their 20), Mizzou couldn’t get much going in a 33-16 defeat.

In 2018, Mizzou faced Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. Lock went against a weaker defense but had to win a shootout against an explosive, up-tempo offense operating at full capacity. Oklahoma State QB Taylor Cornelius threw for 336 yards and four TDs while lead RB Chuba Hubbard added 145 yards on just 18 carries (an 8.1 average). Lock had to match that output without the injured Okwuegbunam and, quickly, without star WR Emanuel Hall, who was injured during the game. The Tigers came up short again in a 38-33 shootout.

But Lock showed a lot. He gave the Tigers a chance to win down the stretch by executing various spread QB skills he’d acquired over the years under multiple coordinators.

First, he landed a punch in Mizzou’s play-action vertical passing game when he led Jonathan Johnson down the field in stride for an 86-yard score:

That made it 35-33 in favor of OSU. Then, Lock was able to convert a few big passes from pro spread alignments, punishing the Cowboys for how they matched the TE’s routes...

...and finding Johnson for huge plays against a variety of coverages and blitzes:

In the end, the Tigers made a few too many questionable short-yardage calls. On fourth-and-1 with the game on the line, they called for an inside zone run with Lock “reading” an unblocked edge defender and trying to win the edge if the defender went inside:

It was probably a predetermined read, as the Tigers had struggled to move OSU off the ball inside in these situations. It was doomed for asking Lock to beat a safety to the edge.

Missouri had a pretty special passer in Lock, whom they weren’t always able to situate perfectly to maximize his skill set.

He had to play in multiple styles of spread offense and wasn’t able to fully arrive in any system. Dooley did him a big favor by putting him in a pro spread that utilized a TE to manipulate matchups and set up Lock to get through progressions rather than just fling bombs down the field. But the Tigers needed another year to develop their offensive line, depth, and knowhow to fully weaponize Lock in Dooley’s system.

In the NFL, Lock will inevitably play in an offense that puts a bigger premium on setting protections and allowing him to use his ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately to every part of the field. His upside in that system is still largely unexplored, making him a potential steal in this NFL Draft.