Published on Show Me Mizzou August 19, 2021
Story by Tony Rehagen, BA, BJ ’01
Photos by Zach Bland
FAUROT FIELD, April 2021: Despite being a redshirt sophomore entering his third season on the Mizzou football team, quarterback Connor Bazelak is experiencing a day of firsts. It’s Bazelak’s first real Black and Gold Game, due to the fact that the previous year’s spring practices were closed to fans because of COVID-19. Anyway, Bazelak would have been limited in his participation while recovering from a torn ACL. The 2021 iteration of the annual event, the first under Head Coach Eliah Drinkwitz, is less the usual simulated intra-squad game than an open practice, a series of one-off scrimmages and timed drills to entertain a sparse but enthusiastic post-pandemic crowd at Faurot Field. As usual, about half of the roster is wearing black jerseys, the other half gold. But the team’s four quarterbacks are all wearing neutral white, as they will be rotating, taking snaps from both squads. And, for the first time in his college career, Bazelak’s No. 8 is first among them, setting the example, leading the way. When the QBs line up for pregame stretches, Bazelak is in front demonstrating proper form. He is first to get the ball for throwing accuracy drills in the back corner of the endzone. He is first to take snaps for the hand-off drills. Even when he isn’t handling the ball, he is stepping back, waving his arms, shouting encouragement and directing traffic for the other three white jerseys.
This spot at the front of the line has been a long time coming for Bazelak. He came off the bench toward the end of his redshirt freshman year in 2019 and flashed glimpses of potential greatness against Top-10 Georgia and rival Arkansas, only to be shot down by that right-knee injury. Although he had rehabbed in time to play in 2020, Bazelak entered that year as a backup, having lost the job to the upperclassman Shawn Robinson. But when Robinson faltered early, Bazelak stepped up to marshal the Tigers to a win over the defending national champion LSU and a 5–5 season that upended expectations. Now the returning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year enters his first college season as the presumptive starter and de facto captain of this team — with all the privileges and pressures that entails.
FAUROT FIELD, April 2021: As the Black and Gold festivities shift into red zone scrimmages, of course, No. 8 is the default under center. But later in the action, Bazelak is also the first quarterback to make a glaring mistake — an interception thrown in the endzone. He unsnaps the chin strap on his helmet and walks off the field, clearly dejected but careful not to show too much frustration.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to never get too high or too low, even when stuff is going bad,” Bazelak says later. “When the team sees the quarterback calm and poised, I think that gives them confidence.”
Part of that stoic demeanor is an element of Bazelak’s personality, a product of his middle-class Dayton, Ohio, upbringing and his ample self-confidence. But the even-keel approach to leadership has also been hardened by the struggles and setbacks he’s experienced on his path to this position. “He’s such a low-heart-rate guy; he’s really the same guy every day,” Drinkwitz says. “But in fall camp, he talked about how battling through his injury was really hard on him, how he had to approach it one day at a time and not get too upset. I’ve been impressed with how he’s attacked it. And through whatever we’ve been doing, whether he was the No. 3 quarterback or the No. 1 or the No. 4, he just maximized his opportunities. And when his moment came, he was ready.”
Now that Bazelak’s moment is here, his obstacles finally removed, the question becomes: What can he accomplish, both for himself and his team, now that he finally has the spotlight?
Bazelak’s self-assuredness is partly rooted in the long-standing cosmic certainty that he was destined to be a football player. His grandfather was a quarterback for the University of Dayton, and his four uncles on his mother’s side all played and coached football. His father was a college basketball player at Dartmouth, and his two older sisters excelled at hoops and volleyball. Bazelak, himself, always had a knack for hitting a baseball and kicking a soccer ball. But around third grade, Bazelak started bingeing football on TV, in person with his family at Friday-night high school games and playing pickup games with neighborhood friends. Even then, everyone naturally looked to him as the quarterback.
Still, in football-crazed Ohio, it took more than good genes to grab attention. Entering his sophomore year at private Archbishop Alter High School, Bazelak was the backup quarterback until an injury to the senior starter suddenly thrust him to the top of the depth chart just before the season opener against archrival Kettering Fairmont High. There, in front of 8,000 rabid fans, against a public school with three times the number of students as his own, Bazelak stepped in and won the game. “I knew he was an athletic talent, but I didn’t know how he’d react under fire,” says Archbishop Alter Coach Ed Domsitz. “We put him out there in front of all those people, and he didn’t get rattled. He played within himself. It was gigantic. And it set the tone for the rest of the year.”
Bazelak maintained that tone for the remainder of his high school career. As a senior, he led Alter to a 13–2 record and a state runner-up finish. He took every Alter snap of the championship game through an injury bad enough to sideline him for the first part of his senior basketball season. Domsitz says his quarterback never made excuses. Meanwhile, college coaches and recruiting experts had to look beyond Bazelak’s lack of eye-catching statistics. Alter ran a wishbone offense that relied heavily on the running game, leaving the quarterback with precious few chances to showcase his superior arm strength and accuracy — opportunities that Bazelak took full advantage of, compiling 1,097 yards on just 134 attempts his junior year alone. Besides, anyone who knew what they were looking at could see that Bazelak had the makeup and composure of a legitimate NCAA Division I player, and perhaps more. One of those appraisers was Drinkwitz, who, at the time, was offensive coordinator at NC State. “He had the five requirements you look for in a quarterback,” Drinkwitz says. “Toughness, preparation, decision-making ability, accuracy and leadership. Connor has always demonstrated all of those abilities.”
Bazelak was an ESPN four-star recruit, ranked the No. 10 quarterback in the 2019 signing class. He received offers from Georgia, Kentucky, Pitt, Purdue, West Virginia, Boston College, Duke, Iowa, North Carolina and others. But he ultimately chose Mizzou because of its place in a power conference, its quarterback-centric system and because the Midwestern campus “felt right,” he says.
Mizzou senior offensive lineman Case Cook met Bazelak on the recruit’s first official visit to the Columbia campus back in 2018. Even then, Cook noticed that Bazelak didn’t have the swagger of many top-tier prospects. But the kid wasn’t shy or intimidated, either. “He doesn’t really talk about himself,” Cook says. “I think he has a quiet confidence that’s hard to find. When he got here for his freshman year, he had the same attitude on the field. Nothing really gets to him.”
The unassuming attitude was befitting a newcomer who was redshirting his freshman year, meaning that he could only appear in three games without burning a year of NCAA eligibility. After debuting for a single snap in the 2019 season opener against Southeast Missouri State, Bazelak came off the bench after two months to relieve starter Taylor Powell late in a 27–0 drubbing at the hands of Georgia. The freshman impressed, completing eight of 12 pass attempts for 64 yards and a drive that bored all the way down to the Bulldog 1-yard line, the Tiger’s lone trip to the red zone that day. The performance earned Bazelak his first college start in the season finale against Arkansas. Again, the freshman excelled, throwing for 80 yards just minutes into the second quarter. But it was then, during a 7-yard scramble to the sideline, that Bazelak pulled up with what turned out to be a torn right ACL.
Working his way back from injury was one of the toughest things Bazelak has ever had to do. But like everything else, he approached it as part of his job as a teammate. For him, that started from the moment he returned to the sideline during that fateful game in Little Rock. “You knew it was tough for him, to play so well just to have an injury come like a complete curveball out of nowhere,” says wide receiver and roommate Barrett Bannister. “But he never made it about himself. He was there to encourage [Powell] for the rest of that game. Then his first goal after the game was to get surgery. Then it was to get healthy. Then the goal was to start the following year. This sport is frustrating, but he didn’t show it. If you saw Connor, no one would’ve known anything was wrong.”
The quarterback battle Bannister refers to is that between Bazelak and junior Shawn Robinson, the highly touted transfer from TCU. But as it turned out, the bigger challenge awaiting the redshirt freshman was a new coach in Drinkwitz, a new staff and new offensive scheme. “In the beginning of fall camp, I struggled picking up on the playbook and what coach wanted,” Bazelak says. “He realized that and gave me more reps to help me develop. Going into [the 2020 season opener against] Alabama, he told me that Shawn was going to start. But I knew that if I made the most of the opportunities I got, he’d eventually realize what I could do.”
His chance came in the second game of the season. After an unspectacular performance against the Crimson Tide and a slow start the next game against Tennessee, Robinson was pulled by Drinkwitz. The Tigers still lost, and Bazelak threw an interception without a single touchdown. But he also compiled 218 yards passing. And, more important, he earned the confidence of his coach. The following week, Drinkwitz announced that Bazelak would start the next game at home against defending national champion LSU.
On Mizzou’s first drive, Bazelak came to the huddle as the starter. His offense, his team, his coach and his school all looked to him to take control of their destiny. “He hadn’t had a ton of experience at that point,” says Cook, who was in that huddle. “He was just calm and didn’t let the moment be too big. That game, in particular, he gave us a spark. We all realized what we had out on the field that day. I don’t think there was any doubt that he was our leader moving forward.”
FAUROT FIELD, April 2021: “Blah.” That is the one-word description Drinkwitz gave the media in his postgame Zoom press conference regarding overall quarterback performance at Bazelak’s first Black and Gold Game. “Blah.” It isn’t a vote of no-confidence in his presumptive starter. Rather, it’s an admission, and perhaps even a public admonishment that, despite all the awards and fanfare from last year, his redshirt sophomore QB still has a lot to learn. “The quarterback play was off. We didn’t throw any touchdowns,” Drinkwitz later elaborates. “There is chemistry growing with these receivers. Connor made a couple good throws, but we can improve.”
Bazelak knows that in his gut. Once Drinkwitz fields his final question, the MU sports information director ushers the quarterback to the laptop. He removes his mask, the seams of which are still imprinted on his boyish face. What does he think of his performance today? “It’s just another practice,” he says. “You have to treat it like that. You have to treat it like just another day to get better.”
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